Enter the Jaguar

Current E Formula E magazine March 2016 Jaguar team entry launch by Craig Scarborough

After more than a decade away from top flight racing, Jaguar has elected to make its motorsport comeback with Formula E. Craig Scarborough.

It was fitting that Jaguar Land Rover chose to confirm its entry to Formula E as a manufacturer and racing team at a press event held at the swanky Shangri-La Hotel, high above the London skyline within the thrusting knife-like Shard skyscraper. What better place to remind us of how the iconic British brand spans leather-lined luxury (Range Rover, anyone?), lunatic performance (exhibit A: the eardrumdestroying F-Type) and world-leading technology (evidenced by the C-X75, the still-born star of recent Bond flick, Spectre)? The setting handily underlines the company’s lofty ambitions and, in the Shard’s exposed structure, its ownership by Indian manufacturing giant Tata, too.

Williams Advanced Engineering is working with Jaguar to develop a powertrain in time for the 2016-17 season (the spec chassis supplied by Spark will remain the only chassis permitted for the next couple of seasons at least), with Williams also likely to run race operations for the entry once the season begins. The team will become the tenth on grid, replacing Trulli, which announced it would be withdrawing from the series just before the third race of the 2015-16 season.

Managing Jaguar’s Formula E team, which has yet to be officially named, is James Barclay, an ex-racing driver who has gone on to run media operations for Bentley, including Le Mans and GT3 programmes. Thirty year JLR veteran Nick Rogers, who heads up engineering at the car maker, will lead R&D.

Jaguar was last seen in top tier racing back in 2004, after a short and fairly undistinguished stint in F1. The brand has grown particularly well in the past few years, with a wide array of new models that have positioned the car maker as a serious force in the automotive sector. Re-entering the big-budget world of motorsport is a big step, especially as the Jaguar team is all-new; it is not buying Trulli’s entry nor assets.

Why Formula E? That is the real question here and one that other racing series should be asking with some degree of forensic analysis. During the launch, Jaguar personnel were keen to talk up the unique points of Formula E and JLR’s forthcoming range of electric road cars, without commenting on why other series were not selected.

“We see Formula E as an extension of our R&D activity,” Rogers explained to me at the launch event. “We’ve confirmed today that we are going to realise electric vehicles. That’s extremely exciting. So part of that development activity is to test the vehicles in a real world situation. [Williams] bring the racing team expertise and will run the core racing team and we’ll support them with a fantastic R&D department.”

It’s a good answer but one that does not entirely satisfy the question. The racing scene has changed in the decade that Jaguar has been away, with both F1 and endurance series WEC focused on energy efficient powertrains and awash with big manufacturers keen to show off their prowess with electrical and hybrid systems.

More of a clue can be found in what Rogers told me next: “Formula E is great as it’s in the middle of our cities and zero emissions. It’s a modern way of doing things which is extremely exciting. We see all that as a natural fit.” 

This is reinforced by Barclay’s comments. Speaking at the event, he said: “How the series is structured, from a fan base point of view, in the heart of cities, and clever things such as the cost cap structure, creates a championship we know is focused on performance and innovation in a controlled manner.”

By highlighting these factors as convincing reasons to enter Formula E, of course, both men are implicitly saying that F1 and WEC have fallen short here. Both those sports do have far higher cost bases with extraordinary development budgets, and F1 has very real issues when it comes to setting future regulations. That makes the proposition of success in the short-term for a new entry hard to envisage, even with a substantial budget attached. Just look at how Renault and Honda have fared in the past year in F1, or Nissan in WEC.

Both series also have a very different fan base, to a large extent comprised of knowledgeable, time-served fans. Broader audiences and broader media coverage could be seen to lag other sports, something that may not be helped in the UK with the BBC’s decision to relinquish its F1 TV rights and with the need for both series to race at tracks a long way from town centres.

From a technical standpoint, as much as hybrid technologies are intrinsic to F1 and WEC, neither has a roadmap leading towards greater electrification; that severely curtails the appeal to a manufacturer set on building pure electric vehicles. Many still recall the Jaguar F1 project under Ford’s ownership, which was not a great success. To be fair, it wasn’t the only failed manufacturer-led F1 project of the time; in fact, corporate-run F1 operations tend to remain an unsuccessful route to this day. However, it can’t be ignored that the same group, running under the umbrella of an energy drinks company and with new leadership, went on to a four-year streak of utter dominance.

Jaguar’s move into Formula E has been an open secret in the industry for several months. The company has been ramping up investment in staff and bolstering its R&D department with ex-motorsport engineers. “We’ve gone from 2,500 engineers in 2008 to well over 8,000 today,” said Rogers. “It’s fantastic, after being behind the ‘big’ companies for so many years, to see that level of growth again. We have brought lots of experienced people in. That’s a key part of our engineering focus.” 

The link-up with Williams comes as no great surprise, either. Indeed, Williams Group CEO Mike O’Driscoll was formerly chief at Jaguar. Williams was instrumental in realising Jaguar’s glorious C-X75 hybrid concept supercar, which would have hit the market before the McLaren P1, the Porsche 918 and the Ferrari LaFerrari.

It’s worth noting that the chap who designed the batteries for the C-X75, Okan Tur, is the mastermind behind the energy source for the Formula E racing car. He’s also rumoured to be heading up Jaguar’s Formula E powertrain development programme. That should give the team a realistic expectation of operating at, or near, the front of the field. “We’ll run [the Formula E programme] in a similar way to what we did with the C-X75,” Rogers confirmed. “Generally, the technology we developed in that vehicle will flow through into Formula E.”

Rogers outlined the situation as it stood at the press conference, late in December: “Of course, we are just starting out, starting to understand how we can embrace that journey, all sorts of conversations about propulsion and gearbox and all sorts of things I can’t confirm, all sorts of really good engineering and technical things that engineers can get excited about.”

With the timescales involved, the initial design work on the project must be already well underway, if not already completed (motor, inverter, gearbox and rear suspension are all open to manufacturers; two motors are permitted, although they cannot drive the wheels independently; any number of gears are allowed, including single speed).

It’s unclear how far Jaguar might compromise powertrain design for the first year (where the spec battery and regulated power output add a ceiling to possibilities) to get a head start on solutions for the more technically advanced fourth and fifth seasons, when Formula E should be on the verge of moving from two cars per driver to one. Rogers explained: “We are going to make the best technology going forward. We are on that journey.”

He added, without prompting, that road car relevance is at the root of the sporting endeavour: “Think about the technology that comes back into our cars too. This truly is an extension of our R&D, that’s the best way to describe it.”

While no details are yet available about the direction Jaguar will take in terms of powertrain development, the fact that the company has partnered with Williams has raised eyebrows in the paddock, given that Williams supplies all teams (including the sport’s new manufacturers) with batteries.

Although it’s not a unique situation in motorsport to have a team partner with a supplier of spec parts to the same series, it does leave Williams with a potential conflict of interest. We understand that there are ongoing discussions with other Formula E teams behind closed doors. While there is no suggestion that Williams will be able to use any of the data it sees as part of its trackside support operations, there is almost certainly a competitive advantage to be gained through Williams’ detailed knowledge of the battery internals and how the batteries have responded to various treatments and powertrain configurations over the first and second seasons.

The Jaguar team will have a number of locations. The Williams aspect will be headquarted at the group’s Grove facility in Oxfordshire, where the company also builds the Formula E batteries; some testing and logistics work will take place at Formula E’s home at Donington Park; and the Jaguar R&D work will be spearheaded at the company’s Coventry base.

The first we will get to see of the Jaguar car will be its initial testing in spring 2016. On and off track development work will continue until the summer homologation deadline in August 2016.

Whichever route JLR takes with powertrain development, one thing is certain: enticing the big cat emblem back into motorsport is a major coup. Like dominoes falling, other major manufacturers can’t be far behind.

Buying into Formula E

Part of the rationale for Jaguar’s entry into Formula E is to give the company’s engineers a fresh challenge. “Innovation is about challenging the rules,” said the company’s engineering director, Nick Rogers. “If you do the same thing, you get the same answer. It’s all about doing something different, which we love.”

However, while Formula E does bring a set of new technological challenges that make engineers giddy with excitement, there are two very old-fashioned reasons why Renault is running away with the second season: money and weight reduction.

The French car company has reportedly invested an eight figure sum in its second season powertrain. Liberal use of carbon fibre and a manual gear selector have turned the portly Formula E car into a rather more lightweight beast. The powertrain design has also introduced better weight distribution which, together with careful choice of suspension parts, has made the car easier to drive than others.

The real question for Jaguar’s Formula E powertrain designers may not be one of groundbreaking innovation, then, but of just how much money they will be allowed to spend.

This article first appeared in the March 2016 edition of the Current E magazine.

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