Jaguar: time to tango?

Spacesuit-Media-Dan Bathie-FIA-Formula-E-Marrakesh-ePrix-November-2016-Panasonic Jaguar Racing garage

Expectations in motorsport can be dangerous things. Even names such as Honda, Nissan, Ferrari, Renault and Toyota have found that to be the case in recent years in top level sports. Jaguar, aware of these recent stories, has done much to manage expectations in the run up to its first Formula E season.

Making a return to international motorsport after 12 years away, the British marque (Indian-owned, of course) first hit the Formula E grid in Hong Kong with a pair of I-Type runners. Despite all the cautionary talk from the team, expectations were fairly high for much of the watching audience and media, and not without cause.

Paddock chatter suggested in the build-up to the new season that Jaguar’s links to Williams Advanced Engineering (the technical group which designed the race battery used by the entire grid) would give it a leg up on the rest of the pack. Let’s be clear here: the Williams tech whizzes who designed the race battery and who took it from a sheet of paper through to a tested, manufactured and raced unit, are now an integral part of the Jaguar team. That indeed seems like quite the competitive advantage. 

Yet, before the Buenos Aires race kicks off, Jaguar’s electric racing record reads: two races, zero points, bottom of the teams’ championship. It’s not much to shout about.

But the fact is that Jaguar was never expecting to blow the bloody doors off, to coin a phrase. It would take time for humble beginnings to mature into something more impressive. We’re seeing the kitten at the moment. The big cat hasn’t yet arrived. 

“I remember you asking, ‘What are your expectations?’, and I think my exact words were that we’ve got a great team in place, a very experienced team,” Jaguar Formula E chief James Barclay told me in a sit-down chat during the break between the Marrakesh and Buenos Aires rounds. “We’re under no illusions that the level of competition is incredibly high. If anyone expected us to walk into this championship and win, they would be very much surprised, because there are some very good teams, very good manufacturers involved in the championship. And, importantly, there are two years’ worth of competition that they have. Formula E’s unique nature is that you cannot go and do a 40-day test programme before you turn up for your first race. We very much knew this year would be a learning year for us. We meant it. So for us, it’s no surprises; it’s as expected.”

Jaguar drivers Mitch Evans and Adam Carroll (both newcomers to Formula E as well as the team) have focused instead on gathering data in Hong Kong and Marrakesh. Of the eight runs (two races with two cars per driver), seven were completed.

“We could go out and throw absolutely everything at it, trying to risk everything, but then again, because we can’t test, there’s no data,” Barclay said. “It’s a careful balance for us. It’s the balance of aggression but also getting the experience, so if we go out and put the cars in the wall in free practice and qualifying because we’re trying to get the fastest lap, then we can’t learn through that weekend. We’re on the back foot even more. For us the mileage has been crucial. We’ll get to a point in the season where we can start taking more risks and being a bit more, I would say, free to absolutely push, especially in qualifying, knowing that we have some of that core data.”

Carroll has led Jaguar’s charge so far, running high up the order in Hong Kong on an off-piste strategy before a untimely safety car kiboshed his hopes of debut points, leaving him P12 at the flag. He followed this up with a run to 14th in Marrakesh  which, given he started at the back of the grid following an error in qualifying, was an impressive feat. Evans failed to finish in Hong Kong and got home in P17 in Marrakesh but has also shown flashes of pace.

“The guys have done a great job,” Barclay enthused. “Again, they’re brand new to the formula. We always have high expectations of course and of ourselves as well. Mitch and Adam have really taken it to the task at hand, they’re just getting in there and getting stuck in really. Other drivers have two years’ worth of experience, knowing how hard they can push, how they can attack and when they need to conserve. I must say that Adam and Mitch have not made any errors there. They’re learning how to optimise and get that one-lap speed with us as well. That’s where I believe we’ll make that next step as well.”

So have we seen Jaguar pushing to the limit just yet?

“Absolutely not, both from an operational point of view and a driver point of view,” Barclay asserted. “There’s plenty more to come. If you look at just again the experience of some of the drivers in the championship, the formula is very different as well, so just getting the most out of it. It’s straightforward to see. Our race pace is pretty good. We have more improvements to find there, but we’re not a million miles away. We have some areas where we think we can do that. The big thing is qualifying. In Marrakesh, if we were two-tenths up the road, then that would have been very different, and then with our race pace we would have been in the thick of it.”

Two-tenths is perhaps a slight understatement, for had Evans ran that much quicker on his Marrakesh qualifying lap, he would only have started 14th instead of 16th but he was less than half a second off a place in the top 10. Barclay’s point remains salient.

And while Jaguar may be struggling at the back through season three, Barclay is confident that entering Formula E at such an early stage will pay dividends down the line. By the time other OEMs are rocking up with new operations, Jaguar will already have been there, done that and got the t-shirt.

“To expect huge jumps in performance is just not realistic,” Barclay said. “The only time we can do it is on race weekends. And if you think about Formula E race weekends, we don’t have free practice on Thursday and Friday. We hit the ground FP1, FP2, and then it’s into quali. We have two free practice sessions to play with where we can try things that we’ve spent weeks looking at between races. So again, we’re just very pragmatic. We know it’s going to take time.If the championship had a testing allowance, it would be a different story, but that’s why we entered the championship early and came in early, because we were keen to do that. As the championship gets more competitive and more manufacturers come in, we’ll have been involved from an earlier stage, so really important this year to get that time on-track.”

While testing the current-year car is not allowed in-season, teams are permitted to break into their 15-day allowance of season four running as they put an eye towards the new campaign, due to start in December in Hong Kong. Jaguar is understood to have already done so in order to give Formula 1 veteran Felipe Massa a taste of a Formula E car, suggesting it is ahead of the curve. A big jump may not be forthcoming in season three as the tech regs remain largely static, but as preparations continue for season four, it’s not out of the question. 

At present, Jaguar is using a fairly conservative powertrain design, very reminiscent of a season one configuration. It could be that the team is sticking with that, knowing it will work and be reliable, while concentrating on season five, where the biggest step-change of the sport will occur. An all-new chassis and a new race battery will be introduced, with the sport moving from two cars to one car per driver for the first time.

“As you can imagine with most teams, as soon as the season started, especially with homologation deadlines, we’re already into the thick of it,” Barclay confirmed. “As with most teams, it’s having a group of individuals focused on the race programme for that season and some of the team really focused on next year. If you’re not fully focused on your season four powertrain by now, you’ve got some catch-up to do. We had a very short lead time for our season three powertrain, so right from the get go we’ve been looking for season four. We’re really positive about the learnings we can take away from this year and what that will mean for us next year. The good thing is that we’ll then have the learnings of the championship racing for a year put into place with a powertrain we’ve had much longer lead time into, which will be so much stronger for us as well.”

Throw in a safety car and (looking at the current forecasts) a smattering of rain, and points are within reach for Jaguar this weekend. It would certainly be an important notch on Jaguar’s belt as the dawn of its Formula E adventure begins. 

Luke Smith

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