Pushing the green barrier

Mike Conway is something of a street circuit specialist. He’s the British driver who has forged a career on the other side of the pond in IndyCar; his 2014 contract sees him called in to deal with the twists and turns of road tracks (the series also races on ovals). But his varied career also includes the British F3 championship, test roles for Honda in F1 and, more recently, bagging a third-place season finish in WEC.

Conway has been signed up by Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing team to contest the inaugural Formula E season, and drove on all four days of the public tests at Donington Park earlier this month. Oh, and he won his fifth IndyCar race on Sunday, for Ed Carpenter Racing. It was a good time for a chat.

“There were a few beers last night,” Conway admits to Current E, the day after the triumph in Toronto. “But it was an early start this morning – straight back into it.”

It’s lunchtime in Arizona, US, where he’s just arrived, fresh from Sunday’s success. “The conditions were tricky all day, and there was a downpour in the middle of the race. I made the right call on tyres, and it turned the day around.”

Conway’s decision to change tyres while in third place meant he was well placed to take advantage as the track dried out, and he easily passed the two frontrunners to take victory. But will that winning mentality translate to electric racing?

Thinking about tyres

Though the cars look similar from the outside (and both are designed by Dallara), Formula E is, of course, a rather different proposition to IndyCar: there are no tyres to change, for a start. “In IndyCar, you have 550bhp and big rear tyres,” Conway explains. “In the Spark-Renault, the tyres are very different – you can over-drive them. They’re a little bit like slicks when they’re new, but you can heat up the block quickly. You slide around a lot more. You can’t charge into corners too hard, so you have to maximise your exit speed. There’s a fine line between getting it right and carrying too much speed into a corner and sliding. You have to be really smooth. You get the best performance out of the tyres on lap one and two, then you lose a little bit as they heat up, but they degrade consistently. You also have to look after the battery life. It’s a constant thinking game.”

Donington test days top shots dirty tyres

Five seconds and 10km/h

The four days of public testing were illuminating. It was the first time many of the drivers had experienced the electric racing car, and Conway says there is a lot to learn. “We have to figure out how to drive these things, and how to get them quick,” he says. “There can be as much as five seconds per lap difference between one power map and another. That’s a big speed difference. You’re not relying on downforce either. The wings are small and we’ve been running them with minimum downforce to maximise straight line speed and mechanical grip – it’s worth about an extra eight to 10km/h.”

Dragon had a mixed time of it at testing, managing 16 laps on day one (when many teams struggled too), but just 15 laps on day two between two cars. Things picked up after that, with the team completing 59 laps on day three and 77 laps on day four, between Conway and Oriol Servia, who was testing but who has not been confirmed as a race driver. “There were teething issues, and we’re learning the systems and procedures,” says Conway. “But we focused on maximising track time and got the second car out.”

Testing has already provided useful data regarding set-up changes, and Conway explains that having both cars running at the tests was invaluable. “There’s a lot to adjust, like any race car,” he says. “Spring and damper settings, geometries, wing settings. We’ve been playing with pressures in the tyres, cambers and toes. And we’ve been looking at the regenerative braking – there are different ways of doing it, so we have to work out which is best. Donington has fast corners and long straights compared to where we’ll be racing, so it’s more aggressive on the tyres. From what we’ve seen so far I think the tyre life will be very good.”

Donington test day two Koni shock absorbers

There is more testing scheduled for 24 July, which Conway won’t make as there is an IndyCar race this weekend, and 6 Aug, which he will, although these both appear to be private sessions. The next public test day is 19 August, and Conway is looking forward to it.

Simulation work and fast drivers

Because Formula E will run a compressed schedule – with practice, qualification and the race itself all taking place on the same day – finding the right set-up fast at each location is going to hold the key to success. However, with no telemetry being streamed to teams and circuits so new that there is no existing data to work from, teams will have to rely on the drivers more than ever for crucial information.

“Long Beach and Monaco, I’ve been on – but the others, no one has been on,” says Conway. “Any little advantage you can get before the day will be so important, so there will be lots of simulation work beforehand so we know what to expect. We’ll be as prepared as we can be.”

With its street circuit format and carefully chosen calendar that avoids conflict with IndyCar and WEC schedules, Formula E is tailor made for Conway. But he’s not underestimating the competition: “The series looks like a lot of fun. I do love street circuits, which is hopefully going to play into our hands, and we’ll bring our IndyCar experience to the table. At the same time, there are a lot of drivers signed up who will be bloody quick.”

There’s a cautionary note from Conway regarding the lack of live telemetry and temptation to overcook the power: “The teams will see as much as the fans do – probably just an indication of battery life left. It will be down to the driver to manage kilowatt usage; if you go over it you’ll get disqualified. And if you get tempted to use too much power at the start, you won’t make it to the end.”

Fans first – and drivers too

Conway is excited by what he sees as pioneering steps by Formula E series organiser FEH to involve spectators.

“Drivers have got to get on the good side of the fans,” he says, referring to the Fanboost feature, where drivers can receive additional powers boosts through an online voting system. “It’s interesting to give a driver an extra bit of power, and it’s an extra element for fans to be able to take part in the race. It’ll be enough power to probably pass at least one person. But you’ll have to use it wisely. I think we’ll see drivers use the boost early on. I also think we’ll see a lot of drivers being very nice to everyone!”

The focus of FEH on attracting a new generation is already paying off, from what Conway has seen. “There were lots more fans at the Donington tests than you would normally see at a test day,” he says, “and a much younger crowd. It’s good to see younger people embracing it as the way forward.”

And the way forward Formula E certainly is, the Brit believes. “Formula E is a brand new series and a brand new way of doing things,” he says. “It’s pushing the green barrier. There are more hybrid race cars and supercars, and lots of fully electric road cars – it was going to come, and it’s very cool to be part of the first such series.”  

Follow Mike Conway on Twitter: @MikeConway26

Donington test days top shots Dragon on track

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