Priestley talks kerbs, constructors and cocaine

Current E Punta del Este 2014 Amlin Aguri kicks up a kerb

Technical expert Marc Priestley won’t be part of ITV’s Formula E coverage of the Argentina race this week. Get prepped for the event with his insight into how the new series is progressing.

“Formula E has had a good start. There are areas to improve, but the organisers, teams and drivers should be very proud of what they’ve achieved. The first races needed to go well and they have.

There’s a pretty clear pattern emerging with some of the teams and some of the drivers. We know by now who is quick and who is not so quick. In Malaysia we saw Servia and d’Ambrosio quick in quali, unforeseen by most. We saw the regulars – such as di Grassi and Buemi – starting at the back and making their way through the pack. These are not circuits where the field gets stretched out too much; you’re always within reach of the car in front. You might be at risk of collateral damage from a shunt but you need never write a race off completely, no matter where you start.

Killer kerbs

In Punta del Este, there were issues with the sausuage kerbs again. The cars break when they hit them. The reason we have those sorts of kerbs in motor sport is because other things have been tried and they all had something wrong with them. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before there’s another big accident involving them.

There’s two ways to look at the problem. On the one hand, drivers should treat them no differently to a wall – if they know their cars are going to break, they should stay off them. Those kerbs do invite you to take a faster line, to clip them. In other forms of racing, that’s exactly what you could and would do, without the car falling apart. But it is the drivers’ responsibility to avoid them, which might require a change of mindset. You have to take control of your destiny.

On the other hand, should the cars be falling apart when they hit the kerbs? Is the suspension strong enough? The components haven’t been bought from Dallara, which makes quality stuff. The problem with doing anything on a budget is that things tend to be at the lower end of the quality scale. The fact that we’ve had so many suspension failures through hitting kerbs means we’ve ended up with cars failing to finish, and that’s not good for the sport.

We’ve seen drivers being caught out by the flatter, rumble strip-type kerbs too. They’re often on apexes where you can cut them in a straight line, because they don’t have the grip that tarmac does. So if you’re at the limit of your grip and you start turning on those strips, simple physics says you will lose traction. The cars don’t have much downforce, so anything that upsets the balance of the car will upset the balance of grip. In F1, you can get away with it a lot more because the downforce is always there.

Costs and constructors

A lot of teams have already spent more than they envisaged because of things like gearbox upgrades and spare parts because of crashes. It’s a difficult thing to build into a season budget because you don’t plan to crash. A number of the teams are already feeling the punch. I’m sure it’ll settle down and, in season two, they won’t need to buy new cars.

The technical regulations aren’t expected to be completed until March. That doesn’t leave an awful lot of time until summer testing or even season two. I presume interested parties have been given a framework, but companies need exact specifications. This series is pivoting on the development of technology. That is one of the key goals. That’s not to say that nobody has started work. Most of the companies I’ve spoken to are already manufacturers of these type of products. They’ll have an awful lot of expertise; they’re just waiting for the information so that they know how to package it all.

The regulations have to be watertight. When you open up a series to competition, it’s crucial that you get it right. When you’re dealing with teams who are competing on a technical level, any loophole will be exploited. At the moment, with just one car, it’s a bit easier. But when it’s opened up, these are commercial manufacturers coming in who want to use the series to promote their own products. They need theirs to be the best. Losing just won’t do. When you get that sort of environment, they will push every single boundary there is. It’s the same in F1, and Formula E needs to be prepared for it.

What we’re likely to see is a small number of manufacturers looking for teams to partner with. I don’t know if there’s much of an advantage to be had in developing gearboxes. They’re a well proven thing and they’ve been around forever. You could make a better gearbox, by making it lighter, with stronger materials, for example, but it’s a big cost. It all depends on how much people are willing to invest. The regulations might limit constructors on materials or cost.

The real area for extracting performance in season two is going to be the motors. There’s the McLaren one of course, but apart from that and those used in F1 and WEC, there aren’t a whole lot of electric motors in motorsports. If you’re going to spend the money, then motors offer the biggest gain. You can showcase gearboxes in any motorsport, but Formula E will let you showcase your electric motor. If we can improve the efficiency of motors through the sport, that will really benefit the wider world, not just the automotive sector.

Battery technology, of course, is the big thing. That’s what the whole world is waiting for. We need a step change in batteries, whether in energy density, charging etc. If we can improve batteries because of Formula E, then the series will have been a success.

Fudging Fanboost?

Salvador Duran winning Faboost in Punta del Este was a surprise. It’s incredible to think he came into the sport less than a week before the race and got all those votes. I’m fairly sure he got Katherine Legge’s votes. That would be a shame – it’s not who people voted for, and it hasn’t been explained. We didn’t know that for sure on ITV, so we didn’t talk about it on the show. This is the sort of information that should be coming from the organiser. It’s a new series – rules, strategy, pit stops – and if we want to keep people engaged, we need to make sure people understand it. The moment that people don’t understand why something’s happened, they’ll start to switch off.

The sport can be quite difficult to follow. It’s one of the most difficult series to explain. Even for the commentators, it’s a difficult one to keep across because so much is happening, and the TV feed is quite limited in terms of the number of cameras. And when it comes to changing cars, it gets even more difficult to keep an eye on what’s happening. The commentary team did a really good job in Punta of explaining what was going on.

Being frank about Franck

Unbelievable. What a silly boy. I don’t think cocaine stays in your system for very long, in which case any alleged indiscretion must have taken place in or around the race weekend. It’s so stupid.

There’s no good time for him to have done it of course. As a professional sports person, you can be tested at any time. I know drivers who have been tested at home or at hotels. That’s why it’s called random checking. That’s the FIA anti-doping programme. Even your diet and supplements can’t have any banned substances. It is a potential minefield, as seemingly innocent products might contain traces of substances on the banned list.

It’s a real shame for him. Franck had gone off the radar, but his Formula E career was doing him well. He was an exciting driver, people wanted to see him race; they didn’t know what he would do next. But that’s almost certainly game over for driving, and sanctions might also affect his broadcast career.

I’ve spoken to a number of drivers since the Punta race. A lot of drivers have said it’s quite strange because they’ve not been tested. The lack of frequency of testing suggests that he was either very unlucky to have been caught, or there may have been more to it. We don’t know the full story, but I’d be surprised if he got anything less than a two year ban. Even if you give him the benefit of the doubt, that close to a race he should be in sportsman mode, where health is your highest priority. People do stupid things and it’s only when they get caught that we hear about them. He isn’t the first and he won’t be the last. I do find it weird that nothing official has been said yet.

Argentina predictions

If I was going to put money on who was going to be quick, I’d go with di Grassi, Prost, Bird and Buemi. Jean-Eric Vergne now has a race weekend’s experience behind him. He’s learned some stuff, although he didn’t do too much wrong in his first race. It was such a shame that his car gave up at the end of the race.

It will be quite interesting to see if the field is closer. The times from the Punta test day were a lot closer than they have been before. It’s about being quick as a driver but also getting to grips with the new car. It’s the same as in F1: it’s like Vettel and Raikkonen last season. The new cars suited certain driving styles and not others. Those two didn’t suddenly lose all their talent. You either have to adapt your style or the car. The ones who have been consistently quick in Formula E have been intelligent and learned how to drive them better than anyone else in less time than anyone else.

Some circuits suit some drivers more than others. We saw in Punta that something clicked with Piquet. It’s not necessarily a big mechanical change to the car. He got into a groove where he was confident in the car. Even minor tweaks to roll bars, ride height or springs can upset the balance of the car. Whatever they ran in that race worked for him. If he can do it again, people will start talking about him as a contender.

Because the series spans two conventional racing seasons, it’s difficult to keep a consistent driver line up. When drivers signed up for Formula E last year, they didn’t know what they would be doing in 2015 for other series. They’re now having to weigh up what’s more important to them, and that will be largely based on how successful they are in the championship.

When you don’t have a consistent driver line up, it’s hard for fans to get behind a driver. It’s a bit of shame that we often don’t know who’s racing until days before the race. The bigger Formula E gets, the more of a pull it becomes. It might become the priority. People have sat up and taken notice. Drivers don’t see it as a Mickey Mouse championship.”

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