“The competition is fierce,” Chris Vagg observes. “We’ve been waiting and hoping, but the final few places remain unassigned. There are some formidable parties interested in those last slots with considerable backing available to them, but we will continue to play to our strengths.”
Vagg has been spearheading an effort to get new British team Vastha Racing to the grid in time for the 2014 first season, but he concedes that it is an ambitious venture. Of the 10 positions available, six Formula E teams have so far been announced and a seventh promised imminently. So far, Vastha – like Bluebird and Team Rosberg – isn’t on the list. Unlike those two, this is the story of a team without a famous face or brand.
“We’re a group of engineers,” he says. “None of us are millionaires, and we’re not famous. We don’t have an influential figurehead to name drop. That puts us on the back foot.”
From the beginning
The back foot is not where British engineer Vagg expected to be. He’s a former designer for the Mercedes AMG F1 team and was part of the outfit in that single golden season it was known as Brawn and scooped both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships. As well as tasting the highest level of success in F1, he was involved in the early development of the Formula E story.
“Motor racing brings a very peaky workload,” he explains. “Very often, F1 teams will take on consultancy work to balance resource across the year. While I was at Brawn, we were asked to do some work on the Formulec electric racing car, including the aero and chassis design.”
The Formulec car became the media mule for the burgeoning Formula E series, before being replaced in September this year with a totally new vehicle: “The prototype was pretty rough and ready, but it was still impressive – a full scale, working electric racing car with a carbon fibre monocoque.”
Vagg’s interest was sparked immediately, although he waited until he’d finished work with Mercedes before communicating his interest officially.
When simple is best
Hopeful of entering a team into the new series, Vagg followed the developing series with keen interest. He was pleased to note that the Spark-Renault customer car, which all teams will use in the first season, follows some of the fundamental principles laid down with the prototype.
“The Spark-Renault has simple surfaces without intricate details,” Vagg explains. “In a wind tunnel, you aim to create a parallel laminar flow with no disturbances. In F1, multiple vanes and surfaces are added to extract the best performance from this flow. But the wind tunnel is a controlled environment, with uninterrupted flow: it’s a perfect environment. You lose all that work once you’re stuck behind another car in turbulent air. F1 cars are now over-optimised. Keeping aero surfaces simple is a better, more cost-effective way to meet varied racing conditions and is something the Formula E prototype was designed to excel at.”
By providing a customer car in the first season, Formula E promoter FEH has made it clear that aero development is not the priority it is in F1. “Doing away with all that aero focus will make budgets much more affordable,” Vagg says.
Formula E wish list
Simply being ready, willing and able to take part in Formula E isn’t enough, according to Vagg. He formed Vastha Racing from “a group likeminded engineers.” But, he says, the selection process isn’t a case of just having the financial means in place.
Vagg explains: “The selection process is not simply a case of who has the budget to run a team, as there are more than enough willing parties. So other factors have become important, such as generating media attention and attracting big-hitters whose names and brands people are already familiar with. With that much interest, FEH can pick the best of the bunch.”
Financial stability and security are important, however. “You have to demonstrate you have the resources to field a team well beyond the first season,” Vagg says. “I don’t expect the teams to change at all in the first few seasons, unless a smaller team is bought by a large manufacturer, either outright or through a majority share. It does look like several large manufacturers are hovering around the edges, waiting to see what will happen in the first year before committing. The exception of course is Renault, which is a credit to the company.”
Diversity makes it onto the list of priorities too. Says Vagg: “FEH is very keen to have a broad spectrum represented, to make it truly international. It’s important for commercial success.”
Where next for Vastha?
“We’re still in discussion with potential sponsors and there are still some unassigned slots,” Vagg says. There are suggestions that the teams announced in recent weeks were lined up as far back as September, leading to uncertainty as to exactly how many spaces remain.
He thinks that seeing an entry on the first year roster under the name Vastha Racing is looking less likely, but is still keen to be involved: “We have a huge amount of collective experience in racing and in hybrid and electric propulsion systems. If we aren’t selected as one of the final three teams, there is a good possibility that we could offer consultancy services to one of the racing teams.”
As for how the sport is developing, Vagg sees the promoter’s focus on media attention as essential. “Sport is nothing without fans. They are the most important people. In F1, the sheer scale of the beast makes it difficult for fans to share the hands-on experience.”
He pauses. “Twitter has made a big difference, of course. Now, you can Tweet your favourite driver and there’s a half a chance he or she will reply.”
However, that doesn’t mean Vagg is an avid proponent of the mooted Fanboost feature, whereby spectators will be able to advantage their chosen driver through a real time, Twitter-based voting system.
“It’s novel, which is good,” he says. “It’s a unique selling point for the new sport, and it will better engage fans. But the flipside is that fans could directly affect the race result and a driver’s popularity could become more important than skill. I hope it doesn’t become like DRS in Formula 1, which makes the racing so artificial. There are certainly some difficult questions to answer.”
If the team does make it to the grid, who could we expect to see in the Vastha cockpits? “We’ve spoken to a few drivers,” Vagg says coyly, “But I can’t comment on the names.”