Swapping a V8 for volts

Maro Engel Venturi Formula E

Venturi’s new boy tells Ross Ringham about powertrain development, mindset and thinking outside the box.

“Formula E is one of those series where, as a driver, you want to be.”

It’s a mark of how far, how fast the all-electric motorsport has come that a racer who spends his days in a bewinged machine sporting a savage 6.3 litre V8 petrol engine up front wants to compete in a battery-powered single seater. Yet, the quote above is no soundbite. Maro Engel, the Munich-born Mercedes AMG factory driver who has chalked up recent victories at the Nurburgring 24 Hour and Macau round of the FIA GT World Cup, has banked serious mileage in Venturi’s season three car and is keen to measure himself against the rest of the Formula E grid.

“The level of drivers, the level of teams, the great tracks and cities we’re visiting, more and more manufacturers are joining: it’s a category I want to be a part of,” says Engel. The German driver will replace Brit Mike Conway (himself highly rated with notable IndyCar accomplishments) at Venturi for season three. Engel sounds relaxed and ready for the challenge when he speaks at length to Current E. “In my opinion, it’s a great series and it’s only going to go from strength and strength.”

At first glance, 30-year-old Engel may not seem an obvious choice to partner two-season Formula E veteran Stephane Sarrazin at Venturi. He last raced in single seaters in 2007 (finishing as runner up in British Formula Three) and has spent the intervening years in DTM and sports cars. But there are similarities in approach that he can bring from other forms of racing, Engel believes.

“Endurance racing is all about fuel efficiency and making the cars last,” explains the Monaco resident. “Here [in Formula E] we have a sprint race but you have the same mindset – you have to use the limited energy efficiently. It’s something that relates but it’s a new context because you’re racing in cities on tight tracks. For sure, it’s something where you have to think outside the box.”

Getting back into a single seater does mean there’s no place to hide, however – there are no co-drivers with whom to share the ups and downs. “Racing is always a team effort, with the whole team working together to achieve the most,” Engel says. “But it’s the driver who is in the car and he’s in charge of getting the result for the car. The spotlight is on him. I enjoy working with team mates and sharing the car. It’s been quite successful such as at Nurburgring 24 hours. Then again, we’ve had events where it’s just one driver, such as Macau. I’m looking forward to having two cars to myself!”

Engel is no stranger to Venturi’s car and, although he hasn’t raced in the series, he does have some prior experience to call upon. “My first contact with Venturi and a drive was just over a year ago, where I had the opportunity to do some 20 or 30 laps in private sessions,” he says. “That was a positive first contact with the car. I enjoyed that experience; I enjoyed being back in a formula car. It went extremely well.”

At the beginning of 2016, the racer was then asked to get involved with Venturi’s season three development schedule. “I was keen to do it,” Engel goes on. The Monaco-based team has teased us with pictures of the car during testing, even posting some powertrain images (with the important bits obscured). “I’ve spent a lot of development time in the car, a lot of mileage. That’s given me an insight into what Formula E racing is all about and the challenges it present the driver. You need to be fast but you need to be fast and efficient. It’s something that, as a driver, challenges you.”

Engel has shared development duties with Sarrazin, which will no doubt help give the Formula E rookie a head start when it comes to race time. “I’ve been in close contact with him throughout the development phase,” confirms Engel. “He’s done some development, I’ve done some. We’ve shared the load. We’ve kept each other in the loop. Hopefully that will help push us all forward.”

The team chose to use an upgraded McLaren motor and a four-speed Hewland gearbox in season two, a very similar solution to Mahindra Racing. The powertrain proved robust and quick but not quite enough to challenge Renault or ABT for outright pace, efficiency or agility. Engel isn’t placing any bets yet on season three performance but seems pleased with the progress of the season three car compared to his memories of the second season vehicle.

“We all have to wait for the first qualifying session to see who’s made the best steps,” he says cautiously. “It’s too early to make any predictions but we can be confident. Lots of good engineering has gone into the car.”

Collective testing at Donington Park later this month does give the teams an opportunity to get a feel for the relative pecking order, although the smooth, sweeping track is unrepresentative of those that Formula E actually races at which can mean some surprises when racing actually gets underway. Engel is looking forward to the UK sessions: “They’re very important tests. We want to move forwards. We’ll be trying to optimise the package and getting more familiar with settings and processes.”

One Formula E process that the German hasn’t yet tried is the car swaps. “I know the whole driver change thing from endurance racing though I haven’t tried it with Formula E yet,” he says. “I’m sure it’ll be a laugh!”

Engel intends to contest the entire Formula E season with the team while continuing his Mercedes AMG sports car activities. “I’ve spent all of my career racing Mercedes cars and I’ve found a really great family there,” he says. “The plan is to continue racing GT as well. I enjoy these big GT races. The competition is huge. It’s grown close to my heart – the Bathurst 12 hours, the Nurburgring 24 hours…I’ve come love these races. I’m thankful to Mercedes for allowing me to join Venturi alongside my GT activities.”

Asked who would take precedence in the event of a calendar clash – Venturi or Mercedes – Engel answers rather enigmatically: “As far as I know there will be no clashes. Formula E has done a very good job with its calendar. The big motorsport events look out for each other.”

Between now and the start of Formula E’s third season, Engel has a packed schedule in addition to Donington testing. “I’ll be in Shanghai for Asian GT in a week’s time, we plan to run at Nurburgring VLN at the beginning of September and then the Blancpain endurance race later in September at the Nurburgring again,” he says. “And potentially one other race at the beginning of October. Yes it’s busy but as a driver that’s great. Racing cars is what I love.”

Image courtesy of Venturi.

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