In the first of a two part series, Steven Lu, Team China Racing principal and organiser of the Beijing Formula E race, tells Current E about the team’s development, its prospects – and Leonardo DiCaprio as a racing driver.
A mini team history
Steven Lu is working long days. That’s not much of a surprise, considering that he is both principal of the Team China Racing Formula E racing team and organiser of the opening race in Beijing this September. “Chinese New Year is coming up, and the whole country effectively shuts down for almost two weeks,” he says. “There’s a lot to do before that.”
Lu has been in charge since 2005, although the story of the team starts the year before, when it was set up by Chinese businessman Yu Liu to contest the short-lived A1 GP racing series. “Our team boss, Yu Liu, moved to South Africa in the 1980s. He ran minerals businesses, including working in oil, diamonds and gold. When he returned to China, he was interested in the idea of A1 GP, which hadn’t been officially announced.”
After getting the endorsement of the Chinese sports minister, Liu put up the funds to compete in the new sport. A1 GP didn’t last long – but in any case China, it turned out, wasn’t ready for the sport.
“Motorsports is a very recent development in China,” Lu explains. “And it wasn’t what we thought it would be. We had to build a team and then promote it in China. But before we knew it, A1 GP was gone. We tried to select something else. Superleague Formula was similar, but that didn’t last either.”
Team China didn’t perform particularly well in A1 GP (13 out of 22 was their best season finish), but it seems that the venture sparked real interest across the country. So when Lu met Eric Barbaroux, president at Formulec, in 2010, he immediately saw the possibilities. “Eric was putting in a tender to the FIA for the Formula E Championship, and we promoted the Formulec car in China. Then Alejandro Agag won the bid and bought Formulec. We knew the car, we knew the concept. We sent in a letter of interest straight away.”
A new beginning – and a level playing field
Team China Racing was announced by FEH in February 2013 – it was the second team to the table, almost half a year ahead of Andretti Autosport. “We’re totally focused on this Formula E project. The feedback we’ve had from potential sponsors has encouraged us to move forwards. We want to bring motorsports into China. Fans loved A1 GP and Superleague. They want more. Formula E will be different and local government is very supportive. Beijing wants to tackle pollution. The city wants to care for the environment.”
Lu is expecting the Spark Renault to be available for testing in May, if not earlier. “The car will remain in Europe or the UK,” he explains. “Teams will not be allowed to touch the car apart from that.”
Given that the team faces stiff competition from organisations with undisputed racing pedigree (such as Andretti, Super Aguri and e.dams) and those with formidable pots of gold (looking at you, Mahindra, Virgin and Venturi), Lu is pleased at the prospect of restricted access. He explains: “There’s no chance for a Chinese team in F1, I believe. But with electric car racing, everybody starts from zero. It means we have a chance. All the teams are in exactly the same situation. So yes, we think we can win some races.”
Drivers, technical personnel and a Chinese electric revolution
To win races, the team needs winning drivers. “We’ve had a lot of interest and a lot of calls, from Chinese, European and American drivers,” says Lu. “We want one of our drivers – at least – to be Chinese.”
Chinaman Ma Qing Hua is the obvious suggestion. The 2013 Caterham F1 test driver worked for the team in the A1 GP days and has signed up to the FEH driver programme, which will allow him to spend time in the Spark Renault. The situation, however, isn’t clear cut.
“He’s not 100% confirmed, and we do have other Chinese drivers interested,” Lu explains. “He hasn’t done a lot of racing in the last few years. That worries me. No matter how talented you are, you need to do mileage in the car.”
That said, Lu isn’t shy about his intentions: “We want him to be our driver, but it depends on his conditions.”
Those conditions include salary. Asked if pay is a key factor in the Qing Hua negotiations, Lu answers: “Yes. For the first year, the budget is higher than expected, so we want to see if anything else can help. He’s a Chinese driver – we might be able to work together to attract Chinese sponsors. This could result in some sort of endorsement deals, where the sponsors pay the salary. But we’re open to anyone right now, and we’re talking to other drivers.”
Whether it is Qing Hua or not, securing one Chinese driver could keep sponsors happy while giving the team flexibility to look abroad for an experienced name to fill the second seat, someone who could help the team set the car up fast.
“Beijing is our home race. I’m confident that we’ll get an experienced driver. We want to win. And we want to win with a Chinese driver – I’m not counting on it, but it’s possible.”
Lu’s ultimate ambition is to run an all-Chinese team, from the drivers to the pit crew. “In China, people think a mechanic is just a guy in a garage. But we want to change that perception. It is far more exciting than working in a factory and such a role can offer a whole career. We’re proposing to have Chinese engineers and mechanics following the team, to learn. We want to develop into a fully Chinese team, but this will take time.”
For the first season, Lu expects to support existing team personnel with chief engineers and mechanics from Europe. It wouldn’t be a wild a guess to point the finger at the Belgium-based Team Astromega, which managed Team China’s technical operations through the A1 GP series (although the outfit also has strong links with Roger Penske – father of Jay Penske, who has entered his Dragon Racing team into Formula E).
Names can’t be named yet, but likely candidates can boast extensive experience with electric vehicle technology, Lu says. “We’ll have everything finalised in the next two months,” he goes on.
In the longer term, Lu is hoping to use the Beijing Formula E race to boost interest in domestic electric racing championships. These could act as feeder series to Formula E, and create new generations of EV-friendly drivers and technicians in China.
“Formula Student is popular here,” he says. “But there’s a generation gap in the drivers. Good drivers are either too old, or not old enough, for Formula E. The ones in the middle aren’t interested – they want do GT racing, the Porsche Carrera Cup. But Formula E is the future. It will become the pinnacle of electric racing, with other series underneath.”
Across the divide: the role of social media
Formula E has promised extensive use of social media to better connect with a younger, more tech-savvy target audience. But the proposed Fanboost voting system, which would allow fans to directly inform race results by gifting the most popular drivers additional turbo boosts, may pose problematic at the opening race. In China, Western social media such as Twitter and Facebook aren’t allowed, although there are local equivalents.
“Actually, this gives us more control,” Lu comments. “We can make deals locally with the Chinese equivalents of Facebook and Twitter, such as Weibo.”
Lu will be visiting the FEH London office next week to discuss whether Chinese social media platforms can be integrated into the Fanboost voting system alongside likely candidates Twitter and Facebook.
“Weibo is growing very fast, but there are also lots of Chinese overseas who can use the other sites,” he explains. Qing Hua reportedly has some 200,000 followers on Weibo, which far outstrips the Twitter followers boasted by any of the drivers so far named. His presence in the team could raise the Fanboost stakes considerably.
When it comes to marketing and media, Lu knows what he’s talking about. He spent his time in the UK studying marketing, and found his way to Team China Racing through the internet. His marketing plan for the A1 GP team landed him the team principal role. He is modest about his achievements though: “I have been so lucky. After all, motorsports is every boy’s fantasy.”
Despite Lu’s marketing nous, the high profile names associated with other teams could easily upset the apple cart. Says Lu: “While motorsports may not be exciting for many in China, Leonardo DiCaprio is very popular here. When we announced on our website that he had signed up to Formula E, we got as many visitors in one day as we had in the previous two years.”
Lu pauses. “In fact, we’d love to have Leo as a driver. That really would pull a crowd.”
Images courtesy of Andrew Hudd, FEH and Caterham F1.