The return of the Super Aguri name to open wheel motor racing with the launch of a Formula E team caused something of a stir when it was announced in November. Team principal Mark Preston was technical director of the operation when it was a Formula 1 contender, and he says that the team will draw on that experience to push for Formula E success. And yes, former Super Aguri F1 driver Takuma Sato is on Preston’s shopping list, he tells Current E.
Strategy planning and sponsors
“At the moment, we’re looking for sponsors,” says Mark Preston, in a soft Australian accent (he originally hails from Melbourne, and at one time worked for Holden’s “special vehicles” division, famed for its fire-breathing rivalry with Ford). The Formula E team has been in development since early 2012, but it seems that the initial phase of activity is complete. “It’s hard to make it sound any more exciting. The racing cars are already being organised, whereas in F1 at this point we’d be flat out designing them.”
Preston knows a thing or two about the Formula 1 environment. He spent 12 years involved in the sport, in engineering and technical oversight roles at Arrows and McLaren before creating and spearheading the Super Aguri outfit. As team principal, his brief is at once wider and narrower than previous roles: while he is driving the overall team effort, a consortium headed up by Spark Racing Technology is designing, building and testing the car, removing much of the workload from the teams.
“That really helps cut costs,” says Preston. “So we’re working on strategy now. There will be limits to the number of people allowed in the garages, for example. We need to work through the logic of each race weekend. How many people do we need? What are the timings of the events? When do we need to arrive? When will the cars be rebuilt?”
That’s already a lot to think about, considering that each team will have four cars to make race ready. The new technologies will bring even more permutations. “We don’t know if we’ll have to teach the drivers to drive differently,” says Preston. “We’re working on simulations at the moment. We know that the tracks will have shorter straights than we see in F1, to avoid wasting the power it takes to maintain a high top speed. But in F1, drivers get a bit of a rest on the straights, especially laterally. The brakes get a chance to cool down too. We don’t yet know what Formula E will be like in comparison.”
Monaco, often seen as the jewel in F1’s crown, features on the inaugural Formula E calendar, which Preston says is proving useful. “We already have a lot of information from that track that we’re using in our comparisons,” he says.
The Super Aguri team is a modest affair. “We’re slowly building up,” Preston explains. “Our most recent appointments are electronics experts, who will help us to put in place processes and procedures to deal with the new cars. But the basic team structure is there: social media, legal, sponsorship hunting, race strategy planning, operations and so on.”
Much of the planning is based on theory and modelling however: teams won’t get their hands on the actual race car until next summer. “We expect there to be two tests for teams, in June and July,” Preston says. “Having the final test in July will allow a month for the cars to be transported to Beijing in time for the opening race in September.”
Social media, Fanboost and a sporting working group
“When we had the Super Aguri F1 team, Twitter was only just getting started. It was a case of – do we even need to do this?” Preston laughs: social media has become an invaluable part of team sponsorship and marketing activities in the five years since the demise of the Super Aguri F1 effort. And with an audience expected to be largely composed of tech-savvy teenagers, it is critical that Formula E teams get to grips with social media channels quickly.
Super Aguri has made a decent start. The team’s new website features a Q&A session with the team principal answering queries posted on Twitter and Facebook. With the prospect of the Fanboost feature looming large, that sort of open door access for fans is likely to continue.
“Fanboost – we were talking about that last night,” comments Preston. “We said we had better start building up a bigger social media base. We’re looking at creating competitions on Twitter to get fans to support us.”
Preston recognises that the feature is likely to be controversial, saying that it could alienate motorsports purists. But he also explains that the details are not yet set in stone: “You have to watch out that one driver isn’t much more popular than all the others. That would make the racing boring, if one driver got all the votes all the time. Young, up and coming drivers who might not have any social media followers could lose out, and that’s a problem. There may be a different way to do it, maybe by learning from fantasy football, introducing a handicap, or limiting the number of times it can be used in a race. As long as there’s a way to make it fair, the sky is the limit in terms of what we could do. Power can be changed easily and precisely in electric cars, for example, whereas in a petrol-engine race car it’s hard to turn down the power by a specific percentage. So we may arrive at power caps. Anything is possible.”
Full sporting regulations for Formula haven’t yet been revealed, though Preston says that teams are being closely involved in their development. “A lot is being decided by the promoter and the FIA at the moment to get the sport going, but we throw in our two pennies’ worth,” he says. “I imagine we’ll arrive at a similar situation to F1, where there are technical and sporting working groups. There will certainly be a lot more encouragement to come up with new ideas than in F1. Formula E understands that it is entertainment; actually, motorsport always has been about entertainment, but that can get lost in all the technical details.”
Ex-Super Aguri F1 driver Takuma Sato grabbed headlines last month when it was revealed that he has signed up to Formula E’s driver programme and will undertake winter testing in the Spark-Renault. But will he race in Formula E? And if so, might he drive for his former employer?
“We’d love to have Takuma,” admits Preston. “But a lot of it is about sponsorship – it comes down to what we can afford.”
Presumably Takuma won’t come cheap: in April he became the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race when he triumphed at Long Beach. And in the spirit of close cost control, Formula E team budgets are likely to be capped at below £5million per season – and that includes driver pay.
Preston continues: “The amount a team can pay is dictated by the total budget of the series in question, but it always tends to find a natural level. For Formula E, I expect the driver salaries to be comparable to what you’d find in a world touring car competition.”
Although Formula E promoters have already indicated they want to attract drivers with significant media profiles, team recruitment strategies might see a mix of “name drivers” and relative unknowns make it to the grid. Little is known about the Formula E driver programme, which seems to be designed to create a pool of available drivers to help teams with head hunting and to offer a diverse mix of nationalities and racing experience. It appears that teams are still free to find their own drivers outside the confines of the programme, however.
“We ideally want one experienced guy and a young gun,” Mark explains. “There are so many good drivers around F1 and Le Mans. In fact, we’ve been approached by a lot of guys who have already driven in F1, or who are sitting on the sidelines waiting to get in.”
Electrifying the transport system
Preston is confident that the future of motoring aligns with the goals of Formula E.“The future is electric drive, whether power is drawn from batteries, hydrogen, hybrid systems or some sort of power source we haven’t yet developed. We will see the progressive electrification of the transport system, just like we have with trains. However, replacing cars isn’t like replacing smartphones: you can’t do it overnight. But I hope the change happens fast.”