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Andretti: Formula E ‘is as good as racing gets’

TG.com chats to racing legend Michael Andretti ahead of the all-electric series’ second season

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“The quality of the drivers and the teams are as good as it gets. This could very well be the future of our racing.”

So says Michael Andretti, a legend in IndyCar racing and boss of Formula E team Amlin-Andretti. If that wasn’t enough of a CV, Michael also happens to be the son of 1978 Formula One world champion – and four-time IndyCar champion – Mario Andretti.

So it’s fair to say he comes from proper racing royalty, and knows what he’s talking about. And what he’s talking about is one of the more divisive disciplines of modern motorsport: electric car racing.

Critics say Formula E is boring, that it lacks drama, the cars can’t last the full race and the circuits are glorified car parks.

Its defenders argue that the quality of racing on offer is top-notch, and that it represents the bright, clean future of motorsport once our coal-fired supernova comes to a stuttering end.

We’ve opined about the good and bad of Formula E here on TopGear.com before, but ahead of testing before the second season kicks off later in the year, we wanted to get Michael’s thoughts from a team’s perspective.

TopGear.com: Why did you get involved in Formula E?

Michael Andretti: One of the things that excited me about Formula E was the technology; to be involved from the ground floor in something like this that could very well end up being the future of our racing, in 20 years from now.

It’s way beyond what I thought it was going to be.

TG: What would you say to critics of Formula E who think the series is boring?

MA: I’d say I don’t know what they’re looking at, because I think the races are really exciting, the quality of the drivers and the teams are as good as it gets, and the product on the racetrack is the same.

I think the racing has really been fun to watch. There’s a lot to it, a lot of strategy that makes it interesting. It’s good hard racing.

TG: What would you change though?

MA: I don’t think there’s much you can do to it to make it more exciting, but what the series really needs to be used for is to develop the technology. I think they have to really focus on the battery and drivetrain – to open that up to allow that to be developed. That’s what this series should be about.

TG: The swapping-cars-halfway-through dance is a result of this tech [because the batteries won’t last a full race distance], but it’s still a bit… weird though, right?

MA: It did seem weird at first! But then it becomes this thing that you don’t think about, you just put that into your strategy and it’s just the way the event is.

I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, honestly.

Obviously, for the industry, it will be important for us to run the whole race on one car, because there’s a fear of people running out of battery and all that stuff.

That’s what I mean when I talk about the development being open on the battery side. We need to develop to make these cars go a whole race distance, on one charge.

TG: How soon before we see that?

MA: Right now they’ve changed the rules so we probably won’t see that until year four or five, originally it was going to be year three [next year].

We know the technology is out there, but that’s why I was hoping it’d open up sooner because it would just be better for the series.

TG: What’s your take on the whole ‘fan boost’ thing?

MA: I like it from the standpoint that it gets the fans involved, which is really important. The fan can vote and actually feel like he has some input on what’s happening on the racetrack, and I think that’s a very popular and smart thing to do.

TG: But surely Formula E needs to do more to propel it into the public imagination?

MA: I think they’re doing it already. Go back a year from now – at this point everybody was sceptical about it, and look what they were able to do over the course of a year. Ten quality events all over the world, put together quality teams with quality drivers, and they have a good TV package to boot.

I think they just need to continue what they’re doing.

TG: What about transfer to road-car technology?

MA: That’s what this is all about in my opinion. I’m hoping in the next few years you’ll see a lot of OEMs finally get in, and when that happens, it’s just going to be a case of ‘game on’.

TG: What about making Formula E a bit more… glamorous?

MA: I don’t know. I mean, is it a Formula One event? No. But I think it’s a really good quality event, and it’s a different type of racing.

I think it’s really unfair to compare it to the level of Formula One in its first year, but I think if you look at the tracks, they’re similar to a lot of IndyCar tracks that we go to, so I think there’s no real problem with that. The tracks were not Formula One quality, but they weren’t junk either.

TG: True. And the quality of tracks when Formula One first started weren’t that great either. Silverstone was an old WW2 airfield…

MA: Exactly. They were far from it!

TG: So… how much does it cost to run in Formula E?

MA: It is way more expensive than what they originally quoted it was going to cost, so we all pretty much laughed at them. But it’s racing. It’s double what they were predicting it would cost.

TG: And that would be…?

MA: We’re budgeting between seven and eight million dollars. For a single season.

TG: Wow. Realistically, where do you think you’ll finish this year?

MA: Our goal is to be number one. Our expectations are to be competitive…

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