Twitter Facebook Youtube

“The purpose of electric racing is to offer hope”

What is Electric GT up to? It’s a question a lot of people are asking – not least our own Hazel Southwell, who threw her lot in and joined the Founder scheme. But starting a new racing series is difficult – and there was nothing guaranteed.

Now a month out from when the first race was supposed to be planned, we sent Hazel off, dictaphone not quite in hand, to grab founder Mark Gemmell for a word about how you set up a new racing series in 2017 and where, exactly, Electric GT is headed. And what there is to believe in, about it.

So, Mark – I wanted to talk to you about what’s going on with Electric GT – and what it takes to set up a brand new, electric racing series.

Well, the traditional view is that the first step requires a small fortune. Maybe even a large one. I’m not from a motorsport background, I’m from technology and that maybe helps take a slightly different approach to it. This isn’t about putting something together to stand alone, it’s about making something that’s needed.

Motorsport plays a big role in society and the economy – a much, much bigger role than people would give it credit for. We’re looking at this big tech change and motorsport needs to – has to – play a part.

Industries don’t like change, they like things to stay the same but that isn’t an option now. We’re in a situation where we can probably come out of the other end alive but reasonably bruised and you need to decide how much damage you’re going to take there. The change comes through development of technology and adoption by society and there’s a huge role for both motorsport and basic business common sense in making that happen.

The role of motorsport is massively undervalued, even in the automotive industry, because it’s seen as having become irrelevant. The connection between car production – even marketing – and conventional motorsport is less and less obvious and it’s seen as something that’s stagnated, away from the cutting edge.

The same old teams win and the point of it is less and less clear, even to people that care. When I was a child, in the 60s and 70s, you could see the obvious cutting edge of it – the introduction of turbos, the daring, the way it was pushing automotive technology faster and harder. And yes, it was dangerous and scary – and that made people look at it.

The danger is that motorsport ends up a bit like horse racing – it happens but it’s just a sport, done by a few people and most people have no experience relevant to it. But there’s this new tech revolution and motorsport is and has to be a part of that.

People want to know if this new tech can handle the stress, perform on the edge like petrol cars and motorsport is the perfect way to show that. The same way it was when the horseless carriage had to prove itself 100 years ago, show it could go up a hill and handle a road.

And people looked at that and wanted to do it – to expand it and challenge the technology on the road and on track. Technological change has to be shown to people and people want to see it.

Anyway, I’ll stop talking for a minute and let you ask some questions.

I’m sorry, I’m actually just … I’m just frantically scribbling shorthand because I forgot to record this. Bit of a failing for a technology journalist.

At least you know shorthand – the idea is that no one else can understand it, right?

Hopefully I can later. A rare advantage to being ten years older than most Formula E journalists. So you’re using Tesla cars in the series – it’s a spec series and I think most people are on board with that idea, especially for GT racing with things like the Porsche Carrera Cup.

But as a body independent from a specific marque, what made you decide to go all-Tesla, was there no temptation to make it a multi-manufacturer competition?

Well, we were tempted of course – but there just aren’t any out there. Tesla are way, way ahead of the rest, which is unusual in any industry.

I’ve been in technology and seen revolutions in telephony, hardware, connectivity, digitisation and I’ve never seen anything like the tremendous monopoly position Tesla have on electric vehicle advances. Maybe Microsoft with the rise of Windows but it’s really unusual.

It’s Surprised Tesla, too – that’s why they’ve opened their patents, to get competition to catch up. It’s ridiculous how far ahead of everyone they are, when we looked at this there was really no other road car we could think about throwing around the track in a way that would work for a supercar series. No one else was making them.

To get the scale of the gap, you’ve got a manufacturer who have a car coming out in 2020 and it’s going to meet the 2012 Tesla specs. In technology, that’s centuries.

So when we made the Tesla choice it was just clear that they were the only ones who were going to cut the mustard. We’d welcome other manufacturers but it would be a fearsome task to try and meet the Tesla challenge.

It’ll happen, of course – probably some unknown make who outdo Tesla by copying their own patents. Right now, in terms of track-suitable GT cars, Tesla are the only show in town – but we’re hoping that race will get very exciting very quickly, of course.

At the minute the European automobile industry has been so slow on this – manufacturers have been sluggish and there’s a real danger for some of them that they end up a Nokia or a Blackberry.

Which we don’t want to see – so we hope there will be competition soon.

Speaking of competition and a little related to the Tesla choice – why did you choose to announce drivers before teams? This isn’t really a criticism, it’s just very unusual, for a motorsport series.

You can criticise us if you like, we can take it! But basically this grew out of a really simple thing.

We get support, first and foremost from the general public – from people who are interested in watching and backing the series and coming to the races. That’s going to be the first people who you engage when you announce something.

Teams run a business – you need to be fully operational before they can plan their own work around you. That’s not a negative, it’s just a fact of the process.

Drivers, on the other hand, understand that motorsport is in a crisis – they’re living it, this is their job.

They know that electric technology is coming and has to be coming and they want to be a part of that. With drivers on board you get the credibility of people who want to race wanting to race these vehicles and that’s a huge bonus to getting something off the ground.

As soon as we announced, we had enquiries – so it made huge sense, to us, to announce that interest as soon as possible.

The other place we got support from, almost immediately, was permanent race circuits. Formula E goes to cities, makes these city centre race tracks and that’s absolutely the right thing for them, it gets Formula E where it needs to be.

But the thing about permanent circuits is they’re safe, they’re easy to get people to, crowd control is simple, they’re experienced at handling events – the cost of setting up street circuits is huge, you have to look at the cost of a Formula E event and it’s what, $15 million, $20 million? We can go to a permanent circuit and do it much cheaper.

And they want these events. They know the future is electric – not just for motorsport but for them. People talk about the noise of motorsport, so do circuits; all circuits have problems with noise, it’s a potential closure threat whether motorsport acknowledges it or not. Even for somewhere like the Nurburgring, which is in the middle of nowhere, the noise restrictions are the same as for a city.

So as soon as we announced, as soon as we started talking to circuits there was this unexpected support for us being there.

That’s really interesting when you see circuits like Silverstone and Sepang rejecting Formula 1 – so both traditional, old circuits and the newer ones – saying they can’t afford to run it and then they’re grasping at this with both hands.

Yes – circuits make money as a business and their bread and butter will always be track days and club drives and local businesses hiring them but they need to have more sources beyond that. One big ticket event that disrupts your whole calendar isn’t worth it, especially when it’s run so you make a loss.

People are happy to host Formula E and us because it brings optimism to motorsport. It brings that technological cutting edge rather than all this heritage and weight and cost. The purpose of electric racing is to offer hope and we’ve really seen that in the way people have supported us.

Formula 1 alone, as a racing proposition, is not a sound business model now. We need to see new, street-level, club level developments – and electric vehicles and racing being part of that. We need to see track days where someone’s tooled up their EV.

I have to ask you about the calendar. It’s changed a few times and when people ask me about Electric GT it’s always with that on the agenda – both when it’s coming and why it hasn’t yet. So we’re meant to be at Paul Ricard next month or no?

Oh, yes. Look, this is a really complicated process – it’s really difficult because to apply to the FIA you have to have a solid plan.

You need to put together a calendar and have agreements in place, to show it’s happening. Initially, when we started this process we were talking about beginning the series at Silverstone – that was what we first submitted and then we needed more refinements, so it went to Plan B, which was Paul Ricard.

We’re still getting through FIA regulations, it’s not a trivial process. So Plan B has become Plan C and it’s still an adaptive process. Plan C is now that we’re looking at late spring or early summer 2018.

By mid-June we knew Paul Ricard was going to be impossible, we’re still waiting on the FIA but we’ve made major, major advances over the summer with both them and Tesla.

So in terms of how the series’ events will work, when they happen, what are the plans for beyond the GT cars – I know there’s the plan for electric karting?

The Electric GT championship is going to be much more than the Teslas and when we get them, the Tesla-like cars. They’re supercars – they’re pulling many hundreds of horsepower, they’re racing at breakneck speeds.

We’ve also got the karting and we’ve got the e-racing, the virtual sport. We’re actually calling it Virdual because it’s a hybrid, there’s an augmented reality element and there’s an extent to which you’re interacting with real things, with the way the interface is being pushed.

And we want to go beyond that, we have more to announce – we want to have everything from electric motorbike demonstrations to electric mountain bikes, electric drifting… A full-scale spectrum of activity around electric vehicles and technology.

We do mean beyond the vehicles, too – we want to look at the environment and insurance and home energy storage, solar panels, how you really make these vehicles work.

The Age of Light, we really mean it. Because to those of us in the west it might be “oh, I’ll change my car if this new technology is as good as the combustion engine.”

But when you look at things – I live here in Spain and 45% of debt, forty-five percent, goes on combustion fuel. You don’t have to be an economic genius to see that if you can reduce your debt by 45% you’re going to be in a better place.

And in the UK, there’s the switch towards battery technology, there’s this move away from combustion and the technology trying to keep up.

The big deal though – the really big deal – is in the developing world. Many people don’t have light, they’re cooking on open fires and that’s one of the number one causes of respiratory diseases.

When you’re talking about the development of batteries, storage tech, solar power generation, the potential there is huge. We can start looking at non-grid electricity, at people generating their own power and moving away from dependency, you could get people applying for their own UN grants to get themselves power, a huge decentralisation. It will be the most gigantic leap forward.

We all think electric cars are the bee’s knees but electric farming equipment will be transformative. Can you imagine the power of an electric thresher to change an isolated farmer’s processes? The adaptive possibilities?

This is really interesting to me – the idea of disrupting the grid, of decentralising that.  I know a lot of regions where the 4G connectivity is amazing, much better than in the West, because it was the first opportunity to get connected, so much easier to set up than a conventional wired network that we’re still so hung up on.

Yes, exactly. The most advanced electronic banking in the world is in Kenya, because it was so difficult to access a bank account. Then people got mobile phones and that was the access point, immediately going to mobile banking.

There’s no supply chain, if it’s renewable and you’ve got storage – you can simply go so many more places, so much faster.

It’s mobility beyond travel, basically.

Our objective is absolutely to go beyond transport. Electric technology, at the end of the combustion age, is about disrupting and transforming what’s happening.

There are no shortage of large business interests concerned about this. Especially in the automobile industry, they see it as a threat and we want to be part of what encourages them to make a change.

Samsung were around before iPhones, you know – but they’ve done pretty well out of it. They copied the hell out of Apple and and did better.

They didn’t go the way of Nokia or Blackberry, basically.

There’s a technological revolution here. You can be on the wrong side of history or not – and I’m really hopeful, want the series to show that hope, that people are going to choose the right one.

Hazel Southwell | e-racing.net

Images courtesy of Electric GT