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Mark Preston on convincing Lotterer, testing challenges

It’s not a secret that Formula E races on street circuits. But we can’t test on them – so what do you do, if you only have three days of testing – and with one driver who’s never even tried Formula E before? We spoke to Mark Preston, team boss of Techeetah, about the season ahead – and how they persuaded Andre Lotterer to join the series.

Techeetah return to the grid as the only customer team, still working with Renault but this means the Valencia pre-season test was the first time they’ve run Season 4 cars – compared to up to two weeks of private testing for the manufacturer teams.

We asked Mark if they’d managed to use the testing effectively; ”I hope so, we’ll see tomorrow in the final running but as you can see it’s very competitive, we’ve seen a different person at the front each session I think. But there’s no substitute for testing – the others, in the end they’re going to have 21 days versus our three – or whatever the numbers are.

“There’s no substitute for testing so we have to focus so much on the simulator, everything we do is reliant on it being accurate. Obviously Renault delivers us a really great base package and they keep us up to date with software upgrades and everything like that – and it’s a really good relationship with Renault but we still have to do all the other stuff. The tyres, the energy management, the race strategy, all the elements that we still have to do. “

He said that the lack of opportunity to run real scenarios had hurt the team occasionally in the previous season, especially on tracks like Berlin where the tyres reacted quite differently to the surface, catching several teams out including Techeetah supplier Renault. ”It’s a big penalty, really. I think it showed up at places like Berlin last year, because when the track suddenly was a problem, for everybody, we didn’t have as many tools in our toolbox to react because we hadn’t done just lots of testing of ‘what happens if we do this,’ ‘what happens if we do that’ so that will still be a problem this year.

“Hopefully we won’t have the same problem in Berlin as we had last year because now we know about it and we’ve got lots of ideas of what we would have done if we had known. I suppose the good thing is not everybody reacted well at Berlin, only Mahindra did the best job so at least we weren’t too far behind everybody else but it’s always an issue.”

The team had an unstable driver line up in Season 3, starting with Chinese racer Ma Qing Ha – who was reportedly faster than teammate Jean-Eric Vergne in the simulator but failed to deliver on track – then recruiting the shortlived-in-Formula-E Esteban Gutierrez, before securing Stephane Sarrazin for the final six races of the season, during which the team seemed to make a significant step forward.

Preston told us that stability is a major focus for the team, signing both new recruit Andre Lotterer and last year’s race winner Vergne for multiple years; ”We’re actually talking about stability being one of the keys and both drivers are signed up for a few years at least so therefore, we hope to not change too many things over the next couple of years other than just going faster and being more prepared. It’s all about trying to find excellence and trying not to change too much and going on a trajectory towards success. You can almost make it sound easy I suppose by saying that’s the target but all sorts of things get in your way on the way to that target.

“It will be good to have a nice, stable lineup – you can see the teams that have that – e.Dams haven’t changed and neither has Abt, they have complete stability from Season 1 and that does make a difference so we have to emulate the same thing.”

The driver market for Formula E is “hyper-competitive” (to quote Jerome D’Ambrosio) and several of the drivers testing or newly signed for this year had been trying since Season 1 to get into the series. Lotterer, on the other hand, took a fairly damning view of FE after seeing the Season 2 finale in Battersea, making him maybe an unusual choice for the team to pursue. We asked Mark how he convinced Andre to change his view on the series he’d called “more philosophy than sport” two years ago.

Mark said it was pretty straightforward, in the end; “It’s pretty easy actually, everyone’s in Formula E. That’s the end of it really in some ways. And he likes competition – he does Super Formula, it’s like why would you do Super Formula? Well, just to be in a competition and race.

The appeal of a proper drivers’ championship, at the absolute highest level is something a lot of the drivers cite as unique to FE and which Lotterer was just getting his first taste of”I think he’s realised, even after the first few days, that this is way more complicated than he potentially perceived it was. I think the level of electronics, systems, is up there – maybe not quite at F1 level, LMP1 level but it’s certainly getting close. The driver has to do more here than in the F1 world so I think this is the place to be.”

As a final thought, we asked Mark when they’d got hold of the cars to start tooling with them, even if they couldn’t actually run them as testing.

Season 3 and Season 4 FE cars have relatively few differences – the chassis is the same, prompting most powertrains to essentially follow the same principles, at least, that they did in the previous season. In fact, the chassis are literally the same ones used in the final races of last season – “I think they came to us quite late because they came back from Montreal, had to get them back by boat – everyone’s stuff was late back, the powertrains came back quite early and then we started building the cars at the start of September, I suppose. So we haven’t had long at all really but then again nobody – well, no, actually, everybody else has had time. So we’ve only had a month and they’ve had however long ago it was they started doing the powertrains.”

Which left us with the job of breaking it to Mark that the manufacturer teams have been working on a test car since potentially as early as January, “So a very short time for us – I hadn’t even considered that really but that’s actually a big time, we haven’t had that time to play. Luckily the cars are more similar to Season 3 so at least we know them. But we didn’t have any really… one month vs nine.”

Techeetah head into their second season with one race win, seven podiums and 156 points for 5th place in the team’s championship last year. It’s boring to keep saying it but it really is hard to guess where teams will be in Hong Kong from testing – but with one already seriously competitive driver in Jean-Eric Vergne and Lotterer the second-fastest overall rookie in Valencia, despite having never driven a Formula E car before, we can expect their charge to continue this year.

Hazel Southwell | e-racing.net

Image courtesy of Rajan Jangda