This weekend Formula E team Techeetah have announced their partnership with Cheetah Outreach, a conservation charity dedicated to the big cats and more broadly loss of habitat for key wildlife. It’s not a typical motorsport partnership announcement, which tend to be more about raising funds for the team than for wildlife – Hazel Southwell spoke to Chief Commercial Officer Keith Smout about the cynicism surrounding that and why having an environmental purpose is so important to the customer team.
In a past life, I used to work for charities; fundraising, especially from fanbases, was sort of my specialism and although it’s been a usefully transferrable skill into motorsport, it’s not something I necessarily see sitting at the same ethical table. Conventionally, getting a logo sticker on a car raises money for a team – not to help conserve the dwindling population of an extraordinary big cat, no matter how fast.
Techeetah Formula E’s partnership with Cheetah Outreach isn’t all that surprising, in some ways – earlier this year part-team-owner and driver Jean-Eric Vergne went to South Africa to meet and race a cheetah in a video for Formula E:
Keith said – and social media would very much evidence – that the experience profoundly affected JEV, taking the cheetahs’ cause personally to heart; “We got JEV to be involved, to go off to South Africa and he was just completely enamoured with the cheetahs.
“I’ve always been interested personally in conservation for animals. In Canada it’s important to us, we’re a country that has a lot of wildlife so we need to support these type of efforts everywhere and JEV loved it so much. You’ve seen the photos probably, you’ve seen the video – the ability to pet the cheetah, for somebody, which we know isn’t the legitimate way to look at a cheetah but in order to bring the awareness I thought that event was fantastic.”
Almost every primary school child knows cheetahs are the fastest land animal, the only mammal capable of reaching the fabled automotive benchmark of 60 miles an hour. With Formula E overall having moved to pushing an aggressive environmental message, generally avoided or even derided by other motorsport.
Formula E is not a stranger to stunts – before Season 3 Lucas di Grassi drove an FE car across the Arctic to raise visibility of the shrinking ice cap. It was met with some cynicism, inevitably, about whether it was raising the profile of climate change or Formula E. But when the problem is unquestionably motoring’s much-beloved combustion, does that even matter? If climate change is an uncomfortable truth in broad society, it’s a taboo in motorsport that FE lifts the lid of Pandora’s box on, while other series and commentators try to turn it into Cassandra.
In that respect, Formula E faces interrogation of sincerity on two sides; both other motorsport questioning its commitment to “real” racing and environmentalists questioning how racing, so associated with reckless glamour, can be relevant to conscientious change. So it’s not a bad move to get one of your more emotive drivers, also a formal ambassador for the series, to go and get misty-eyed petting a giant kitty – whatever Jeremy Clarkson thinks.
We couldn’t save the ? so at least let’s save the ? and it doesn’t matter how we dit it. Actually I’ll do it again if needed #SaveTheCheetahs @CheetahOutreach @WildlifeTrusts @FIAFormulaE @thegrandtour #JEV25 https://t.co/ijQYfWPQ5K
— Jean-Eric Vergne (@JeanEricVergne) February 1, 2018
Which is reductive of the sincerity, of course; Jean-Eric Vergne is one of motorsport’s more complex characters, a thinker to the point of being mistaken for standoffish (which he absolutely isn’t) and as committed to anything he takes to heart as he is to racing. So if JEV’s been convinced to help cheetahs, cheetahs are going to get helped.
I asked Keith how the partnership actually came to be, as anyone who’s ever worked in corporate fundraising will know a charity linking up with a racing team is substantially more complex than a driver setting up their own JustGiving and he confirmed the deal was partly done on JEV’s passion – “JEV was really excited by it all when he did it and we then started doing a bit of research, I started talking to Cheetah Outreach to try to understand a lot more about the situation and we realised that you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, for lack of a better term.
“It took a while because there’s always gonna be an amount of cynicism, I guess about a race team doing this type of thing but we worked hard with Cheetah Outreach and they’re really good people and they really care. They really care not only what the cats are as far as the cheetah goes but actually all wildlife and all about the loss of habitat.”
But what does that functionally mean? A race team saying they want to promote a charity is the kind of miscellaneous commitment that doesn’t necessarily translate but Techeetah have a plan – “Awareness is the first part of it, obviously. We have the cheetah on the car, we have the video. The second part of it is we want to do this adoption programme.
“You get a plush cheetah, you get a special hat that we’re doing for the team – which will have the Cheetah Outreach logo, which will also be on the car. And then we’re going to have a certificate saying that that you’re adopting.”
In 1900 there were an estimated 100,000 cheetahs in the wild – there’s now somewhere under just 10% of that, many in isolated or vulnerable environments. So although this might seem like a replay of a memorable tweet (I asked and Keith had never heard of it) there’s a real purpose to an attempt by Techeetah to find financial support for each remaining cheetah.
“Of course it’s a symbolic thing because we don’t have all 7,000 cheetahs sitting in one reserve but that’s the idea. And then on top of that, which hasn’t been announced the next thing we’re going to do for the fan base is we’re gonna go to the fanbase to actually name the cheetah on our car. Hopefully nothing like Boaty McBoatface – I’m gonna put it in the press release, ‘no Cheetah McCheetahface’ but we’re gonna name the cheetah and then what we wanna do is have one of the kits that’s born at Cheetah Outreach, we’re gonna name the same as the car.
“So we want to extend it that way and then our hope is that the fanbase – because we have a large fanbase and the sport has a large fanbase, will adopt all 7,000 cheetahs and we can raise significant funds for Cheetah Outreach and keep building awareness. That’s our plan.”
Big cats are apex predators – their decline shows an ecosystem struggling to survive. So saving cheetahs isn’t just a question of making sure a single species thrives – but Techeetah have a plan to broaden the programme in any case. Whether the rest of Formula E know it yet or not.
“We actually plan to – not that they know it yet – but we’re going to throw it down to other teams and say ‘ok, Mr Jaguar, help the jaguars.’ Which Jaguar already do in many ways but they can get involved and we’ve had some conversations with Mahindra about doing something joint with Bengal tigers because it’s associated with China and I know NIO are very interested in looking at the panda. So there’s natural ones here that we can all support and we hope everybody does it. So then the whole fanbase can support the programme.”
Which is all lovely and in line with Formula E’s ambitions to both engage its fanbase and promote sustainability. But with 10 teams on the grid, what makes it uniquely Techeetah who are driven to do it?
It’s almost boring to keep pointing it out but Techeetah are the only customer team on the Formula E grid. They have no manufacturer credentials, buying their power train from Renault, for now at least, so in a championship that’s become an escalating arms race for innovation between OEMs, what’s their role?
Motorsport often justifies itself via innovation, if it’s pushed to try and argue for a reason for all this – sport has a proven track record in very literally driving automotive technology, from the first hill climb searches for torque to the cutting edges of energy recovery. And it’s not that customer teams don’t contribute to that – the relative pace of Techeetah to their supplier Renault shows there has to be something to the approach – but a customer team can’t necessarily argue that their purpose links so directly to road technology.
So, in a championship with specific aims, can projects like this be the point? Techeetah think so.
Keith told me “Until we’re not a customer team, that is the focus that we have to look at. And one thing that interests me, from the commercial perspective, is that in order to commercialise your race team you have to obviously mould your brand and that’s something that we’re trying to do this year.
“But what’s most important is that sponsors we reach to and speak to and have partnerships with, we want people that are actually in line with what we think. And I think that that’s where this all ties in. So everyone that we’re in discussions with – we’re quite close with a group of sponsors who are hopefully going to join the team shortly – we want them to get involved with this programme because we believe it’s part and parcel of the whole sustainability concept of what the sport is involved in.”
The lone customer team on the grid, part-owned by a championship leading 27-year-old, in a series so backlogged with manufacturers trying to get in that a monolithic brand like Porsche are struggling to get a foothold, has to be unbothered about doing things differently to make the successes they have. Keith ended on the advantage of that – and the little breathing space gained by being somewhat outside;
“I think we all can be guilty of being locked in our own environment here and saying ‘oh we’re doing it, we’re so successful’ because everything’s going well. There’s lots of manufacturers, there’s lots of teams and technology here but what else can we do to take it beyond those borders? That’s the way I look at it and that’s kind of our ethos, to do different things than everybody else and if they all come along for the ride then that’s great and if they don’t we’ll still be doing it.”
As JEV himself said about the cheetah run – “it doesn’t matter how we did it. And I’ll do it again if needed.”