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In the garage: Jacky Eeckelaert

Following on from our first instalment of ‘In the garage’ where we spoke to Franck Baldet, the second part of this series sees Noor Amylia Hilda speak to Venturi Engineering Director Jacky Eeckelaert on how Formula E will survive over the years.

The ABB FIA Formula E may be a new championship, but behind the series are a few veterans from the world of motor racing that bring with them indispensable experience and knowledge.

One of them is Venturi Engineering Director Jacky Eeckelaert, who’s been in the Formula E paddock since season one. He first joined the championship working with the Abt team for the first two seasons before moving on to Faraday Future Dragon Racing in season three. Now, he’s based in the Venturi garage where I met him just before the Rome E-Prix weekend.

“I think Formula E is also one of the only championships you can find in the world where all the drivers on the grid are paid to drive. For me, professional racing starts with paying your drivers.”

Born in Antwerp and currently based in Monaco, the Belgian brings a wealth of experience and technical insight to the Monegasque team. His early career started off with French Touring Cars and later on he joined Peugeot F1 in the 1980s and spent most of his career in Formula One with teams such as Jordan, Prost, HRT and Sauber.

“It always starts with a passion, when I was a student in university I was interested in technology,” he says. “As a kid I was already interested in racing cars and you know how it is. In the beginning, after I graduated I worked as an engineer for the motor industry but not in motor sport. But my interests in motor sport made me go to the racetracks over the weekends.”

Eeckelaert’s career started off as a freelancer for the smaller teams before he started getting gigs at the bigger teams and everything kicked off from there. In 2012 he left the world of Formula One behind and joined the Abt Sportsline working in the DTM series before joining Formula E.

“By that time I thought it’s time to stop with Formula One and traveling around the world so much. Then Formula E started and it’s new technology and for me it’s always important to learn a lot. I got my first taste of electrical engineering in Formula One when we developed the KERS system in 2007 and this was fully electric,” says Eeckelaert.

This brings us to the topic of change and what was it like for him to adapt to a new and innovative series such as Formula E.

“It’s a big difference, but for me there are so many positives. For Formula One there are bigger budgets. On the other hand, in Formula E I think the technical regulations made by the FIA are very well written to avoid the technical budget to explode.

“Formula E was more relaxed when it first started  but now that the major car manufacturers are coming in, the pressure is going up. But it reminds me of the days when I wasn’t working full time in motorsports, but just during the weekends and on holidays with Formula 3 teams because it’s small and there are less number of people so it’s easier to control.

“But it’s not only that, for Formula E the performance differentiator is actually the efficiency of the powertrain,” he adds.

“In Formula One, it’s also the powertrain and mainly aerodynamics because the aero is open for everybody. And I think it’s good in Formula E that the fastest car has the most efficient powertrain and that’s what we’re looking for because it has a direct spinoff for the future of cars.”

There’s more to that in terms of the uniqueness of Formula E according to Eeckelaert, especially in terms of the driver talent.

“I think Formula E is also one of the only championships you can find in the world where all the drivers on the grid are paid to drive. So, it’s not amateur drivers who pay for a drive, there are all selected because we think they are fast and we pay them to do their job. For me, professional racing starts with paying your drivers,” he says.

From a engineering director’s point of view, Eeckelaert reckons that Venturi is definitely moving in the right direction. The results are evident as Season 4 has proven to be Venturi’s strongest season so far.

“Last year we were progressing with big steps, also due to the collaboration with ZF which is a huge supplier in road cars. This year, the collaboration with them is mainly in terms of the gearbox so, that’s a positive step I would say.

“Also at Venturi now, we have more and more full time people working in the office, so on the overall operational side, which is mainly done in the simulator with the drivers,  we’re investing in quite a lot of time and money in developing better models so that we are much better prepared on the racetrack.”

Eeckelaert also suggests that Formula E is a much more expressive form of racing that helps to showcase the skill of the drivers.

“I think it’s not just the speed that makes a spectacle, it’s also the way the driver can express his skills by sliding through the corners, dicing to overtake another guy and most of the time the races are quite exciting to watch.

“There is a lot of overtaking and we keep the tyres on low grip and there’s not too much downforce on the car, sometimes you really can see the drivers and the way they  drive the cars is closer to rallying than to the classical way of driving on the racetrack.”

Sometimes you really can see the drivers and the way they  drive the cars is closer to rallying than to the classical way of driving on the racetrack.

For someone who has been involved in racing over the years, he’s witnessed some series that survived and some that have lost its appeal through the years, what does he make of the future of Formula E in about a decade from today?

“I think it will last because, I mean for electrical cars, some people like them, some people don’t like them. We have been driving cars with internal combustion engines for more than a hundred years so, it’s not like in a few years we can switch completely to the opposite. There will be a transition period where hybrid cars will become very important.

“Formula E it’s not just a spectacle or just for entertainment, but it’s also a message because you drive in big cities so it’s like you’re saying to people, ‘Ok you don’t believe in electric cars, but we can race them, so it works.’

“Also, it’s an area of development as I was saying in racing there’s always a lot of technical development, it’s like a technical war. To be better than the other guys in the next garage, we need to be better on the technical side and that’s the only way to survive in racing.”

About Noor Amylia Hilda
Noor Amylia Hilda is a journalist based in Kuala Lumpur with bylines in titles such as Women's Health, Esquire and ELLE. She is also a freelance motorsport journalist covering the FIA Formula E championship and Formula 1.