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Griffiths: “We haven’t had success. We need it.”

All eyes are on BMW i Andretti Motorsport after a successful run during the official ABB FIA Formula E pre-season testing. Team Principal Roger Griffiths sat down with Noor Amylia Hilda to share his approach for the new season as the team preps for round one in Riyadh.

It has not been an easy past four years for the Andretti Formula E team. After contesting last place in the constructors standings with only 24 points in season four, it was a disappointing result at the end of a long and tedious season for the U.S. based team. Although, in some ways, the season was significant in providing a steep learning curve for the team as they furthered their technology partnership involvement with BMW.

The team has since made their first public outing operating as a full-fledged BMW works team as BMW i Andretti Motorsport during the official pre-season testing in Valencia in October, demonstrating that they’ve indeed raised their game as both cars came out fastest in four out of six sessions of pre-season testing. That’s quite a comeback.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“What we’ve really done over the last three seasons is building up from the original handshake agreement that we had with BMW and we have progressively integrated even more BMW personnel into the programme.”[/perfectpullquote]
Team Principal Roger Griffiths, who’s been with the Andretti Formula E team since season one of the all-electric championship is an experienced leader with a sharp focus for detail. Previously the Technical Director for Honda Performance Development, he also brings with him over 20 years of experience from within the auto racing industry.

Despite his years of experience, he remains down-to-earth and was quick to admit that he didn’t expect the BMW i.FE 18s to be at the top of the time sheets on its first ever outing during day one of testing.

“The comment I got from my boss Michael Andretti the other night was, “Was the TV monitor upside down?” says Griffiths during a rainy afternoon in the media centre of Ricardo Tormo Circuit.

“It’s obviously still early days but it’s very encouraging. When we look back at where we were this time last year it was a very different story,” he says.

The two BMW i.FE 18 cars with Antonio Felix da Costa and Alexander Sims at the helm, demonstrated good pace against the other 10 teams on the grid and seemed to have run reliably throughout the entire test week.

“We really had no expectations when we came here,” he adds. “We had pretty much tested in isolation before. The drivers seemed happy, and the engineers seemed happy, but we didn’t know whether we were quick, slow or somewhere in the middle.

“In the race simulation, we had a test programme to run, and we told the drivers, don’t get too racy. We’ve got to bring the cars back, we don’t want any damage on them but the cars seemed very competitive.

“The drivers appear to be able to pass other cars, almost at will. Both drivers are very happy, not just with the outright performance of the car but also with the feel of the car, or the balance as we refer to it. We’ve been able to do quick lap times and quite a lot of mileage.

“So, it was a good car to drive and the best comment I got from Antonio [Felix da Costa] was that: “There was only one car better than mine and that was my team-mate’s,” he says with a smile.

Griffiths provides an interesting insight from within the team’s garage which might have provided a factor in the results they produced during testing.

“For sure it’s nice to be at the top of the time sheets but I’ve also seen the atmosphere at the garage, it’s very positive. But more importantly for me, it’s the first time that the BMW and the Andretti teams has had the full opportunity to work together.

“What we’ve really done over the last three seasons is building up from the original handshake agreement that we had with BMW and we have progressively integrated even more BMW personnel into the programme.

“Because what I didn’t want to have happened was get to the end of season 4 and then suddenly, we flick a switch and it’s BMW. So we’ve had this progressive integration and the test program was a collaborative effort between Andretti and BMW. We were running the test car on behalf of BMW and I was slowly trying to integrate more of the race team personnel into the test program, as we had a separate group of engineers and mechanics on that.

“But this is the first time the race team has got their own cars as opposed to the test cars. It’s the first time that all of the race team mechanics worked together on this car and it’s the first time the race team and engineering staff from Andretti really had the opportunity to take control of the car. We’ve got a lot of BMW staff here as a support role. They basically handed over the operation of the race car to us and we’re now running it as intended.”

Speaking of changes within the garage, the team had a few issues in terms of driver line-up consistency last season. They’ve maintained Portuguese driver Antonio Felix da Costa who’s been with the Andretti Formula E since season 3. Meanwhile, new entry Alexander Sims is not entirely a newbie to the all-electric series.

After testing for the Andretti Formula E team in pre-season testing for Season 4, the Brit has some experience with the unique demands of Formula E. So far, both drivers seem to work well with each each others abilities. What are some of the factors that the team looks at when deciding on the driver line-up?

“There’s a number of things we look at, but first and foremost would be how competitive they are and whether they can deliver the race wins which is ultimately why we’re here.

“I think Formula E is quite different to other championships because of the fact that the driver himself doesn’t have as many tools such as in LMP or in Formula One to help him drive the car. It’s more about the driver having to make a lot of the decisions for himself.

“We need a driver that has what I would consider additional ‘bandwidth’ which is: how much of his brain does he need to drive fast. Because there’s quite a lot of thinking that’s going on inside these cars. Also, if we can get two drivers that actually work well together, that’s really good because the team environment that we have is completely open book.

“We share that same philosophy in IndyCar, so all of that information is available to all the drivers. Every single car is the same, so there’s no driver one, or driver two, everybody is treated equally and that’s how we run the program here as well,” he explains.

In terms of the operational side of things, it seems to be going in the right direction for the team, but now with the first race of the season looming ever closer ahead, what are his next steps?

“The thing with going into the start of the season, is ensuring that we are prepared at every level and that we haven’t overlooked something. Because with Formula E being a single day event, you have to have everything ready on day one.

“The base package seems to be correct, so now we need to fine tune. And we also need to be prepared about the fact that there’s also 10 other teams in this pitlane thinking BMW is quick and they’re probably gonna work twice as hard, so we need to work twice as hard to maintain that performance advantage.

After demonstrating such a strong start to pre-season testing, Griffiths is well aware that all eyes are on the BMW i Andretti Motorsport team now but he remains practical over the challenges ahead.

“Everybody likes to go quick, everybody says testing doesn’t matter but there is now an expectation, whether it’s from the race team, from the public, the press, the board members at BMW. Now we have to convert what has gone on here at the test into going well in the race season. So, that’s probably the thing that I will lose sleep over,” he laughs.

“We’re here to win races, we’re here to win championships. At the end of the day, it’s been an immensely frustrating four years of not having achieved that as an organisation at Andretti.

“We have a wall in the race shop back in Indianapolis where we have every single win on this wall and it’s covered full. This season we finished second in the IndyCar championship, we won the Indy Lights championship and we won the Rallycross championship. We had some success down in Australia with the Supercars program, but we haven’t had that success in Formula E and we need it.”

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.