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Priestley: “Formula E needs to expand into a different market”

Formula E tech expert Marc Priestley gives us a breakdown of the Ad Diriyah E-Prix and how he finds YouTube as a suitable platform for the growing series.

If you have yet to watch Marc Priestley’s YouTube channel, you’re in for a treat. The former Formula One mechanic and voice of Formula E radio covers all sorts of motorsport related topics with a unique insight that only someone who has worked behind-the-scenes could divulge.

His obvious passion for the sport was sparked from a childhood growing up close to Brands Hatch, captivated by the sounds of roaring engines from the circuit: “There were all sorts of noise of racing cars that were screaming around and I became fascinated by the technology as much as the racing, if not more so by the technology,” says Priestley.

This prompted him to study Motor Vehicle Technology at West Kent College, eventually leading to a career at the pinnacle of racing, “I actually started right at the bottom as an apprentice for a very small racing team in London, racing Caterham Sevens at the time.

“I always had my mind set on getting into Formula One, that was always my dream. I remember always writing letters to every team and getting these constant stream of rejection letters back from the post, but it never really put me off. I always thought, ‘Well, just keep going then maybe one day, they’ll get so annoyed with me, they’ll give me a chance.'”

That big break duly arrived with a letter from McLaren requesting for an interview, “I was very lucky first of all to eventually get a positive response from McLaren and secondly that it was at McLaren! They were one of the best teams at the time.”

After a career spanning 10 years as Number One mechanic, with highlights including Lewis Hamilton’s championship winning year at the team, Priestley moved on from that chapter of his life and found a role befitting to his expertise in media.

Marc interviewing Sir Richard Branson and music superstar will.i.am on the grid in London

His foray into the media industry began with writing for various blogs, magazines and websites before becoming a Formula One pit lane reporter for BBC Radio 5 LIVE. When Formula E first appeared, he became attracted to the new technology the series embraced and sought out ways he could be part of it. In season three, he worked as the series’ technical pundit and now he commentates on Formula E radio.

He has also discovered a new platform to share his interests via YouTube, but what is probably most appealing about his channel, is the personal touch he brings as he takes viewers along on his day in a “vlog-like” format, earning him a loyal audience base.

“It’s about the audience, particularly a younger audience that watch stuff on Youtube and that’s where Formula E wants to grow,” he says. “It doesn’t wanna grow and take the fan base that Formula One has, which is an older demographic, Formula E needs to expand into a younger and a very different market.

“I really enjoy it, from a personal point of view, I’ve got total editorial control and I can do and say pretty much whatever I want. Whereas, when I’m doing stuff for regular broadcasters, you don’t have that freedom and that means I’ve managed to find an audience that’s interested in the same things as me and that’s what I really enjoy the most.

“It’s almost like going down to the pub with a thousand of your best mates,” he says of his newfound online community of 19k subscribers (and growing).

A Breakdown of the Ad Diriyah E-Prix

As a new era began for Formula E, the Ad Diriyah E-Prix saw plenty of firsts for the all-electric series in terms of new cars with new technical capabilities, a new race format and new venues. The first round gave us a taste of what’s to come. Priestley shares what he took away from the season opener.

“I was very pleased to see that (the Gen2 cars) are a bit of a handful now, they’ve got extra power, particularly in low grip conditions which are generally where Formula E races are and it was obviously very low grip in Saudi with the rain,” he says.

Part of that new challenge for the new season is the attack mode. Priestley admits he is a fan of the concept but after watching it played out at the season opener, he believes there’s still room to iron out the creases as the season carries on.

Is Techeetah the team to beat this season?

“I thought we saw one or two incidents where you visually saw it made a difference during the weekend. Especially when (André) Lotterer put a move on (José María) López when they came on the back straight together and Lotterer’s car, which was in attack mode,  just blitzed Lopez on the straight and got away. I thought that was a nice way to show how the attack mode could work.

“For me it’s a bit more interesting than something like DRS,” he adds, “But I think what’s got to be done is to work out a way of finding places for the activation zones to perhaps be better and that’s going to be tricky at some circuits.

“The other thing is, we need to know how to find a real balance to find out how much time it could cost you to go offline and activate it. Therefore, how much time you gain off the back of using it and how much energy you get through it, because we saw some drivers sort of wanting to get rid of it after the safety car, because they were worried about energy saving.

“I still think it needs work to fine-tune and I think that will happen gradually over the course of the season. It wasn’t ever going to be perfect straight out of the box, but I really like the way Formula E decided to do it. It’s a bit different to everybody else and I think it’s something they should stick with.”

Despite criticism implying concepts such as attack mode and fanboost are merely gimmicks to divert from “real” racing, Priestley believes that they don’t necessarily take away the spectacle of racing.

“I think gimmicky doesn’t have to be that bad, lots of people, particularly from a motorsport background, will always look at Formula E and compare it generally to championships such as Formula One, but you have to come at this by not comparing it to those things.

“The racing, as a spectacle, is great and that’s partly to do with the attack mode, the circuit, the cars, drivers, whatever it might be. The whole mix come together to create something that’s definitely dramatic.”

“Because if you want loud, fast cars on more traditional race tracks, you’ve got that with Formula One, but if you want something completely different, then you watch Formula E. The racing, as a spectacle, is great and that’s partly to do with the attack mode, the circuit, the cars, drivers, whatever it might be. The whole mix come together to create something that’s definitely dramatic.

“I was commentating on the race on Saturday and at the very final lap of the race, it was so dramatic that I almost lost my voice. When (Antonio Felix) da Costa crossed the line, my heart was pounding and I can’t think of a Formula One race finish that’s been like that for years. If these gimmicks are what enable that to happen, then why not?”

As witnessed at the Ad Diriyah E-Prix, the unpredictability is exactly what makes Formula E fun to watch and but what was also unforeseeable were the number of teams that received  penalties based on technical infringements.

“This was almost exactly the same back in the beginning with the Gen1 cars. We know that the power levels are capped within the regulations, so qualifying is 250 kW and normal race mode is 200 kW, and then the teams will then set up their software to deliver,” he explains.

“And what you can’t do is set your maximum power setting in your own team software at 250 kW for qualifying, because every now and again you’ll hit a bump or something will happen and you will get a tiny spike in the software that might pop you over 251 kW and that’s an immediate penalty.

“So what the teams have to do is they have to set parameters within their software to account for the odd spike here and there. Of course they don’t want to drop that too low because you’re gonna suffer for most of the lap. So, the teams need to find a balance which is close to the limit, but far enough away to allow for any slight anomalies in the software and for slight spikes when you hit bumps and things like that.

“Unfortunately, in Saudi, we saw a number of teams that pushed that a bit too close to the limit and the spikes were partly because of things such as the slightly wet track where we saw a huge amount of wheel spin at times. Things like that could all play a part into these tiny spikes in the software. I suspect in the next round, the teams will lower that limit ever so slightly and we won’t see that again, I hope.”

Performance wise, Priestley believes there’s still plenty of scope for the performance order to change as the season rolls on. Although, he believes Techeetah has got the strongest pairing on the grid.

“I think Techeetah is the team that everybody needs to be worried about right now”

“I think Techeetah is the team that everybody needs to be worried about right now. They’ve clearly carried over from last year. I think the biggest strength they’ve got is two very quick drivers.

“If you saw in the BMW, of course da Costa is very experienced and had a great weekend but his teammate (Alexander Sims) really struggled and that was the case with quite a few of the teams, they didn’t get both drivers into the mix, but Techeetah was definitely one of those that have got two strong drivers and a strong package.

“When they won last year, they were a small team that took on all the manufacturers in this sport and won. A lot of that comes down to the operational procedures and then getting the best out of the results they had last year.

“If they can do that now with even greater resources, and if they can continue that way of working, they will be an absolute force. If they didn’t had that penalty, I would have expected both of those cars to walk away from that race.”

Meanwhile, the rookies didn’t fare too well during the weekend, while some showed good performance in qualifying, most of them struggled during the race.

“I think we saw that with (Felipe) Massa, (Stoffel) Vandoorne, (Gary) Paffett and Sims. These are people who we know are very quick racing drivers but still have a lot to learn when it comes to the intricacies of Formula E and that’s what I enjoy watching really, seeing how quickly they can adapt.”

Looking beyond the first race of the season, Priestley believes the series is going the right way in terms of managing its progress for the long run.

“What I love about it is there’s enough scope for every manufacturer to design and develop their own technology and that’s of course, far more relevant technology than anything we’re doing in Formula One.

“This technology can be directly transferred to the road cars for these manufacturers and that’s one of the reasons they’re involved.

“But even in doing all of that development, in giving the teams that amount of freedom to play with, they’ve still kept enough control of the performance difference between them all, which is not huge, and that makes the racing still great and I think they’ve found a really good balance with that.

“There’s lots of calls for Formula E to open up battery technology to the manufacturers, but I still think at the moment, I don’t think it’s right. Whilst I would like to see battery technology being pushed on a weekly basis, what it would do, it would open up the costs of entering this sport, which would become astronomical,” he adds.

“At the moment, Formula E has kept a very good and clever lid on that, they’ve kept total control over how the series grows and I think, from a technology perspective, they’re doing that in exactly the right way, right now by giving a little bit of freedom which entitles the engineering side when a manufacturer comes on board, but not too much that allows it to become an all-out arms race.

“I think as long as they keep doing that and not bow down to pressure from the manufacturers to change that over time, I think it’s got a really bright future ahead of it.”

Images courtesy of Marc Priestley

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.