Alex Tai has flown jets in the Royal Air Force, worked on space travel, submarines and hot air balloons. So when he says that being team principal of the DS Virgin Racing in Formula E, the electric car racing series, is one of the “most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had”, you’re inclined to pay attention to the sport that rolls into town this weekend.
The last two races of Formula E’s sophomoric season take place in Battersea Park this weekend, and DS Virgin Racing will be flying the flag for Britain through former Mercedes Formula 1 reserve Sam Bird.
Bird, currently third in Formula E’s standings with DS Virgin Racing, will race a battery-powered car capable of reaching top speeds of 140mph through the 17 corner, 2.925km track on the banks of the Thames on Saturday and Sunday.
Despite Formula E cars not being able to match the speed of those in Formula 1, both Tai and Bird insist their pursuit for a repeat of last year’s victory in London will still provide high-octane thrills as the limitations on how teams are allow to modify their cars mean the drivers’ skills are more determinative of the final outcome.
“My firm view is that you must have the technical innovation, because that’s interesting,” Tai tells City A.M.
“But the level of difference should be three or four per cent in terms of the most difficult car to drive and the least. And then you’ll have strengths and weaknesses so those percentages, depending on the track, will fluctuate.
“But there always must be a bigger arbitrator in the capability of the driver, the driver’s got to make five per cent or more difference. Otherwise it stops being a sport, unless it’s down to them. What we see in other series like Formula One where there’s a very dominant supply of technology, it ruins the sport. I’d rather it was a race between 20 drivers, rather than two in the same team."
Bird, who has won two races so far, relishes the responsibility. “It’s nice to know that every weekend you could be competitive,” he says. “The differences in the cars are slightly smaller than in F1, there are differences in the cars that make some better than others, but the driver has more of an influence.”
“The car’s got to be difficult to drive,” adds Tai.
And it has been particularly tough for Bird this season with the DS Virgin Car proving to be overweight.
With car modifications restricted to the powertrain in Formula E’s second season, Tai, Bird and their team took the decision to run a dual electric motor, a decision which has slowed down Bird’s speed potential.
The one-time footballer on Wimbledon’s books has still notched three podium places as well as a win in Buenos Aires, but needs to replicate his home-town performance last time he came to London in order to match the two wins scored on his debut season.
“We have a very powerful system, a very economic system, but it’s overweight,” admits Tai.
“That doesn’t help with our dynamic; we qualify very well but it’s very different for us to hold that position because we use more energy during the race and therefore have less energy to go fast.”
Bird tells City A.M. “We’ve got a slightly heavy car this year which makes it difficult for energy consumption and drivability.
“You’ve got to carry that weight with you, it takes up more energy. A sprinter who’s carrying 20kg on his back is not going to beat Usain Bolt with nothing on his back.
“It is difficult and tough to manage compared to some of the other guys, but we’re not doing too bad a job.”
For Bird to turn that “not too bad” into a championship he needs to get pole position on both Saturday and Sunday, get fastest lap on both days and for both series leader Lucas Di Grassi and second placed Sebastien Buemi to score zero points.
In short, it’s probably not going to happen. But as Bird reminds us, strange things do happen in sport. After all, “Iceland beat England,” he says.
This weekend’s race could be in London for at least a year this weekend after Formula E agreed to look for alternative venues following heavy local opposition in Wandsworth to the noise caused by the race over the weekend.
A draft calendar for the 2016/17 season suggested Montreal and New York could host the final two races instead.
So even if Bird might not make up for the England football team’s humiliation with a victory this weekend, the 29-year-old encourages Londoners to check out the petrol fume-free event while they still can.
“If people were to come down they will have a fun-filled racing experience in the heart of London,” he says.
“With wheel-to-wheel racing, some of the best racing drivers in the world. And a completely clean racing series.”