He was "a bit of a skeptic,' but now convinced it has a future.
Formula E will contest its second race in the 2014-15 season next month in Malaysia. Following the initial contest at Beijing in September, there was much talk about the cars, the competition and the viability of the series that sees 20 drivers from 10 teams, each using two cars to complete a race through major city streets. The newness of the series has engendered plenty of fan discussion; I spoke with one participant to get his technical view of this latest addition to the motorsport landscape.
When I spoke with Roger Griffiths, he had just returned from Beijing and was filled with enthusiasm for Formula E. Griffiths, who previously worked at Honda Performance Development (HPD) as their technical director, was responsible for just about anything that happened on a racetrack in any series in which HPD competed. It was a difficult job, but Griffiths is a clever man and he was able to juggle the engineering aspect and the appeasement of customers with ease, it appeared.
This past spring, Roger Griffiths announced he was leaving HPD after working with the company in various capacities since 2003. Prior to that Griffiths had been with Aston Martin, Team Ascari (FIA sports cars), was project leader for Cosworth at Minardi Formula 1 and design/development engineer at Ray Mallock Ltd. In all, he’s been in the business of developing race cars and engines since April 1996 - a good amount of time!
'A skeptic' at first
Like many of us, Griffiths was “a little bit of a skeptic when I first heard about Formula E and even after joining Andretti Autosport” - he’s been with Michael Andretti’s growing empire since April of 2014. In his new role, Griffiths went to the very first Formula E test at Donington, England and discerned, “From the outside, when you look at the car it’s fairly conventional-looking as single seaters go.”
The SPARK chassis, designed in conjunction with Dallara features mechanical design by the Italian firm, while Hewland have provided the gearbox. Williams’ energy storage system and McLaren’s electric motor and power electronics are part of this program; Michelin provides tires. “So you have companies that are major players in Formula 1 and other aspects of motor racing putting their name to it,” he explained.
Car companies, as well have been important in the genesis of this formula. “Renault were really a consultant on the integration of all the systems together, so you’ve got some experts in the electric vehicle field that have put these cars together,” Griffiths told me.
What convinced him that Formula E had a future and was poised for success was the people that were involved in this new project. “You’ve got guys like, obviously, Michael Andretti that have stepped up, along with Alain Prost, Emerson Fittipaldi, Frank Williams - you’ve got guys with huge reputations and a lot of credibility within motor racing that have committed to this.” President of the FIA, Jean Todt was a pioneer in pushing electric racing, according to Griffiths. “He sees it as the future.”
Series is viable
Seeing these masters of the sport convinced this Brit that the series would be viable. For Roger Griffiths, that first moment in the Donington pit lane was exciting. “It was like being back in F1 in the late ‘90s and 2000s, before it got crazy and inaccessible. Just the atmosphere - and look up and down (pit lane) at the driver talent involved here - outside of F1 the talent pool is unbelievable.”
Griffiths has witnessed the immense interest - over scant months - in Formula E. “Top to bottom in Formula E is really tight,” he said. “You’ve got some really, really competitive drivers. There are some very young guys that are third drivers in F1 like we have with Charles Pic. You’ve got guys that are front-runners in GP2, some factory sports car drivers and you’ve got a smattering of Indy car drivers, too, that have come over as well” to be part of Formula E’s inaugural year.
Not that the work he was doing in INDYCAR, IMSA and other arenas in which Honda competes was getting disinteresting to him, but Griffiths believes the new technology, the high interest by major companies and the people involved in Formula E have made it an intriguing place to be.
Series mission is to try to get younger fans
“We can keep doing the same thing in motor racing,” he mused, “keep producing fairly conventional looking racing cars with internal combustion racing engines and keep fighting over the same small, dwindling group of fans. Unless somebody is brave enough to go out there and try something different, I don’t think they’re going to be able to re-engage the younger fan base like it was 20-30 years ago. To me,” Griffiths said, “that played a significant reason (to be part of it).”
He wears several hats with Andretti Autosport in Formula E (and in every other series in which AA competes). Originally his role as director of motorsport development was to look at the future of where Formula E is headed. In the second year of competition, the series will be opening the cars for development - at this time the teams greet their cars at the track, race them and they’re sealed until the next go-round - and for the first development year, the emphasis will be on power train.
The teams aren’t terribly worried about developing aerodynamics and suspension - that’s not what is unique about Formula E, he noted. “Formula E is about developing electric vehicles. It’s about the batteries, about the motor, about the power controllers, about the transmissions - all of those things that are unique to that kind of vehicle. I have a role there in creating the relationships with our technical partners, analyzing their offerings and deciding what is the best strategy going forward for Andretti Autosport in Formula E.”
With the challenges of getting Andretti’s pair of cars ready for the first races, dealing with the organization responsible for Formula E, Griffiths has taken on a team principal role, together with JF Thorman and that, for him, has truly been interesting. “I’m representing Andretti Autosport at the Formula E meetings with the FIA and other team principals. My technical background and my past life with Honda and other companies like Cosworth, gives me a unique technical perspective of what the series is trying to do. We’ve been trying to create a road map towards where we’re going in seasons two and beyond… “
The team atmosphere at Andretti Autosport is the same for the Formula E group as it is for the Indy cars, the Mazda Road to Indy, Global Rallycross and elsewhere. “We’re a competitive organization and we want to win races and championships. We also know it’s important that we create something sustainable that has a future, something viable for all of us. I want to create an environment [where] everybody can succeed from the technical aspect.”
To that effect, Griffiths is looking at all aspects of technical development. Shortly after the Beijing race, there was a meeting in the UK where the team principals discussed “everything from TV camera angles, pit lane speed limits, garage working hours, Paddock Club quality of food and beverages and air conditioning.”
While he doesn’t believe all of these issues can be addressed before Malaysia on November 22nd, “Say we’ve got 20 items on our list and we can make significant headway on a third of those, then before we go to Uruguay we can make progress on another third of those, by the time we get halfway through the season we should be in pretty decent shape,” he said. The point is that these team principals hope to fix operations within the series so that every one of them can be fixated on the research and development process for the following season.
Not much is “open” in the first year of Formula E competition but for the first development year, season 2, the teams can address the electric motors, the power electronics control of those motors, the gearbox, the control strategies that operate the motor and the power electronics. There are other bits and pieces but the group elected “to retain the basic Williams battery for year 2. We spoke to a number of other battery manufacturers and it became apparent it would take until season 3 to do anything significant as far as battery development goes. Really, you’re looking at an 18-month program [for development] and we’ve had nine months” thus far.
No reason to spend a fortune - yet
Rather than throwing money at development a la F1, the Team working group decided they’d be better off waiting until the third year of competition (development year 2) before introducing a new energy storage system. “We keep referring to it as a battery, but the way the rules are written, it’s an energy storage system so it could be a battery, a flywheel and it could be a hybrid of all of them… “
Team principals involved in Formula E have been talking about increasing motor output by additional kilowatts and then increasing energy storage capacity, but these ideas are dependent on how the group decides the direction for the series: do they want to run at a higher power level for longer (thereby quicker on the track) or run farther at the same performance level? Or will it be a combination of those two ideologies?
I’ve never heard a driver complain about having more power.
There are challenges. If the working group decides to show electric vehicles can be sporty - or sexy - they’ll need added performance, but the most important idea to embrace at this time is to show that electric vehicles can go the distance, getting rid of range anxiety. “Maybe we have to make a decision as to which one has the priority,” Griffiths mused. “I think one of the criticisms coming out of the Beijing race is that people would like to see some more performance from the cars and I’m sure the drivers would love to have a faster racing car - I’ve never heard a driver complain about having more power - so I think we have to look at ways to improve the cars’ pace.”
Beijing, the longest track on the schedule, highlighted the fact that these aren’t the fastest cars in the world. Malaysia’s street circuit, on the other hand, features a one-mile reduction in track length, so that will be quite a difference and speed might not be as much of an issue on a shorter racetrack, allowing the cars to run at a higher speed.
The Hewland gearbox presented no real problems in Beijing. A five-speed sequential gearbox (regulations allow up to six forward speeds) is standard issue for this year and, considering that most street-based electric vehicles generally don’t have this many gears (customarily a single gear) the Hewland is working well. There is a single set of ratios for the year but with the transmission being open for future development, a decision will need to be made as to exactly how many forward gears will be the right number.
“The regulations allow us to run up to two motors, so potentially, you can say I don’t need a gearbox at all; I just need some kind of way to get underway, so using a direct drive with some kind of differential, mechanical or electric, might be the way to go. You’re never going to precisely control both motors," he said. "We’ll see… “
Needs OEM support
Right now Formula E is looking to appeal more to the OEM manufacturers. Renault is a competitor and BMW provides the i8 safety vehicles. “They’ve obviously got some interest there. We know other OEMs are looking at it, playing the ‘wait and see’ game. They want to see what it’s going to be like and what’s in it for them,” Griffiths explained. “We’ve proven it’s going to happen because we’ve had race No. 1. I think everybody’s now trying to work out what’s in it for them, what’s the longevity of it and all the rest of the parameters that fit their needs.”
The excitement for Roger Griffiths is being on the ground floor of something new; he’s worked in established racing series all his life leading up to this point. He’s enjoying being with one of only five teams that are running their own cars in Formula E: the others being Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing, the Amlin Aguri, e.dams-Renault and Abt. Other Formula E teams have partnered with more established racing organizations to help them operate: Venturi, Virgin Racing, Trulli, Mahindra and Team China.
All the cars are kept at Formula E’s technology park at Donington and all the teams are based there. “We put the cars (in their car boxes) in the car-park, they ship them to the race and we don’t see those cars again until the next race.”
While the teams do build their own car once received from SPARK, once the season is underway they don’t see them until the Wednesday or Thursday of each race week. “You get all of Friday to prep the car, Saturday you race it and then Sunday you get about half a day to do what prep you can (for the following event). Then you have to tear down your garage and all your stuff gets packed and shipped - it’s very, very tight. You have to figure what changes you want to make for the next race and effect them afterwards before the car gets packed up, along with your garage.”
Griffiths likes the sound of the Formula E cars calling it “fantastic. I like the fact that I can have a conversation with somebody and hear it. I think it’s a cool sound, like the turbo cars at Indy in the ‘60s, like a jet fighter and it’s different. Standing on the pit wall at Donington you hear the gearshift - you can actually hear the air coming out of the air solenoid,” he exclaimed with a big smile. “And you can hear the difference when they’re running at race power as opposed to qualifying power - it sounds different.” For qualifying, power increases from 150kW to 200kW. “There’s no other series in the world that uses this kind of ‘qualifying engine’ these days,” he boasted.
“It’s something different and fun. It’s a completely different environment in the paddock and it’s very European. There were people on pre-grid with wine glasses (!) at Beijing and a lot of ‘beautiful people’ there.” He reckons that, with all grandstands sold out and general admission at the Olympic Park, all told attendance might have been somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 on-site.
Quite frankly, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Roger Griffiths so animated, so excited and so engaged when talking about a racing series. “This is cutting edge; this is the future. There’s so much to learn about with this different way of racing. We have, by no means, exhausted all the possibilities on how this works.”