Matters of moment, February 2016

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Jaguar is back in motor sport, just as it should be. But it’s not returning to Le Mans with a new prototype or GTE, it’s not joining Bentley and the rest in GT3 – and it’s certainly not going anywhere near F1 again. Instead, its destination is Formula E, the all-electric single-seater series that unapologetically offers an alternative form of quiet racing to the cities of the world. The decision is a clear sign of the times.

The new team will be created in partnership with Williams Advanced Engineering, with whom Jaguar previously built its C-X75 hybrid supercar and the company behind Formula E’s battery packs. It will join the championship for its third season, which begins in the autumn of 2016.

“Electric vehicles will absolutely play a role in Jaguar Land Rover’s future product portfolio and Formula E will give us a unique opportunity to further our development of electrification technologies,” said Nick Rogers, group engineering director for JLR. “It is my belief that over the next five years we will see more changes in the automotive world than in the last three decades. The future is about being more connected and more sustainable; electrification and lightweight technologies are becoming more important than ever as urbanisation continues to increase. Formula E has recognised and reacted to those trends and the championship’s exciting and pioneering approach is the perfect fit for our brand.”

Jaguar joins Renault, Audi, Citroën (through its DS brand) and Mahindra (as well as EV specialist Venturi) as a manufacturer in a formula that is not only ‘on message’ but affordable too. Elsewhere in this issue, we report that Porsche has confirmed it will put its Mission E electric concept into production. Whatever you might think of Formula E, Alejandro Agag and his team are clearly on to something.

***

There was always an agenda behind the Statler and Waldorf act I wrote about in the December issue – of course there was – and in the past month the purpose of Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone’s odd joint interview for German TV has become clear. Jean Todt is no friend to this pair, but between them and in the wake of F1’s recent engine supply crisis they have energised the current FIA president into extraordinary action. Now Todt and Ecclestone, surely in uneasy alliance, are poised to attempt a power-grab from the manufacturers who control F1.

Back in the summer of 2014, we interviewed Todt in his Paris office and were somewhat frustrated by his laissez-faire approach to the governance of F1. “Why should the governing body be responsible for those who compete?” he said. “In a way I’m happy to co-ordinate as much as possible, have as much dialogue as possible. But if most of them don’t want that… We are the legislator and regulator. If the actors are happy about the situation, it’s their money.”

But things have changed. A champion of F1’s hybrid formula, Todt has nevertheless felt compelled – with some encouragement – to push forward a cheaper alternative power source for independent teams. When, under the auspices of the F1 Commission, the manufacturers rejected his engine proposal, the FIA World Motor Sport Council responded with the remarkable announcement that it was empowering Todt and Ecclestone to over-rule them. Nothing laissez-faire about that.

The first key date is January 15, by which time the FIA has challenged the manufacturers to offer their own ‘cheap’ hybrid proposal in the interests of a more sustainable F1. The second key date is January 31, when Todt and Ecclestone will apparently answer any forthcoming proposition and reveal more about what they plan to do with this mandate for change. 

How will the manufacturers react to these new strong-arm tactics? Sergio Marchionne has already shown in his time at the helm of Fiat and Ferrari that he’s hardly the type to roll over in the face of a challenge. Will the manufacturers break their normal pattern of behaviour and agree on a coherent strategy to fully answer the challenge? Is the World Council’s empowerment of Todt and Ecclestone even legal given the complicated contractual structure that binds the manufacturers into F1’s governance? The next month will be fascinating, probably volatile and potentially crucial to the future of Grand Prix racing.

***

“I’d like him to join me in Jersey for a week so I can put him straight,” said president Derek Warwick as he concluded his stinging criticism of Britain’s first back-to-back F1 world champion at the British Racing Drivers’ Club awards lunch in early December. The response was a resounding round of applause. Somewhere in the United States, Lewis Hamilton’s diamond-studded ears were burning.

The 30-year-old had attended the FIA prize giving in Paris the previous Friday to receive his world title trophy, but unlike last year didn’t hang around in Europe for the Autosport Awards or the following BRDC function to receive the plaudits of ‘his own’. To be fair, he did have a date to keep with Barack Obama – but it’s been clear for a while now that Hamilton feels little affinity for the racing community within which he grew up and has no urge to give something back to the sport that led him to such a privileged life. What a shame.

But is it entirely surprising? He will be more than aware that among the wider public he remains a divisive figure – but also how in motor racing circles he is largely unpopular. While the brilliance of his performances on track continues to be acknowledged, there always seems to be a ‘but’ – and his increasingly expressive fashion sense has become a regular point of ridicule, as it was at the BRDC. Why would he want to be among people who apparently won’t accept that his tastes don’t fit the template? We complain when racing drivers appear to be smothered by PR and restricted by corporate straitjackets – but when one steps out and dares to be his own man, he’s mocked. Why?

Paddy Lowe has a better perspective than most as Hamilton’s technical director at Mercedes. As we’ve reported before, Lowe is full of admiration for the champ as both a man and a driver – although admittedly even his patience has been tested of late. Hamilton is hardly faultless in how he is perceived.

Back in his Williams days, Lowe used to write software for the team’s famously successful active suspension systems, describing the process as “like tying the ends of spaghetti together”. Being an engineer, he derived huge satisfaction from such detailed work, even if shutting off the grey matter at the end of long days could be almost impossible. Now, as the man responsible for running more sophisticated racing cars, he finds the switch-off button much more easily. Why? Because a large part of his responsibility is dealing with the irritating puzzle that is the relationship between Hamilton and team-mate Nico Rosberg. Much less logical than electronic spaghetti!

At the BRDC awards, Paddy admitted his team at times struggled to derive as much joy as it should have done from its 2015 success. As Toto Wolff’s recent public warning suggested, the drivers need their heads knocking together.