Matters of Moment: September 2018

Congratulations to France. It is never easy to win a global competition, especially against better-fancied teams, but our Gallic cousins managed it last month.

I am talking of course about Jean-Éric Vergne becoming the 2017-2018 Formula E drivers’ champion. The Frenchman claimed his glory during the last meeting of the season in New York, on the same weekend that his compatriots were busy winning a little-known footballing competition in Moscow.

To those yet to be converted to Formula E, Vergne’s name may be familiar from his days in Formula 1 where he competed for Toro Rosso between 2012-2014. After losing his seat he moved from there to Andretti in the first season of FE in 2015, then on to DS Virgin before settling with his current team, Techeetah, in 2016. His victory means that FE has had four different champion drivers in as many seasons.

But that level of unpredictability is not all that separates FE from more traditional racing series, because Vergne’s win also came at the wheel of what is technically a privateer car – remember those? Techeetah is one of two teams with no manufacturer backing in the series (the other being Dragon Racing). Given that Formula E features some big-name factory teams including Audi (which won the title for manufacturers, which you can read more about on page 68 of this month’s magazine), Renault and Jaguar, that is no mean feat.

Techeetah’s achievement is a testament to how the rules of FE have helped create an environment where the sport can offer the sort of entertainment that fans want. Chief among these is a power cap. This means there is no need for teams to spend millions on development and levels the playing field during qualifying, by putting the onus on driver ability rather than engineering clout. It also enables relatively small teams like Techeetah to compete – and makes the racing much closer: the 2017-18 season had 12 races and five different winners. In fact, with three victories, Vergne was the only driver to win more than twice. Hardly the dominant Hamilton/Vettel F1 equation.

Of course, too much can be read into this and it is true that the series has a long way to go in terms of the visceral excitement that comes as standard with other forms of motor sport. But the idea of plucky privateer teams taking on established manufacturers and winning in a David against Goliath battle should be an intrinsic part of the modern motor racing landscape. FE seems to understand this.

The irony is that unlike WEC, for example, FE has been making headlines over recent months for the number of manufacturers it is attracting: Nissan, Porsche, BMW and Mercedes have all signed up for the series. Perhaps the real story is not the big teams, but the success of the existing, smaller ones.

A not entirely unrelated thought occurred to me at the unveiling of the 50-metre tall Porsche sculpture outside Goodwood House ahead of the 25th anniversary edition of the Festival of Speed. It is an enormous event and a huge draw for car fans, but the murmurings of dissent – claiming that size has diluted some of its original charm – have been growing in recent years.

I am unconvinced, but an antidote to big and brash can be found in the bucolic fields of Suffolk, where the Heveningham Hall Concours d’Élégance takes place.

Much like Goodwood, the event is set against a backdrop of stately splendour – in this case the magnificent Palladian-style Hall itself, reputed to be one of the finest houses in England. Over dinner, hosted by Lois Hunt, wife of estate owner Jon, the talk veered from pre-war Bugattis to paintings by Constable before settling on the subject of cars as pieces of art in their own right.

The view from the window over the terraced gardens on which more than 50 extraordinary cars – including Nick Mason’s 250 GTO, a C-type, a couple of Frazer Nashes and a Pagani Zonda – were perched, did nothing to challenge the conclusion, that yes, indeed they are. For the record, the judges awarded prizes to a 1939 Delage D8-120 Cabriolet, winner of the pre-war category, the aforementioned 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, in the post-war category and a 1987 Porsche 962 in the supercar category.

The Concours is allied to a traditional county fair – complete with shire horses and dog and duck displays – but it has petrol coursing through its veins with a hillclimb, classic car rally and air display all part of the mix.

But perhaps its greatest asset is its modest size (about 10,000 people visit over the weekend, all proceeds going to charity) and independence of spirit – qualities motor sport should continue to celebrate.