Formula e interview with Chris Tate MD of Donington

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Nov 24, 2016

 

Cat Turnell speaks to the managing director of Donington Park, the world headquarters of Formula E slap bang in the middle of the English countryside.

Chris Tate has seen a number of changes over the three decades he’s been involved in motorsport. But the Managing Director of Donington Park, the new world headquarters of Formula E, currently has a ringside seat on the biggest shift in its history – the evolution from hydraulics to electrics.

As the boss of the legendary course in Leicestershire, there’s no disguising the excitement in his voice when he talks about the circuit’s new role as a technological nursery.

Donington as a track has eighty years of racing history under its belt and an international reputation in motor sport. 

But what good is its past, says Chris, if it can’t establish a future?

What will happen is all the barriers will be knocked over one by one.

His office is just a stone’s lob from the glass and chrome buildings where ten teams from England, France, Italy, Germany, Monaco, America, China and Japan will be perfecting their cars on the factory floor and then testing them minutes later on the circuit.

“I think it would be true to say with young Japanese engineers there is a sense of excitement at working at such a historic venue,” acknowledges Chris. “It’s very well having a distinguished past, we want to be building a future. Now, to pull this together – the partnership with FIA and the teams – that was a good moment,” he says.

The Spark-Renaults that will be rollicking around Donington’s two-mile circuit are much, much quieter than their Formula 1 counterparts, but no less exciting. With top speeds of around 140mph, they do kick out a fair amount of torque at high speed. And yet, they do so without the noise and the exhaust fumes of their hydraulic brethren.

“What’s important is to match the expectation of the audience,” believes Chris. “Motorsport has grappled in recent years with the fact that not everybody finds the noise, in particular, that acceptable, so I think that’s a change for the good.

“Another important thing is Formula E will also be racing in city centres and above all, it will be showcasing a fume-free future. If you look at the development of that – showing it to 200,000 people on the streets of Beijing, and in places like Jakarta and Indonesia where they don’t have the longevity or culture in motorsport, they’ll be looking at something new and different and shown in a different way.” 

“But will it be exciting?” Chris asks, prompting the next obvious question. “What will be exciting is to have street racing, which is not much seen in England. When I worked in American motor sports they permitted streets to be closed. The equivalent of Formula 1, IndyCar Racing, they had racing at Long Beach in California, Detroit, Miami, Toronto, Vancouver.

“But that’s never been the case in Britain. There’s a government consultation document to permit road closures for motor sporting activities on British roads. The government consultation will allow the London Formula E race to take place in June next year.”

Why Donington?

It was chosen for a number of reasons. One fact is the track closely resembles city centre roads, which makes it perfect for testing, allowing Formula E teams to roll from the factory to track in a matter of minutes. It’s also situated in the English Midlands, an area with a 48,000 strong engineering workforce and an established automotive and autosport industry. It’s also right next to East Midlands Airport and the hub for Formula E’s haulage contractor DHL. What’s more, the local councils acted quickly to raise the funding and secure the relevant permissions when it came to signing the deal to bring Formula E to England.

Ultimately, says Chris, there’s an established framework in place which will propel electric car innovation from the sidelines into the mainstream.

“To have that concentrated firepower, and all the best minds working on electric power put in one place with an established motor racing family, you’re going to move the whole ball game forward by 10, 15 years. 

“People from all corners of the globe are coming together with their technical expertise. Williams will be working on the battery, McLaren will be working on the power unit and the gearbox. Renault is a partner and so is the Italian chassis maker Dallara.

“I think the most significant factor of Formula E is the traditional role of motorsport in the automotive industry. The development of new technology starts with motorsport, from brake disc development to safety. The power of change comes from the autosport industry and there are a lot of eyes on what we’re doing.”

Where do you expect to see Formula in five years’ time?

“I would expect it to be well established and what our governing body FIA expects to see happening is those major global automotive manufacturers will have in motion some or all of Formula E advancements in the next stage of development.”

Ultimately, Formula E will be the tail wagging the dog of electric car development. 

“That’s where the innovation and excitement lies,” smiles Chris, “and what will happen is all the barriers will be knocked over one by one.” 

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