Coming weekend, history will be made. For the first time, Grand Prix racing will welcome vehicles not powered by internal combustion engines, as the MotoE series makes its debut at the Sachsenring. It is the very first step on the long path toward a future where batteries replace burning hydrocarbons.
But the series got off to a rocky start, even before the first race. At the second test of the electric bike racing series, a fire started in the special tent containing all of the bikes, batteries, and chargers, destroying everything and wiping out the entire series in one fell swoop.
Since March, Nicolas Goubert, director of the MotoE series for Dorna, Energica, who build the spec electric bikes to be raced in the series, and Enel, who supply the charging technology to maintain the bikes, have worked at double speed to rebuild everything needed for the series, and get it ready for the inaugural race at the Sachsenring.
In Le Mans, I spoke at length to Goubert about the progress made in preparing the series, the challenges they had faced, and the lessons learned from the fire in Jerez. The fire highlighted some of the difficulties of an electric bike series, but just staging the series raises logistical and technical issues which nobody had foreseen.
Here is part 2 of the interview. If you want to read part 1, catch it here.
Q: Any logistics things that you haven’t thought of? Apart from the power supply in the charger, which you already said.
Nicolas Goubert: Yeah. We will be in charge of all the logistics. We’re trying to make the series as easy as possible for them. So basically it will be plug and play for them. They will arrive - when I say “they,” the teams. They will arrive with the crew.
Q: They turn up, set the bike up, the rider gets on the bike and rides, and that’s it?
NG: Yeah. They will sit down in a box which will be ready. They will have to bring their rider and their crew. Easy job. We want to do that. We want to make it easy for them. So of course on the other hand, it will be kind of difficult for us. We need to get organized, and I think we will be. Now making easy for them to pack all their things, to pack the wheels, pack toolboxes, pack a big structure. That’s a lot of work for an organization. And to get people to know exactly who will be doing what.
Q: Do you also need specialist skills, because there will be lots of mechanics and lots of other people, just on the logistics side people helping move bikes around, move all the charging equipment around? You don’t specific specialists for that?
NG: No. During the events, test or races, we’ll have at least six Energica people working with the teams, being in charge of making sure that the bikes work properly and assisting the teams to do some mechanics if needed, especially when it will be linked with the electrical issues. There will be as well Enel people in charge of the electricity supply.
One measure we have taken after the fire, I told you that we had planned to have a fire engine at the races. Of course we will have it now at the test as well, but we will make sure it will be the same people. What we found out is that you don’t have many people with the knowledge of taking care of a fire of lithium iron batteries. We don’t want, even professional, I would say, fire brigade people - we don’t want them to be surprised in any way.
Q: I suppose again this is the sort of knowledge by following an electric racing series around where things happen. It’s also a useful training tool for fire crews. Everyone gets more experience. You can’t go around asking people to crash.
NG: It’s a new technology for everyone. People are starting to get involved, and when I say people, fire brigades. There will be a two-day course given in Aragon somewhere for proficient firemen for new car technology, hybrids, electric vehicles and so on. So it’s starting here and there, but it’s only the beginning. We have to be ready. Maybe it will never serve any purpose, because it’s unlikely that it catches fire again but you never know.
Q: What do you think is going to be the biggest surprise for fans?
NG: The sound.
Q: In what way?
NG: Because it’s going to be very, very different. Very different. For me, that biggest question mark, the reaction of the public to the sound. I’m convinced that the race will be fun to watch. We have equal bikes. We have some famous names. We have ten different nationalities. So we have everything to get people involved during the races. The fact that it will be short races for me is not such a big deal, because you remember when we had the races, the first riders used to raise their hands to say, “It’s raining, guys. We have to stop that race.” Quite often the second race was really short. And it was great racing. So I’m quite confident on that.
Q: A bit like the sprint race in world superbikes now?
NG: Exactly. We will have between seven, eight, nine laps. So maybe six in Austria. We’ll see. Anyway, short races. Very intense. I’m quite confident. But the sound will be very different.
Q: For me, the biggest surprise was actually the sound of the bikes going over the kerbs, because it’s a noise you never, ever hear. Then you realize, wow, that’s awful. You can really hear the vibration, and it’s not something you experience unless you ride.
NG: You can hear the slider, which is good. So I think on TV if we manage to put the microphone in the right place on the bike, that’s going to be tricky. It’s not easy. If we manage to make a good job on TV, I’m not too worried. Anyway on TV you never hear the real sound. But for people at the track I’m a little bit, it’s a big question mark. For sure some people will say, “Hey, it does not make enough noise.” Some people will like it because it’s so different. It’s very futuristic, in a way.
Q: Anyone who’s been to a Star Wars film will say, “Oh, wow, a TIE fighter.”
Q: The most demanding track is Austria, presumably?
NG: For energy consumption, yes.
Q: Are there other things, other tracks which are more demanding in other areas? Energy consumption is surely the most…
NG: It is. It’s most demanding for braking areas as well, for the brakes. That’s Austria. I would say that Sachsenring is the most demanding for agility. I remember one year, I think it was when Olivier Jacque was world champion in 250. He would have qualified first row in the 500.
Q: But for energy consumption it’s definitely Austria just because of speed?
NG: Because of the average speed. Very, very high. But we should be fast. We should be there, at least competing with the Moto3. Maybe a little bit faster.
Q: Do you have a plan for the future? First of all, we need to get the first season done, I think. Then after that, there’s a plan for progress because you’ll want to go faster.
NG: Yes. Actually what happened, of course we’ll have a little bit of consequences. That’s a plan we should have been talking about right now. I have refrained myself from pushing that on top of what I have to do. I would be doing now.
Q: So really one of the big losses from the fire is the plan for next year? Is it worse off?
NG: It will depend. I’m sure once we have started, I don’t want to pull away now. After the first race…
Q: Then you can start thinking about improvements.
NG: Yes. Then you have different kind of improvements, because you have improvements that you can implement very quickly. You have other kinds of improvements which need a year and a half or two years of planning.
Q: You’re also dependent on how fast battery technology goes, because that can be very slow or very fast and very, very unpredictable.
NG: But that kind of thing I don’t see us using new battery technology the following the season. It’s nothing on the market. Not heard about any big gap. If you look at Formula E, they are having now the technology we have. Same energy per kilo, energy density. Before that, they were with the older technology. They’ve just made a change a few months ago. It means that the next step is not ready yet. So on that I don’t expect big changes the following season.
For me, the objective of this coming season, 2019 is ready to prove that we can do a good show, fun races, with electric technology. For next year what we want to do is to have more races. It’s not such a big deal even if the bike is very similar. They will be very similar to the bikes now. Not such a big deal. We will see for the third year what we can - I’m not saying either that it will be exactly the same one, but you will not see us gaining five seconds, not in more laps. If I look at what FormulaE did, basically for the first three years, three seasons - the big gap was they made was from last season to this one, from season four to season five. But in the first three, it was very stable.
Q: Basically you’re setting a baseline, and then from the baseline once you have a good baseline then you can start to…
NG: Yeah. We have everything to prove. We should learn to how to walk before we can run.
Q: You’ve mentioned Formula E a lot. Is there any formal collaboration, or is it more just informal?
NG: No. But I talk to the people there because I was involved with the series.
Q: Does that help?
NG: Yeah, because I was involved for four years with them before I left. It’s as well for me, it has been a success. On one side I’m quite impressed with the job they have done to be able to attract so many car makers. That gives me confidence because the work they’ve been doing to try to spread the word that electric technology was ready is going to help us. But there’s no direct collaboration with them.
Q: Do you phone people up and say, if you have an idea or a thought or a problem? Or do you run into them sometimes and just have a chat?
NG: It happened the other way as well after the fire. I got a call from one of my friends at the FIA in charge of that thing, and he said, “Hey, do you know exactly what happened? What do we have to change for it not to happen to us?” So if I need advice or they need advice… I know people.
Q: It seems to make sense that you pool that sort of knowledge?
NG: We have Enel people, we have some people as well involved in both. Enel is one of them. So Enel, they invited me to go to Paris. I was coming back from Spain and I stopped half a day on Friday in Paris. They wanted to show me how they were organized. It was a nice day in Paris. I met a few friends. I was, as I said, quite impressed to see that involvement of the car makers, of the brands.
Q: It will also be a good opportunity when you have the Formula E races here or the MotoE races here, to invite those sort of people into the paddock to see the races. Good networking.
NG: Yeah. I’m sure they will be looking at what we are doing for sure. Now for the bike makers, for me it’s always the same. When there is a new technology, bike makers are behind car makers, because you have to have the resources to invest and so on.
Basically now they are working on electric bikes. You’ve seen that Harley-Davidson have launched something. The Japanese have said officially that they were working on electric bikes. But they started maybe five years after what they did in cars. I’m sure that Honda started on electric cars a lot earlier than what they did on the bike, because technology investment, and because as well, the product itself, it’s more difficult in a way to adapt technology to a bike, where the weight is so important.
Weight-wise, size-wise they had to wait until technology had evolved to be able to think about putting it on the bike. They’ve been in trial, for example. They’ve been working for a long time on that. I’ve never seen one in reality, but now the level is very competitive.
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