Sunday, Dec 17 07:07pm
AUTHOR: Matthew Hansen, Driven.co.nz

Mitch Evans reflects on Formula E haters, GP2 horrors, and the future

New Zealand's first driver in the FIA Formula E series, Mitch Evans, has returned to New Zealand during the brief Christmas break between rounds one and two of the 2017–’18 series. 


The former Toyota Racing Series and GP3 Series champion sits in sixth position overall, after showcasing impressive speed at the series-opening Hong Kong event — underlined by claiming the team's first podium finish in the second race. 


Earlier this week, velocitynews.co.nz and Driven.co.nz writer Matthew Hansen caught up with the 23-year-old to quiz him on his first season, the disastrous final season in the GP2 Series, and his thoughts on Formula E's critics. 


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MH: So, last season was the debut for both yourself and Jaguar Panasonic Racing in the FIA Formula E series. How much of that season was about learning? 


ME: We knew early on last year that we had a powertrain that was not competitive enough to be battling for top positions, so we used it as a learning year to make sure as a team that we were operating well.


It was a brand new team, and also I was a rookie and had to learn all the circuits. So we just had to get everything around everything we could control; whether it was software, operation in the team, that we could become really slick. And once we know we would be in a better position we would be in a very good position.


It was great to learn all the circuits. It’s a different style of racing, different format — the one-day format is quite different. It was good to go through that process.


It was painful at times, really painful. I think we all suffered a little bit with that. But we always had the bigger picture in mind; that come the next season we should be in a better position.


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Was it a big change to move from the aero-heavy cars in GP2 [now known as F2] to the less dependent Formula E cars? 


It was a bit different. I was used to that big high grip, high downforce, huge power in GP2. Which I love; I just love being on the edge with that sort of machinery. It’s putting your body through its limits, and physics to its limits. It was amazing to experience that.


It’s a lot different, but also just as challenging. Probably more challenging than anything I’ve ever experienced before. Physically it’s not as demanding, the car, as what we’d experienced in GP2 and GP3. But technically it’s a different world. It’s very complex the cars, the braking system requires a very different technique, and the car is on edge all the time.


If you watch the practice sessions people make, which will look to Joe public like very amateur mistakes … it’s because the car is so hard to drive.


There’s different challenges, but there’s still an enjoyment factor to driving the car. It’s very rewarding, it’s very competitive; it’s probably the most competitive championship I’ve ever raced in. Even though it’s a different type of challenge it’s still very enjoyable.


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Where does Panasonic Jaguar Racing rank against other teams you've driven for in the past?


It’s more of an F1 mentality in Formula E. A lot of bigger operations, bigger budgets. In GP2 they’re running off budgets around 3 million Euro, whereas most Formula E teams will be north of 30–40  million Euro. It’s different, it’s definitely got the F1 approach. If you came to a race you’d see a lot of things are similar between the two championships.


Where our operation is run by Williams F1, so it’s got that Formula 1 feel anyway. It’s probably the most professional team I’ve ever competed for and with. And that’s just because of budget reasons and being on a different level than all the teams I’ve raced for — all junior-formula teams.


Obviously I’ve done a test with Porsche in LMP1, which was very impressive. It’s a very similar sort of feel to that.


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Was it a relief to show the pace you did at round one of the 2017–’18 series in Hong Kong? 


I knew we were going to be quick, but I wasn’t sure exactly how quick because everyone’s evolved or brought new power trains for this year. We’ve probably made the biggest jump of all the competitors because we were just so far behind last season. Pre-season testing was showing good signs, but in any form of motorsport where you’ve got big development you don’t know exactly where you’re going to stack up.


Early stages of practice seemed positive over one lap. I topped practice two on day one, and should’ve been in superpole but we had a timing error in first qualifying. And obviously to bounce back the next day and still be fastest in provisional qualifying group and then got second before I had an issue with the power spiking over 200kW. I was disqualified from that, but it wasn’t anything performance enhancing, because it was a spike for a tenth of a second, but that was that.


Every time I’ve hooked up a lap together, I was always either first or second in Hong Kong, which is really encouraging to hear and to feel. And the car is feeling very good over a lap, but we should work a bit on our race speed. We seem to be one of the benchmarks over one lap, but we can’t seem to translate it over the course of a race distance. That’s what we’re mainly focusing on now.


It’s a huge relief. We’re born to be competitive and last year was painful for us, but you have to keep composed and look at the bigger picture. And now that that’s finally upon us it’s a nice feeling.


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The series has obviously attracted its share of critics, many of whom are deeply ingrained in their view. Do you think there's a way to sway those people? 


When it was first created, I didn’t know what to think. A lot of good friends of mine raced in the championship, guys that I rated highly, so I followed it. Once I got involved with Jaguar and got the seat, I really realized how much that this is the future.


The whole automotive industry is changing, whether we like it or not, we’re going electric. Obviously hybrids have been around for a while, full battery powered cars are coming in.


F1 used to be that testing bed for the automotive industry, but now they’re just so far in their own little world with the hybrids that they’ve got now. They’re not even close to any relevance in the car industry. Now Formula E is that testing bed for manufacturers, that’s why you see all these big manufacturers coming in, and this is so important.


I honestly think that if you’re a true motorsport fan, and you appreciate good racing, great talent, great brands in the sport — despite the technology … I don’t know why people have this narrow mindset of being against Formula E just because it’s electric. I know people want sounds and big V8s, but those days are over. Look at the Supercars, they’re going to V6s next year. Those days are unfortunately over.


People that are maybe a little more ignorant might be against it, but I just don’t see why. If you look at the bigger picture and where the world’s heading, it’s a no brainer to start supporting it.


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Whether it’s through driver, or brand, or through the championship itself and the technology. Obviously it’s going to be tough to target a different market now, but also I think if you’re a real motorsport fan as I was. It’s still motorsport, it’s still great racing. I think it’s better racing than most of the championships in the world to be honest.


Obviously I’m involved in it so I know it first hand, but I struggle with people that are so heavily against it. I think people are just a bit too proud to put their hand up and say ‘you know what, the world is changing. Let’s watch it’.


Obviously everyone’s got their own opinion on it, and now with Porsche and Mercedes, all these big OEM brands coming into the championship, it’s going to be the first time for all these brands to compete against each other and people are starting to see how serious this championship can be. And I think Formula E realizes that. All the drivers love the championship, we all enjoy it. I was a bit not sure when I first signed up last year, but I loved it. I was so F1 focused, but things weren’t really going to plan.


Now I’ve had this boost in my career again and that’s been good for me personally, but I think there’s a lot of things to be excited about with the championship, and I don’t see why people — even if they’re not completely for it — are so against it. But some people are very supportive; they’re the ones that realise where everything is heading.


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In hindsight, given your latter seasons in GP2 and how they went, do you wish you could've made the category switch sooner? 


To be honest I didn’t really have an opportunity to get into Formula E any sooner. My last year in GP2 with Campos, I thought I was going to be in a position to be fighting for the championship. I was quickest in end-of-season testing with them.


I’ve never been in a position with GP2 to go to the teams I ultimately wanted to go with because I didn’t have the budget. Russian Time, both years I didn’t pay a cent to race with them, and they funded my career which I’m very fortunate about. Same with Campos.


I would loved to have gone with Prema or ART and been in a position like Vandoorne or Gasly, all these guys that I know I can beat. But they’re all on a different planet in terms of their resources and engineering team. I have a lot of respect for those involved in GP2, but there’s a lot of difference between all the teams. Even though all the cars are the same, there’s a big difference.


When the car was in a position of winning, I was always able to extract a lot from that. And that was evident at Russian Time, so I was expecting to be battling at the front with Campos. But for some reason it was one of the worst years of my life. I don’t know why, and the team are still struggling now. We ended 2015 testing as quickest, then went to 2016 and it was like everything fell apart. It was really bizarre and something that’ll confuse me for the rest of my life; why I was so bad.


I kept a lot of belief in myself, I knew it wasn’t me creating the performance drop. Even though last year in Jaguar was bad, I had a lot of positive things to be happy about, and now hopefully this year I’m in a position where I can compete in the front and show my worth again. It never disappeared, but in motorsport you just need to be in the right position with the right car to show what you can do.


I’m super excited for this year, and I hope I can prove what I’m really capable of doing. That’s a big focus for me because I feel I deserve to be in F1. But that just didn’t come about because of timing and politics.


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A lot of people are seeing Formula E as being a potential rival to Formula 1. Do you see that happening, and can the two co-exist? 


I think having the same owners, I don’t see them as being rivals to each other. I think they’ve both got different goals as championships. I don’t think Formula E will ever be on the same level as Formula 1. It’s got so much history and heritage F1, it’s been going on for so many years. Formula 1 is amazing. It’s the pinnacle of motorsport, and ultimate performance.


But that’s not what Formula E is about. Formula E is about that technology transfer to the automotive industry, and racing in these iconic cities. Being the premier category for that, and for battery electric technology.


I can’t see the owners putting themselves in a position where they have to choose one or make them compete against each other, but nobody really knows. No one knows how big Formula E can get, how big it will get, but all we know is that it should be in a strong position and only get stronger in the next decade while the world changes.‚Äč


Photos: Panasonic Jaguar Racing, Matthew Hansen [lead]