When CAR went karting with Nelson Piquet Jr

Published: 01 July 2016

► Electric karting with NextEV Formula E team
► Nelson Piquet Jr and Oliver Turvey race with us
► 2015/16 Formula E championship concludes in London

This weekend on 2/3 July, the 2015/16 FIA Formula E championship culminates in a championship-deciding double-header round at London’s Battersea Park.

When Formula E team NextEV invited CAR to go karting ahead of the weekend with its drivers, reigning FE champion Nelson Piquet Jr and Britain’s Oliver Turvey, who were we to turn them down?

NextEV karting

Our bends electric

Fittingly enough, the event took place in electric karts, at an indoor circuit near Tower Bridge. The advantages of electric power for indoor karting is instantly obvious – there’s no need for deafening music to cover the clattery lawnmower engines that drive most conventional rental karts, no fumes to breath in, and track staff don’t have to wrestle with fuel cans or gas tanks. Instead, they simply plug a lead in when the karts return to the pitlane to juice up their sidepod-mounted batteries.

Does electric power make equally good sense for a global single seater championship? Formula E has had an embattled beginning, with as many financial hurdles to overcome as sceptical snipes from racing purists, but with an expanded calendar for its third season about to be announced, it’s made it far beyond the flash-in-the-pan stage.

Major sponsors include Renault, Citroen and VW/Audi, and next season Jaguar will field an official team. The series’ social media promotion strategies are designed to resonate with a younger audience, and it continually attracts column inches outside of the usual hardcore motorsport circles. Whether it can continue to do so as the novelty factor begins to wane is one of the many challenges facing its organisers.

NextEV Formula E

NextEV: an electric car technology start-up

For NextEV, a Chinese-backed technology start-up with offices around the world, Formula E makes perfect sense as a brand awareness launchpad for the launch of its upcoming NEV (New Electric Vehicle) production car.

In the meantime, it’s suffered a tough season in Formula E this year, a stark contrast to backing the winning team in the series’ inaugural season. ‘This season has been screwed up. I just want to get it behind me as quickly as possible, so we can get back to winning,’ says Piquet Jr. ‘That’s what I enjoy and why I race. We got the budget very late, the car’s powertrain was a step back from last year’s, I think we underestimated the other teams.’

NextEV co-president (and ex-pro karter) Dr. Martin Leach talks equally frankly about a car that’s suffered from a compromised design from the outset, but the funding’s in place for next season and testing’s already underway with the new car. Oliver Turvey has just flown in from testing it in Spain, in fact – hot-footing it back to sit in an indoor karting circuit’s briefing room with the team’s various guests and competition winners (and tag-along journos like us).

Start your… motors? batteries?

Watching two professional racing drivers sit through a briefing video designed for stag dos and birthday party-goers is an amusing tableau. (Sample quote: ‘the right pedal makes the kart go, the left makes it stop…’). Nelson in particular looks bored to the point of self-implosion. After all, he’s raced everything from F1 to Global Rallycross, via NASCAR and Le Mans. ‘Racing’s racing, it’s all good,’ he shrugs. ‘I just enjoy pure driving.’

There’ll be a practice session, the circuit manager explains, followed by qualifying and an eight-minute race. If you’ll forgive me a gloating moment, I manage to bag pole position in qualifying with a laptime quicker than both NextEV drivers recorded in the earlier practice session. I’d like to think they were pushing properly in that session, although I suspect not… We’ve no way of knowing how fast the drivers could have been in qualifying because, in a twist, NextEV decrees Turvey’s qualifying time will determine Piquet’s grid position, and vice versa. Racing drivers being the competitive creatures they are, each of them crawl around the circuit to record the slowest qualifying time possible, forcing the other to start from the back of the grid. And with overtaking at this narrow, two-tier indoor circuit about as difficult as at Formula E’s Battersea Park road circuit, they’ll have their work cut out.

That means I start the race from the front of the grid in my group, with Nelson at the back. The Biz electric karts aren’t as fast as their combustion-engined counterparts, with a rather sedate top speed, although they could no doubt turn the pace up a little bit at the expense of the batteries. The throttle [sic] is difficult to modulate compared with a petrol kart too, the power coming in all-or-nothing bursts, but otherwise they’re similarly fun to drive. Other than the squeal of tyres, the silence is rather eerie – you can hear the crackle of the marshal’s radios, and even other drivers’ voices as they drive. And when a driver crashes, the noise, unmasked by the din of engines, is quite alarming.

Ready for a well-worn racing driver’s excuse? The kart I race with doesn’t have the top speed of the one I qualified with and laps around a second slower, so third place is the best I can salvage at race’s end. Then again, maybe I had a quick kart in quali, so swings and (electric) roundabouts. Nelson finishes fifth from the back of the grid – impressive work on a tricky circuit to overtake cleanly on.

He’s got it all to do again this weekend, and both NextEV and Formula E will have to complete many similarly challenging manoeuvres to race ahead in the future. But busy, exciting times lie ahead for both.

CAR column: Formula E – is it any good?

Nelson Piquet Jr

Q&A: Nelson Piquet Jr

How old were you when you started karting?
‘I was eight years old.’

Do you still race karts today?
‘If I could go karting every day, I would, but I don’t have a kart track in my back yard.’

Are there many parallels between racing karts and cars? Can you use karting as training?
‘Karts and cars are two different things. Karting is good for training concentration, and the physical side maybe, but they’re quite different.’

Will you be racing in Formula E for the foreseeable future?
‘I’ll go where there’s racing, where the contracts are, where there are chances to win. For now I’m in Formula E for the long term.’

Oliver Turvey

Q&A: Oliver Turvey

How old were you when you started karting?
‘I began karting at my local circuit, Rowrah in the Lake District aged eight. It began as a hobby with my dad, then we progressed to win national championships, always racing on a tight budget. I have really good memories of karting; you learn so much about life, it’s a great thing for any kid to do.’

Do you still race karts today?
‘I don’t drive karts so often now, mainly because I’m so busy – I just don’t have so much time to do it now. But I always enjoy it every time I get back into a kart.’

Are there many parallels between racing karts and cars? Can you use karting as training?
‘The transition from karts to cars is different. With a car you have suspension, four-wheel braking, cars feel very different so the driving style is very different.’

How does racing in Formula E compare with other championships you’ve raced in?
‘I like the fact that it’s a global championship – I always dreamed of being a world champion when I was growing up karting. The cars do feel quick, especially when the power’s wound up for qualifying, and the road tyres they race on are impressive, with good grip even in the wet. This has been my first full season in Formula E. It’s been tough but I’m satisfied with my performance against Nelson as the current champion. NextEV are putting in lots of effort for next season.’

By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, occasional racer