► Porsche’s Formula E duo hit the kart track
► Why karting helps with race-craft
► Could Formula E move away from street circuits?
I’m livid. António Félix da Costa has just spun in front of me on my hot lap and cost me at least half a second. And now he’s beaten my best time, by two tenths of a second. I’m getting shades of Schumacher at Monaco. It may only be an arrive and drive karting session but the competitive spirit is alive and well.
We’re at Capital Karts in Canary Wharf and Porsche’s works Formula E team drivers have joined me for a chat and a spot of ‘friendly’ karting. Naturally, the karts in question aren’t your average arrive and drive bangers with a 4-stroke lawnmower engine, instead they’re 45mph all-electric rocket ships.
They should also be good practice for the final two rounds of the 2023 Formula E season held at London ExCel. Utilising the space formerly taken by the Nightingale Hospital, the circuit runs through the covered ExCel space and also dips outside, running past the Prince Regent Station and Royal Victoria Docks. It’s a tight and twisty course with two challenging switchbacks and one that shares a passing resemblance to the 800m Capital Karts circuit.
Karting over – and me still smarting at the treachery of Senhor Felix da Costa – I sat down with the 2019 champion and teammate Pascal Wehrlein to discuss all things karting, Formula E and what cars they both drive on the road.
JD: How similar does the electric karting feel to the petrol karting you did when you were kids?
PW: I started in indoor karting when I was eight, and I think it (the electric kart) just has a lot of power initially. So I feel like probably the top speed in the rental karts, like normal petrol, were maybe a bit faster top speed wise. But the acceleration in this one, you could never wheelspin the karts, and here you can.
AFDC: I only tried indoor karting one other time, and that was with a normal combustion engine, and it was a little bit different.
JD: Does karting help with race craft?
PW: I think everything, what we learned, how to drive, it started in karting, so it’s a school of later. So how to act when you’re fighting with someone, how to overtake, which lines to use. You train that in karting when you are young between 8 and 14. That’s usually the age of when you do the karting. In the end, it’s still very different to a racing car, but the basic school is karting.
AFDC: Racing is racing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a go kart or Formula E car or Formula 1 car. Racing is racing. As Pascal said, all the basics you learn are from go karts.
JD: What’s the difference between petrol and electric racing cars?
AFDC: For me, I think if we talk about efficiency and even just power delivery controllability. The electric engines or electric powertrains are by far better now than any combustion engine you can find. Obviously, in combustion you need gears. You need to be in the right rev range for the engine to be at its peak performance. Here that doesn’t happen. You have the full torque available at all times. Because it’s electric and it’s very software driven. You have a lot of freedom to control power delivery, power control.
So it just feels better to drive. But even on road car, if you drive an electric car on the road, it’s just so much nicer. I understand the factor of not having the sound of a petrol engine, especially if you compare it to a supercar or a hypercar. I understand that. But if you just compare it to a 2.0-litre diesel engine, I will take an electric car any day of the week.
PW: Pascal yeah, agree completely. When I jump first in a Formula E car, obviously what you notice first is that you don’t have to shift gears, which is, let’s say, unnatural coming from a combustion engine car. And also, you kind of need to adapt and learn, because, for example, the gears were always a reference in a combustion car for the corner. So you would know, okay, this corner is, for example, third or fourth gear and around this Rpm, and therefore you have another reference on top of the speed or the sensation which we drivers all used.
But on an electric car, it’s just what you feel, what you see without that reference. So that was, for me, the one thing which is quite different and the other thing is obviously the sound. You quickly get used to it. And yeah, like Antonio said, there’s a lot of stuff you can do. The power delivery, the initial immense torque you have on an electric car, the power is just always available. It’s definitely nice to have.
JD: Antonio, you’ve been in Formula E for a while now, how much has it changed in the time you’ve been doing it?
AFDC: It’s crazy. Like, when I started, nobody knew what it could become. And it’s just when you start attracting good teams, good brands, good manufacturers, good drivers. And then the snowball effect was very quick. I think our growth up to season five or six was so fast. I think that the pandemic year slowed us down a little bit because before, it was on a great path. It was a steep growing curve for us. And there’s been a few changes. There’s been a little bit of a slowdown in some other areas. Not in terms of technology, but in terms of I think this year we’ve really upgraded again on how we bring races to cities, how we put them up, the connectivity between the athletes, the race cars and the fans.
Because for me, that is a huge thing, and I think it’s picking up a lot. Now, the future is very bright for me, but I remember simple things where I had to eat lunch in a little plastic chair in season one, and now I have an amazing team of people around me to take care of everything. It just grew. It just grew like it’s professionalised in all areas.
JD: When you used to swap cars, what was that like, getting out of a racing car and then getting into one that’s supposed to be identical?
AFDC: So I remember my two cars, I needed to have different ride heights on them for them to touch the same amount on the ground. If I put the same ride on both, one will touch the ground a lot and the other one wouldn’t. So there’s no two cars exactly the same and they were being set up on the same patch and everything. It was not only about how quickly can you change cars but also deciding which one do I want to qualify with. And there was a lot going on, a lot more going on in terms of little stuff like that.
JD: It must be quite encouraging to have brands like Porsche involved?
AFDC: As you said, I’m here since the beginning. And when I started hearing that in season four or five that Porsche was joining initially, I thought, no way. Porsche racing an electric racing car championship? Never. And not only that, now we’re here winning races, here to stay. They just announced a couple of days ago that we’re committing to a few more years.
So it clearly shows the direction of where the world is going in terms of electric mobility. And I think it’s great to be a part of that. When I started here, I had a nice contract nine years ago, and it changed me a lot. As a human being, I’m way more aware on a lot of things in terms of sustainability that I can do on my day to day to help the planet be a little bit of a better place.
JD: Is there a danger that Formula E cars outgrow the street circuits Formula E has become known for?
AFDC: It’s actually hard to be full throttle for a long time, so we’ll see. But I think, look, there’s been a few races out there like Portland. We use a normal, traditional racetrack, and it’s important to see what the fans think of that. Because again, I think for me, that’s the biggest community. You have to keep pleasing and making people happy. Without them, nothing exists. And if they enjoy races like that, then I think once you have the power and the range, you can do whatever you want.
There’s a lot of ideas bouncing around, like I think the Di Grassi (fellow Formula E driver) was saying you can have a race in London in the ExCel Center where they give you 250 kw. You want to race in Portland, they give you 600 kw. So you can almost even adapt. Crazy ideas bouncing around. But I don’t think that’s for us to know, that’s the FIA.
JD: Last question, what do you both drive?
AFDC: Porsche Taycan Turbo and 911 GT3 (992)
PW: 911 GT3 RS (992)