This summer, just before Valencia testing, the NIO Formula E team stopped working. A cash injection from Chinese motorsport investors brought it back from the brink – to an entirely different one. Here’s how the cars got to race one – and where they’re going.
Formula E is very closely competitive. It’s a selling point – the field is so close that big manufacturers tangle with privateers, every car qualifies within a second of each other, the driver truly makes a difference.
At testing this year, there was a caveat: every car bar the NIOs. Which we need to stop calling the NIOs – it’s all become very confusing over the short summer break in what Oliver Turvey calls, very mildly, “all the changes in the team” when I asked him about it in Riyadh.
Those changes were how NIO Formula E team, in a matter of months became NIO 333 Racing Formula E Team, a Lisheng Racing-backed project that the former manufacturer puts its name to via a title sponsorship contract.
The investor, Lisheng Racing, have big plans. This isn’t a privateer rescue or an intention to keep the team just ticking over. At a roundtable in Riyadh Qing Xia, the president of Lisheng, said that the project was to further all of Chinese motorsport, “We were always active in the motorsport industry and as a team from China, as a new team in this championship, we would like to make something different from before.
“We would like to do this, from a market that is not so familiar with this championship, we would like to use our knowledge and participation to bring more influence and knowledge and culture from the sport back to China. To get everybody involved, from suppliers to all the areas that can be involved in this industry of EV cars and electric motorsport – so that they can be involved directly with us in the Chinese market.”
A major ambition, for a team that nearly didn’t exist this year.
Motorsport has backmarker teams. And frontrunners and midfielders – it makes the whole thing sound like a football formation. Being a frontrunner means you’re in with an above-average chance of winning; in Formula E that’s spread across maybe six or seven teams, which is a broad field. Then there’s a short midfield of teams who could still take a win, given the right opportunities and have a good chance to score points.
Then, heading into the season opener in Saudi Arabia this year, was 333 Racing, the garage formerly known as NIO. They’re the backmarkers. After a seemingly fairly acrimonious split from the disruptive automaker during the brief summer off-season, their Season 6 powertrain suddenly snatched away and the offices emptied of NIO personnel.
It goes without saying, you need a powertrain to make the car go. And personnel to run a team. Technical director Christian Silk stepped up to team boss, longstanding driver Oliver Turvey committed to stay and a Chinese holding firm called Lisheng bought out the entry and assets.
At pre-season testing in Valencia, it was a testament to how hard the sparse amount of team members had been working that they were there, had cars and got some laps in. A replacement powertrain had been sourced via rival (and frequently backmarking themselves) team Dragon and there were drivers – Turvey joined by Chinese on/off Formula E racer Ma Qing Hua.
But it looked bleak. Most garages, at testing, are stuffed to the brim with… things. Computers, cables, hard drives and sensors and radios and laser measurers and every tool you could possibly think of. Normally, at the end of private testing, it’s the first time the teams can really get paranoid and insist that whoever is in the garage to the right is doing something with the brakes and on the left they’re deliberately turning down their powertrain.
For NIO 333 Racing it was just a concentrated effort to get out of the garages. Which were nearly empty, a few laptops and toolboxes the only sign of activity. I caught one of the personnel leaning heavily on a set of tyres, hands over head, at the end of day two of what looked like it was about to be one of motorsport’s most relentlessly, gruellingly, success-free seasons of impossibly hard graft and it would take a cruel person not to feel empathy. It’s not for lack of trying, after all.
Normally, teams have spent the entire prior season building the new car. This new team, wearing old uniforms, had only a couple of months.
Speaking in Riyadh, via a translator, Qing Xia told us “Since August, we took over the company and after that transition we kept some of the previous employees of the company and also involved our Spanish technical partners [333 have taken on the Campos engineers previously used by Mahindra] and more Chinese people at a management level.”
“Business-wise, we carried over some of the previous sponsors but also we are developing new relationships. We kept some of the knowledge and technology from NIO but the powertrain has been developed new by the team.”
August-October is no time at all to put a car together. But Lisheng’s investment isn’t about taking on Mercedes this season, it’s about building a credible Chinese international motorsport presence.
Lisheng are the promoter for the Chinese national karting championship, Chinese touring car championship, Asian F3 and rallycross China – so their background is firmly in motorsport but not at the level of the FIA’s major international championships. Previously, the Chinese-owned teams at that level (including NIO) have worn a logo or badge for China but been almost exclusively European to take advantage of experienced engineering and management teams.
The focus at 333 will be dramatically different, even if it compromises their results. “It’s more important that the team is Chinese – not only the image but that everything in the team is Chinese – than having a good result.
“And we know there is a big gap between Chinese motorsport and the top level in the world and so for us, this is a big mission and we feel responsible for taking this step and to reach that level, the top level in the world.”
Major Chinese entries have been talked about for years; there’s a persistent rumour of a Team China in F1 and Manor’s WEC team had been bought out by CEFC until funding dramatically ran out at the start of the Super Season. Lisheng is the first to be putting the focus on being a distinctly Chinese team, bringing motorsport expertise to the Chinese market.
Whether it will work is, obviously, yet to be seen – Oliver Turvey scored a points finish in Riyadh, only to be disqualified on a technicality but proving that the team could have opportunities this year, beyond just surviving it. At the same time as trying to put together a genuinely Chinese Formula E team, Lisheng are starting a driver academy in China and continuing to expand their promoter activities – the project is as ambitious as it needs to be but massively big, as a consequence.
As for those NIO badges? Don’t get too attached to them, this is very much 333’s operation. “NIO is our title sponsor, we have this contract, so we will respect that until it finishes. But it’s not for a lot of years, so we don’t know how long it will continue.”Become a Patron!