Why Mercedes were lured by the challenge of going electric
Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E Team © FIA Formula E
Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E Team © FIA Formula E

Why Mercedes were lured by the challenge of going electric

When Mercedes announced plans to enter a works team for the 2018-19 Formula E season, the rest of the paddock immediately sat up and took note.

It was a game-changer for Formula E. Securing the involvement of the reigning Formula 1 constructors champions was and still is, a very big deal.

To be fair, it’s not like the grid lacked manufacturer representation before Mercedes’ arrival, as several big-name carmakers were already involved in Formula E, but this was different.

None of those manufacturers were so heavily invested in ICE development as Mercedes, and none had reached anywhere near their level of success, in any category, over the past decade.

To have the team that’s arguably defined the past decade of Grand Prix racing make the move to go electric, and be the first to do it, was a real statement of intent that the automotive industry simply could not ignore.

Let’s be clear on one thing, Mercedes are not just another manufacturer looking for a vanity project. Anyone who’s witnessed their unrelenting pursuit of success in Formula 1 in recent years will know that they do not do things by halves.

Six world constructors’ titles on the bounce is a testament to that, and as a company, they appear just as driven by race victories as sales figures, but it’s the way in which they continue to push the envelope of what’s possible each and every year that has made their dominance so damned difficult to end.

Just this past week, Mercedes reminded us yet again of their continuous drive to innovate, leaving some of the F1 paddock’s brightest brains scratching their heads at the sight of their ingenious new steering system as well as a novel rear suspension setup.

It’s this unwavering pursuit of excellence that will likely raise Formula E’s level of competition yet further in the coming years. Mercedes are here to win, and they’re taking the challenge very seriously.

Inside Electric caught up with Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E team principal, Ian James, who explained why going electric appealed to Mercedes and why we’re unlikely to see them depart F1 anytime soon.

Ian James and Nyck de Vries © FIA Formula E
Ian James and Nyck de Vries © FIA Formula E

“I think first and foremost, as a motorsport series, [Formula E] is offering a great level of competition,” James said.

“Just look at the OEMs, the brands that are coming into it, the calibre of drivers, engineers, and so on and so forth, it’s got to a stage now where yes it’s still relatively new, but it’s reaching a level of maturity and excitement which is extremely interesting for us a brand.

“It’s hit that kind of zeitgeist as well, so if you look at e-mobility, if you look at where the races actually take place, in city centres, that’s incredibly exciting, and the people that are engaging with it as well, it’s a young demographic.”

Inevitably, Mercedes’ decision to join Formula E did little to stop the rumours that they might choose to exit F1 altogether before the new Concorde Agreement is formally agreed for 2021.

Toto Wolff was quoted recently as saying Mercedes’ F1 participation beyond 2020 “is not a given”, and although the exit rumours persist, James believes there are a number of benefits for Mercedes in competing across both championships.

“I think that if you look at Formula 1 and Formula E, there are very good reasons why we’re involved in both..

Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E Team Principal, Ian James

“I think that if you look at Formula 1 and Formula E, there are very good reasons why we’re involved in both and I can see that continuing, certainly for the foreseeable future,” James said,

“Yes, you’ve got an internal combustion engine [in Formula 1], but it’s been a hybrid power unit for a number of years now, so I think that’s been quite ahead of the curve, and the reach [of Formula 1] is second to none, so for sure that’s not going to go away anytime soon.

“Formula E is tapping into a whole new target group, so it’s genuine motorsport [which is] attractive to motorsport fans, but it’s offering access to a whole new group of people as well.

“For Mercedes to have a foot in both camps makes absolute sense at the moment and I don’t necessarily think there’s a particular timeline that one becomes more or less relevant than the other, especially because both championships have an opportunity to continue to develop and evolve.”

A strong a statement of intent then, but let’s focus for a moment on the potential benefits for Mercedes in racing both F1 and Formula E – currently, the only manufacturer to do so.

Realistically, is there much crossover, technology-wise, between the two?

“We’re already starting to see it,” said James. “The Formula E power unit, in terms of the fundamentals, is not too dissimilar to the ERS system, especially the MGU-K, that you have in Formula 1.

“The guys that were very much involved in developing that system [for Mercedes] in Formula 1 are now working on the Formula E programme, so we’ve already seen knowledge transfer in that direction.

“I worked with Pierre Godoff, our chief engineer from Mercedes HPP [their Brixworth-based power unit division], years ago when we were doing the F1 ERS system in the lead up to 2014, and he was very much involved and instrumental in the engineering of that.

“He’s brought that knowledge across, as have many other engineers, and they’ve been ringfenced now for Formula E which was important. I think we’ll see more of that knowledge and development going back towards Formula 1 as long as we keep the dialogue going in both directions.”

Mercedes made a smart move by entering their affiliated HWA squad last year, and it’s highly likely their strong start this season has a lot to do with that.

As well as the technology transfer between their F1 and Formula E teams, there was a significant amount of knowledge transfer amongst the employees who were involved last year, as James explains.

“The decision was taken to have [HWA] enter as a team in their own right last year, albeit as a customer team [powered by Venturi], but I think the learning that we gained from that shouldn’t be underestimated,” said James.

“It’s something from an operational perspective, Formula E is very different from virtually all other forms of motorsport, so we’ve been able to observe that and learn from it. Some of the team members carry over from that team as well, but it’s not in any way shape or form going to be easy for us coming in as a manufacturer, and that learning curve will continue to be very steep.”

James is right to be cautious about the steep learning curve ahead, and Mercedes’ strong start will have done little to change his and the team’s focus.

I put it to James that not every team in Formula E can win, or even achieve a consistent state of competitivness, so what happens if Mercedes ultimately fail to meet their targets. Will the board in Stuttgart pull the plug? James doesn’t think so.

“The discussions I’ve had internally have very much shown that the board are supportive of what we’re doing here and are keen to have this as very much a long-term engagement with the sport,” James said.

“At the end of the day, Mercedes-Benz have got a 125-year heritage in motorsport, and we’ve been in it because we’re competitors, because we’re racers, and of course, the ultimate goal of that is to win, and that’s very much something that we’ve got our eye on, but we know we need to be measured with our expectations.

“We’re not expecting to go out and win right from the get-go, that would be just wrong to think that. I think from my perspective, we want to be successful as quickly as possible, but in terms of race wins, ask me again once we’ve got our first one under our belt!”

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Written by
Rob Watts
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Rob Watts

Inside Electric Co-Founder. Freelance motorsport journalist, writer and podcaster. Welshman living in England. Caffeine aficionado.

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