Venturi have promoted test and reserve driver Norman Nato to a full-time race seat for the 2019-20 season. Inside Electric were fortunate enough to be granted the Frenchman’s first exclusive interview as a Formula E driver. He explains to Rob Watts why he believes he’s earned his promotion.
Rob Watts: First of all, congratulations on your new role! What’s the feeling right now, you must be quite excited to get started?
Norman Nato: “Yes, exactly. I knew this opportunity could come at some point, but there’s a lot of good drivers on the market and obviously, you never know until you sign, what’s going to happen. It’s quite important for the team to replace a guy like Felipe Massa, so it’s a lot of pressure for me and in my case, it’s a good opportunity, but I’ve been working for that and I’ve been expecting that moment for two years now.
“When I talked first with Susie, two years ago regarding my reserve driver role, I said ‘I’m ready to do this role’ so I think it’s a great opportunity for me to understand how the championship works and to understand Formula E. After two years, this opportunity came along and I’m really, really happy to be now officially as a ROKiT Venturi racing driver.”
RW: I can see the smile on your face, that’s a good sign! Perhaps you can tell me a little bit about how the year has been, because obviously [with COVID] there’s been a lot of disruption. I imagine at one point you probably weren’t sure when, or if, you’d race this year and now it’s culminated in this fantastic opportunity for you now.
Nato: “Yes, for sure. I spent a lot of days at the workshop working with the team, with the simulator. During Berlin, for example, I was every day in the simulator – sometimes I was starting at seven and finishing at two at night! But that’s why today I have the feeling that I really did everything to get this seat. As I said to Susie and Susie knows it, I was often at the workshop to get in touch with the engineers, to do the briefings, just to get ready in case I get this opportunity. After Marrakech, where I did quite a successful rookie test, I was waiting for it to see what’s going to happen. Then suddenly to get this lockdown for two or three months and you’re like ‘wow, now you have to wait’.
“For a driver in general, when you have to wait and you don’t really know what’s going to happen, it was quite hard to live, I will say. But after like this lockdown, I was quite happy, first of all, to jump in the car to get ready for Le Mans, the 24 hours of Le Mans, because it was also a target for me this year, to get a good result because I was also doing endurance racing and it’s a quite important championship for me.
“Being in lockdown for more than two months, it’s been a good opportunity as well for me to get ready and to think about the future. I knew I could get this opportunity, [so] I was like, ‘ok, what do you need to work on? What do you need to be prepared?’ And obviously, when this opportunity came, I was ready for it.
“I would say the lockdown was quite positive at some point because we had a break and sometimes when you have a race simulation or you’re travelling everywhere, you would be forgetting about the basics. Just to think about, well, ‘what can I improve? What can I do better?’, and the lockdown has been quite useful for that.”
RW: Do you think then that maybe that the eagerness you’ve shown and that enthusiasm is what impressed Susie enough to give you the opportunity?
Nato: “I would say, first of all, in the past on street circuits, I’ve been quite successful. I won Monaco in the World Series by Renault, I came second there in GP2, I won in Baku in front of Charles Leclerc [in F2], in Formula Renault I had pole. So every street circuit I’ve raced, I’ve won at some point so I think that’s one of the points, as well.
“Obviously in Formula E, for a driver you have to understand how all the systems work and it’s a lot of work in general, being in the simulator and being with the team. Susie saw that I’m highly motivated and was spending a lot of time at the workshop and with the team and that I did the Marrakech rookie test, which was quite a successful day.
“We knew where we were at that time in March, because it was a successful day. We tested what we had to do, the team had some plans to go through and so it wasn’t like it was flat out but in the morning when I jumped into the car for two or three hours, we were always P1 or P2.
“When you arrive at a race weekend, you need to get straight into the results, and that’s the most important thing. I think it’s a combination. It’s not like the lap time I was doing in the simulator, for example, she didn’t even look at it because for me, it’s not really important. The job I was able to do for the race weekend was all information I was able to give to develop the car. I think that’s what made the choice and the engineers as well. They gave their feedback to Susie, so they were pushing, I would say, on my side.”
RW: You’re not a rookie in terms of racing, but in terms of being a Formula E driver, you are. It will be your first season and, as we’ve seen, it’s been tough for drivers new to the championship. Has Susie sent you any targets, any goals for your first season?
Nato: “To be honest, we didn’t talk about goals yet. For me, it was really important to work with the team and not really think about results right away, because if you’re able to prepare your season and do a good job then results will come.
“I know it’s going to be difficult. You know, a guy like, Nyck de Vries, for example, who’s has been so successful in the past in Formula 2 and other series; he showed some really good pace, but at the end, in terms of results, the championship was quite far away, but he did a strong first year.
“Like for sure if you want to dream, we’ll say I will fight for the top three! …but I don’t like to fix things like targets. The target I’m fixing to myself is to work as hard as I can, to do the best I can, and to have no regrets at the end of the season.”
RW: That’s good to hear! One of the things I think Felipe struggled with a little bit last season is energy management. He was often quick, but the results didn’t come, partly because of that. Do you think your background in endurance racing makes you better equipped to adapt to that?
Nato: “I’m pretty sure it will. You can see guys like Sebastian Buemi, Jean-Eric Vergne [Vergne], [Antonio Felix] da Costa; there are a lot of good drivers in Formula E who are doing endurance racing next to that and they are quite successful.
“I’m pretty sure it will help, but I know that to be fast for one lap for qualifying is something, but Formula E is not about that. It’s to be able to be fast during the race and avoid mistakes and be able to manage your energy.
“That’s for sure something we are already working on in the simulator. It’s not about being fast, but being able to understand, being able to play with all the tools I have on the steering wheel to just save as much as energy as I can and be one of the fastest on track.”
RW: In your test and reserve role, you’ve been in the simulator a lot and you’ve worked with the engineers. What’s the main thing that you think you’ll learn from that which would give you an advantage, maybe over someone new to the team?
Nato: “I would say to know the systems, to know the development, it’s going to be the second season that we’re working with Mercedes, so it’s always good to be there from the beginning.
“I know what improvements we’ve made, I know the guys behind me and everything else, I know how the team works in the championship. The pressure is still quite high, so I know I need to work hard.”
RW: I remember one of the reasons Susie chose Edoardo Mortara to partner Felipe is that she felt they’d compliment each other and work well, have a good relationship. What’s your relationship like with Edo?
Nato: “So far we have a good relationship. We’ve been playing a lot of doubles tennis together when he comes to Monaco and we are actually teammates as well when we’re playing! So it’s already a good point, but then the target is to work together because the successful teams in Formula E, are able to work together.
“But the main target – and one of my goals is to be the best driver in Formula E, so if I want to be one of the best then I have to beat my teammate, too. But if I do, it will be fair, it will be on track and not by playing games in the team, that’s not the target.”
RW: You live in Monaco, so there are a few guys on the grid who must be neighbours of yours, and a few of these guys you’ve already raced in GP2. What’s your relationship with the other guys on the grid?
Nato: “Well, I see them a lot to be honest. I see Stoffel like every week, Mitch, pretty much the same. Stoffel I’ve known since we started together in Formula 4, and we did all our single seater years together. He went to Formula 1, I didn’t, but we did all the [junior] series together. So Stoffel is a really, really good friend. Mitch as well, he’s a good friend now. We raced together in Formula 2 and it’s the same with Oliver [Rowland].
“They are guys I really respect and there is respect between all of us, because obviously for many years we have been fighting on track, but we are always friends.”