This has been a strange, intense Formula E season. Which is my excuse for why it’s taken me five months to write up this interview with Sacha Fenestraz, who’s been the Jaguar reserve and simulator driver all year.
Extremely well liked for all the right reasons (he’s incredibly fast, exciting to watch race and a genuinely lovely chap) Sacha’s spent a lot of the past eighteen months in visa limbo hell trying to get back to his day job in Japan. But his story with Jaguar actually started just before lockdown – at the last “normal” Formula E race, when he drove for the team in the 2020 Marrakech rookie test.
Sacha told me he basically landed the job by replying to emails, a life lesson this freelancer should probably take onboard. “The rookie test kind of came from nowhere. I really wasn’t expecting to be in a Formula E rookie test, it just came up a bit last moment. And then, of course, the test went well. The team was happy. The pace also was kind of strong – towards the end of the day we had some issues and we couldn’t do the last push, 250[kW lap] but overall, it was a very good test day for my first time in Formula E and also I enjoyed it a lot.
“And since then we just kept in contact via email, phone also sometimes. We were always trying to get into the Formula E world and I knew that with Jaguar, I really felt also like a small family team that say with everyone, they were very nice. Like Sam [Bird] said in previous races, it’s really like a family, they receive you with open arms and it’s very nice.:
Not that it’s been straightforward. That lockdown hell I mentioned earlier hit Sacha particularly hard, as an athlete trying to balance roles in Europe and Japan and especially with everything coming to a screeching halt immediately after he’d first tested for Jaguar. “That was hard – but of course, I had my main job in Japan. So my priority was over there, so when everything kind of stopped with Formula E, it also stopped for me in Japan. So, yeah, it was difficult.
“I knew that it would be good for me to go back to the UK to do some sim work, I know that they wanted me to do some sim work with them and just be with the team, familiarise myself with them. But because of the lockdowns, because of the quarantines and everything, I just couldn’t take the risk to go and also everything was closed in the UK. But of course it was a big period where we had nothing and it was the same driving-wise, we just didn’t have anything till the end of the year. “
Plenty of drivers have had to try and retrain their brains for Formula E, some with more success than others – Sacha said stepping into the car for the first time was as alien as it was familiar for a single seater race car. “ It’s still a Formula car, open wheel but it was very different in terms of weight. I had the chance to do a little bit of simulator preparation in the UK with them, to prepare myself on this street track a little bit. But it’s very different, yes.
“It was definitely my first time in an electric car and all our career, we just learn to be flat out, to be braking as late as possible, to be full power, full throttle until very late. But here, as soon as you go into the race runs, it’s just completely the opposite of everything you’ve learned throughout your career. You need to push yourself on not for not being full throttle the whole time, just preparing the next corners and also the management of the battery. So it was very different and the main difference for me was the weight of the car.
“It’s a very heavy car, compared to the other formulas that I’ve been driving. So that was the hardest thing. And also of course, the track – Marrakech you could say was high grip because of the whole race weekend and we drove after. But also when you’re used to a high grip track, slick tyres, it’s still a lot less so there was also adapting to that, which was not easy. I was really impressed by the electric power, the torque. It’s amazing how when you do practice starts, it’s really pushing it.”
Standing in the back of the garage isn’t the only thing Sacha’s been doing all season, obviously. The reserve driver role in Formula E comes with plenty of duties. “It’s not just giving coffee to people. I mean, generally when you get a reserve driver role, it comes with the simulator driver role,I think most reserve drivers are like that. So that means every simulation that they want to do, that they want to try.
“Let’s say it was the perfect situation, that I was in England living next to the team, I’d be working a lot with them back at the simulator, trying to improve everything. Now that I drove the car and I’ve done some testing with them, I can just give my comments. And there is always new things, the evolution of Formula E goes forward every day so every day there’s something new. And to be honest, the team has an amazing simulator, so they’re able to really work well with it in correlation with real life.
“So as a reserve driver it’s not just standing around, you have to be at the simulator, you have to be there for very long days. You start around 9am or 8am, you finish at 7pm so it’s long days, but it is very interesting and for me, it’s a good way to learn how everything works. Obviously in terms of steering and such but also how to manage the energy and compare myself also with Mitch [Evans] and Sam. And then also when they do private testing, of course if the the other drivers don’t participate, I’m just there ready to jump in the car – maybe it’s just driving around but for the team is a very important thing to try things.
“And then on the race weekend, it’s just being ready, if anything happens, for me to jump in. Like we’ve seen last year in F1, with some accidents, with COVID and now I think the reserve driver role is much more important than we thought earlier, before the situation. So, yeah, you’re basically always ready to jump in the car in the last moment, which is not easy.”
The actual work of being a reserve driver is every professional racer’s least favourite task, which is getting locked into a dark room and stuck in the simulator. But Sacha said the sheer difference of Formula E’s driving style keeps it interesting, for him. “I think it’s harder than actually driving because, first of all, you’re enclosed in a dark room, because you’d better not have any light coming in because of the pictures and stuff. So, yeah, it’s first of all, the whole day in a closed room, no light, nothing coming apart from lunch time and even with the COVID situation you eat at the simulator. So you just don’t go out.
“But it’s long days in terms of: you jump in the car, you stay there for like two hours, you have a 10 minute break and you jump again in two hours. Generally it’s like three, four laps. Then you stop, you wait five, 10 minutes for them to make changes and see some information. And then they put new stuff and then again, three laps, the same thing for the whole day.
“Sometimes we do race simulations, which for me is a nice thing because I can I learn a lot on race simulations because as I say, so new for me to to, you know, not being full throttle until the last moment and stuff. So is very interesting on management of energy. But yeah, the main thing is that that’s what it makes it long as you’re sitting sitting around doing three, four laps. And then they have to look at the data, of course I give my feedback and then they try to improve things.”
(Sacha actually isn’t here in Berlin, where Tom Blomqvist is fulfilling Jaguar’s reserve duties –as the drivers say, it is what it is and it’s the same for everyone who is as appallingly late at writing things up as I am)