“As you know, it’s been a very tough season for us,” said Gerry Hughes, Team Principal of NIO Formula E. The team that, in the guise of NEXTEV TCR Formula E Team, won the Formula E title in Season One, has struggled this season, and lies bottom of the Teams’ Championship at the time of publishing.
“We’re not where we want to be, we’d like to be a lot higher up the championship ladder than we are. This season’s taught us a great deal, we’ll keep fighting until the end of this season.”
Hughes has been through bigger fights than this — he was a founding member of the Super Aguri Formula One team that went from consistent backmarkers in 2006 to midfield surprise package a season later, and he was one of the valiant members of the Caterham F1 team in its final days in 2014.
Moving into Formula E with Team Aguri, later Amlin Aguri, where he worked alongside former Super Aguri F1 colleague Mark Preston, Preston remained with that team as it changed ownership and name, to the modern Techeetah team, while Hughes moved to NextEV, at the time completing its transformation to NIO, in deference to the name for China’s largest and fastest-growing electric vehicle manufacturer.
Initially working under the vastly experienced former Ford executive Dr. Martin Leach, when Dr. Leach passed away in November 2016, Hughes was given a wider role in the NIO team, taking overall operational and strategic charge of the Formula E organisation, along with NIO’s other performance car activities.
In spite of these changes to his professional circumstances, Hughes still views himself very much as someone capable and willing to impart his technical knowledge. “You can take the boy out of engineering, you can’t take the engineer out of the boy. My background is race engineering, so I might be the team principal in name, but I’m very much involved from day-to-day.”
It begged the question of whether it was a frustration to this engineer with more than 30 years’ experience working with race teams that he has being pulled away from that part of the job, meaning he needs to delegate responsibilities that he perhaps feels he could carry out himself. “Steve Jobs once said there’s no point employing very smart people, and then telling them what to do. It can be frustrating, and sometimes people do things differently to how you’d like, but that’s human nature, and we’re all different. We work well as a team, and it’s fun still to be part of the team as an engineer.”
The background of team principals in Formula E is changing as the category changes. In the beginning, most teams were helmed by engineers, but in recent seasons we have seen former drivers take over at the top of teams, including, possibly, Mark Webber at Porsche in Season Six.
“My experiences may be a bit different than, say, Allan McNish at Audi, who’s, clearly, an ex-driver, or Susie Wolff at Venturi, and there’s a wide variety of experience at the Formula E teams. Whether they’re ex-drivers or engineers, they’ve all got some experience to offer, whether or not it’s behind the wheel, but I maybe see it differently to some other team principals because of a strong engineering background, and because I know what’s required in a race environment. I wouldn’t say that’s an advantage over anyone else — it’s just different.”
Hughes’ time is mostly spent on the Formula E team. “Formula E probably takes up 85–90% of my time. We’re on the second batch of the EP9 supercars [first masterminded by Dr. Leach]; we’ve made 16 of those in total, so that manufacturing process is coming to an end and those cars are being shipped to their lucky customers in China. My Formula E activity touches every element of the team — engineering, continued development of the team; the budget’s in front of me at the moment. I work closely with our support teams on HR; we’re a very engineering-driven and -led organisation, so it’s all hands on deck. It’s never a dull day, put it that way!”
Hughes is able to take full control of the team, as, unlike with some manufacturer teams elsewhere in motorsport, NIO Global, run from China, has placed its full trust in the UK-based NIO Formula E operation to produce the goods. “Clearly China take a vested interest, and they want to see a return on their investment. Formula E is a great brand awareness tool for NIO Global.”
Season Five has presented the challenge of the brand-new Gen2 car, and that, along with a revised race format, has shaken up the established order. “It’s interesting that this Season Five has been as competitive as is has been — the new car has been a bit of a control-alt-delete reset in many ways, but straight away, the field was very, very close. That’s great, because there’s competition across the manufacturers and drivers, and the sport is interesting — we’ve had eight winners, and you can’t really get more competitive than that.”
Sadly for NIO, the team and its drivers, Oliver Turvey and Tom Dillmann, have been unable to take advantage of problems for higher-profile runners. The reasons why are complex, Hughes explained. “I’m not at liberty to divulge issues about the car that other manufacturers can read and use, but clearly the Gen2 cars brought new challenges, there’s a greater degree of complexity than on the Gen1 car.”
“Brake-by-wire is obviously a very much talked-about additional system on the car, and while the hardware of BBW is reasonably uncomplex, the software to control the rear axle is infinitely more complex. Bringing it into Formula E, while it’s nice to have it, teams have got to work out how to get the most out of it, and that’s clearly been a challenge not just for us but also for other people.”
“It’s a different car, with different technical challenges, but there are also different sporting challenges. We’ve gone from having a certain number of laps, to 45 minutes plus one lap. It’s changed how you run race strategy, including deciding how and when to use Attack Mode, and running against the clock. When you combine that with some very unconventional races with safety cars and full-course yellows, it has been a test with respect to race strategy and the strategy software teams are running.”
The Monaco E-Prix may have brought a sigh of relief to certain team strategists, with it being more of an energy race than a flat-out drag to the flag. Were the earlier races, with their risky moves and red flags, frustrating?
“It really depends whether you feel you can gain an advantage from it,” Hughes replied. “There’s clearly a difference between full-course yellow and the safety car, in that the safety car allows the pack to close back up, and that helps if you’ve lost some ground. It gives you the chance to do a reset and go again, whereas full-course yellow doesn’t allow the pack to close back in. Frustrating? No, it’s just part of the rules and regulations. This is an energy formula, so energy management is important, and red flags followed by a flat-out race to the flag is not the essence of Formula E — the drivers have been very vocal about that. A flat-out race to the flag is not what the cars have been designed for, or the powertrains.”
“All our strategy builds around being as efficient as possible, so it’s been a bit of a crazy season, and maybe a few things have happened to make it like it is — the cars are quite robust, and we’ve seen drivers right from the start being penalised, the stewards are having to be wise to prevent it from turning into a bit of a donkey derby. It’s different from the past four seasons; is it better racing? It’s exciting, but let’s make sure we don’t lose sight of it being an energy race on Saturday afternoon.”
Turvey and Dillmann have had mixed seasons, reflecting in part the wider issues with the NIO car package, but they come at their racing, Hughes felt, from different angles. Turvey, he said, is “an intelligent guy — he’s thoughtful about things, very professional, he’s worked with McLaren for many years so clearly they like his approach, he’s very methodical. He’s what we need when we’re having a difficult season. Engineer or no engineer [Turvey has a Mechanical Engineering degree from Cambridge University], he’s got a level of self-confidence, and he’s a smart cookie; he knows what he needs to get the job done. He’s very easy to work with — I’ve worked with many drivers in 30 years of motorsport, and as you might imagine, some are easier to work with than others!”
Dillmann has appeared to observers to struggle at times with the Season Five race format, but the Frenchman is a quick, instinctive driver who, in particular, showed a great turn of pace in the changeable conditions in Paris this season, where he qualified 11th and challenged the Audis early on. “It’s funny you say that — after session one in Paris, on the intercom, I said to the boys, ‘I wonder if this is like one of those F1 drivers who has his best result in his home race!’ I hope not — but, no, to answer your question, we’re continuing to make improvements on the car, and one thing I learned from going street racing in F1 is that, if your driver doesn’t have confidence in the car, you’ll never extract the performance from a control systems point of view or a setup point of view.”
“Tom’s gaining more and more confidence as he goes along. He does have experience in Formula E with a different team [Venturi — ed.], where I think they did things a little bit differently to us — he likes a different car to Oliver, and to the other drivers we’ve had in the team. His form in Paris was genuine compared to Oliver. Oliver’s got great racecraft, very cool, calm and collected, Tom is different in terms of approach, different in terms of aggression, but let’s hope he continues gaining confidence in terms of his performances.”
The Future of NIO
As Formula E grows, it is crucial to Hughes and to team principals elsewhere in the paddock that they achieve competitiveness with the automotive giants that have joined the championship, or will join it, such as BMW, Audi, Porsche, and Mercedes-Benz. He tackled the question of whether being split over several locations in the UK was hampering this.
“We have the London office in Piccadilly, we have the cars up at Donington, where all the Formula E cars were in the first year, and we have our technical headquarters as part of the science park that is part of Oxford University. It’s less than ideal — you’ve seen some other Formula E teams leave Donington and move to other manufacturing bases , and there are plans underfoot for us to do exactly the same thing, to optimise things from a communication point of view, and so we can carry out our roles without the difficulty of distance. That’s an internal plan at the moment.”
“It’s fair to say that, as a small team in Formula E, backed by a niche OEM, based in China rather than the UK, I suppose it’s less optimal than BMW, based in Munich, for example. Is it a technical challenge? Certainly we don’t have the depth of resources of some OEMs, and that’s going to be very interesting to watch of the next few seasons, with who comes out on top, with Porsche and Mercedes coming in with full works-backed teams; it’ll be interesting to see whether the relationship between resource level and competitiveness figures in the overall results. NIO is a small player from a motorsport point of view or an OEM point of view — it only employs 10,000 people globally, so when you compare that to the big manufacturers, it’s obviously very small.”
What Happens Next in Formula E?
The coming seasons may see the FIA experimenting with rule changes to prevent the regular crashes and stoppages seen this year. “We’re on Grade 3 circuits from the FIA — it’ll be interesting in the future, when we have the Gen3 cars, to see how that affects the power of the car and the overall top speed of the car, and does that change the technical roadmap set by the FIA and the manufacturers’ group?”
“We’ll have to see — we’ve only just started the Gen2 era, but 250kw to play with in qualifying, 200+25 in the race, they’re getting quicker, that’s for sure, and on these narrow, tight, twisty street courses, there’s a restriction on the ability to overtake, and that’s perhaps why these races have turned out the way they have. I think that’s an important thing to think about for the future. As a manufacturer, and an entrant in the sport, as a group we’re starting to discuss that — what the position of the FIA is, in terms of where does Formula E take us, to hybrid circuits such as Mexico, or places like Sepang, Silverstone and Spa. If you watched a Formula E car going round Monza, I don’t think you’d find it very entertaining.”
“One possibility that was discussed is, they’re currently running on 52 kw/h, and if you go back to Season Four, there was the New York double-header, where drivers had a different number of laps from day one to day two. If you give drivers less energy, by definition it’ll tend to be more of a processional race. Whilst the FIA has that in their back pocket, that they can reduce the amount of energy they give us in a race, they haven’t done so far this season, so it’ll be very interesting to see what happens in Season Six. It’ll be more likely they change the amount of energy we have, which will change the effect of bumper cars, but there’s a balance between that and having a race that may be more processional.”
Whatever happens, Hughes was confident that NIO could challenge, eventually, for top-six finishes, or higher. “Formula E is never a foregone conclusion in terms of outcome, but if we didn’t believe we could do well, we may as well pack up. We’re in it to win it, and it is fiercely competitive, but there’s always the element of the unknown — sometimes we’re disappointed, but we might get a chance to shine, and if Martin is up there, looking down at us, at any point, it would be good to have some luck at some stage.”
When asked to name the most enjoyable stop in his long career, Hughes did not take any time to come up with an answer. Super Aguri, the de facto Honda F1 B-team which briefly shone brighter than its works sister organisation, was a major challenge, but a lot of fun, he said. “The experience I had there from 2005–2008 will never be surpassed in my career, ever. I remember [in 2007] we nearly lapped Rubens [Barrichello] in Hungary. I asked, jokingly, if we should give him the bird if we lap him, but I don’t think we ever got that far!”
“It was, ultimately, maybe, part of our downfall. I think Nick Fry [the then-Honda F1 CEO] wasn’t that happy that we had this team that was capable of beating a well-funded Japanese team based in Brackley, but they were fun times — we learned lots.”
The driver line-up was a bit special back then, too, featuring later Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato, and subsequent World Endurance Champion Anthony Davidson. “Takuma, I worked with in IndyCars many years later, I was just having a chat to him, and Anthony, we bump into each other quite regularly, he’s always watching what’s happening in Formula E, and as to whether he’d make a return to the cockpit in an EV, watch this space.”
“NIO, for me, is a different challenge, and while, in the three years I’ve been here, we’ve never had quite so much fun [as at Super Aguri], we work hard and play hard.”