“This season is improving compared to last year’s, but we know there is a gap compared to the top teams,” says Tommaso Volpe, General Manager of Nissan’s e.dams Formula E team.
But last month, despite the relative underperformance of the team, Nissan decided to completely acquire the Le Mans based e.dams team.
What’s more, Nissan’s acquisition comes at a time when other large manufacturers, including BMW, Mercedes, and Audi, have been pulling out of the world’s premier electric racing series.
So why has Nissan decided to double-down on its interest in the sport at a time when many automakers are feeling a squeeze on resources and diverting attention away from unnecessary ventures?
Nissan’s Formula E Adventure
“I’ve been working for Nissan for more than seven years,” explains Volpe.
“Before my current position, I was Head of Global Motorsports at Infiniti, the Nissan premium brand. My scope has always been to generate as much value as possible for the core business, which means making sure that our investment in motorsport is relevant for the R&D part of the business and can generate value in terms of its promotion of expertise in technologies for the brand.”
Of course, automakers have always involved themselves in motorsport to achieve brand recognition and show off to customers that their engineers are better than their rivals’.
However, in the case of the Nissan e.dams team, the results haven’t been as strong. Although, according to Volpe this hasn’t been the team’s fault.
“The car is the same as last season,” he explains.
“We suffer in qualifying, but we always show an improvement during the race and try to recover as many positions as possible.”
Most recently at the Monaco E-Prix, driver Sébastien Buemi finished eighth and won four points for the team despite starting 22nd on the grid. Teammate Maximilian Günther started 11th but rose to seventh before having to slow on the final lap and finish in 17th.
“We are doing our best but know we cannot fight for the championship. Overall, the journey has been very positive because we finished fourth in our first season and second in our second season. It has only been in season seven and now season eight where we have struggled to achieve the results we hoped for, but we are very confident about Generation 3 and are busy putting a plan in place where we will be able to compete for the championship.”
The Generation 3 Volpe refers to is the upcoming generation of Formula E cars. Currently, the series is using the Generation 2 cars which have been around since 2018. Before that, the Generation 1 cars were, basically, identical.
The Gen 3 cars see a series of improvements compared to the Gen 2 car. For example, they’re significantly more powerful with a 250 kW motor on the front axle and a 350 kW motor on the rear axle compared to the single, rear-mounted 250 kW motor on the Gen 2 cars. This means the cars can, in theory at least, reach 200 mph.
They’re also 60 kg lighter than before and produce more than 40% of their energy through regenerative braking.
With more than three seasons under its belt in Formula E, Volpe says that it was only natural for Nissan to take full control of the team.
“Formula E is a strategic investment for Nissan in terms of its promotion of expertise in electrification so, naturally, we wanted to take full control of the project,” he explains.
“The benefit we gain from our investment in Formula E has a mid-to-long-term effect on our ability to design and develop more efficient electric vehicles and more sophisticated energy management software.
“These are the key areas for performance in Formula E and the key areas where we must now excel to develop an EV platform for our products in the future.”
Now, while we don’t expect the next generation of Nissan Leaf drivers to be hitting the double tonne on the motorways like Gen 3 Formula E cars, there is a chance that future Nissan vehicles will be a bit more efficient as a result.
“Formula E is a global platform that helps showcase the capability of our brand and our expertise in electrification but, even more importantly, it acts as a testbed for technologies and R&D that can cascade to our products in the future,” he says.
However, even though the slight trickle-down of technology from Formula E to road cars is important to Nissan, the overall promotion of the brand is just as interesting.
“Formula E is the pinnacle of prototype racing with electric vehicles. The old ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ adage refers more to the promotional aspect of the exposure that motorsport gives the brand,” he says.
“People wouldn’t recognise a specific product looking at the Formula E car, the same as with a Formula 1 car. It is more the power of promotion that Nissan is an expert in electrification and that you can buy electric vehicles from Nissan, knowing that we are good at it and that we also compete in Formula E – but there is no direct promotion of a specific product.”
The Future of Racing
Many racing fans bemoaned Formula E when it first started eight years ago. The lack of noise, slow speeds, and somewhat gimmicky Fan Boost features made the series seem a bit dull in comparison to Formula 1, for example.
However, despite the initial lacklustre reception, the series has grown significantly in the subsequent years. According to the most recent figures, Formula E saw a 32% growth in the cumulative audience in the 2020-21 season compared to 2019-20. That means that some 316 million people watched Formula E.
“After the pandemic and due to the increased interest in electric vehicles and, in general, due to the strong focus on the return on investment that big companies like Nissan have always had (but even more so now), I think motorsport will become increasingly relevant for the car business,” says Volpe.
“We will see motorsport attracting more OEMs as it gives the opportunity to invest in R&D which is relevant to core businesses.”
And according to Volpe, as the world inexorably moves to EVs, Formula E will be increasingly pertinent.
“Formula E provides the opportunity to promote not only specific technologies like electrification but sustainability as well, which for Nissan is another strong reason why we compete in Formula E, having committed to being fully carbon neutral by 2050. So motorsport will tend to appeal to car brands, creating consistency with our corporate objectives – this is the way I see it, and the way I see the trend.”
Quite what will happen to the other major racing series when the world finally leaves internal combustion engines behind remains to be seen. But, at least for the moment, Formula E seems to play a large role in Nissan’s long term thinking.
“Formula E provides the opportunity to promote not only specific technologies like electrification but sustainability as well, which for Nissan is another strong reason why we compete in Formula E, having committed to being fully carbon neutral by 2050,” says Volpe.
“So motorsport will tend to appeal to car brands, creating consistency with our corporate objectives – this is the way I see it, and the way I see the trend.”