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How to start a racing series with Teslas — an interview with the CEO of Electric GT World Series

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Electric GT

The Electric GT World Series is an all-Tesla racing series that was announced back in March. But the announcement was accompanied by very little detail: the series was being started by a new company called Electric GT Holdings, it was supposedly going to run its races on famous circuits like the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and the Nürburgring, and the entire field would be made up of Tesla Model S sedans. That was it.

The series’ creators have remained mostly mum since then. Pirelli was announced as a title sponsor in August, and the first two drivers — Vittoria Piria and Stefan Wilson — were unveiled earlier this month. This week, though, the series finally revealed one of its race-ready P85+ Teslas at an event in Spain, offering the first glimpse of what the Electric GT will look like.

To shed some more light on the series, The Verge spoke to CEO and co-creator Mark Gemmell earlier this summer about Electric GT, why it exists, and how you even go about building a new racing series in the first place.

Why did you want to start an electric racing series?

This stage and the evolution of technology, it’s precisely what was happening around the 1920s, when combustion cars were just kind of getting going and people thought it was amazing if you could drive above 60 miles per hour, and that you could sustain that kind of speed for more than 10 miles or so. And that’s what the essence of motor racing was about, putting some very simple challenges on the table and seeing if people can do them. The racing in the early days, you were lucky if your car could survive the race. And that in itself was an achievement. Obviously nowadays motor racing is just kind of, I think the tank for combustion engines is empty. 

I always think about the Indy 500 — I love watching that race every year, but even in the ‘70s and ‘80s, half the challenge of the race was just making it through all 500 miles. Not because you might crash, but getting the car to do that. There was a reason for these long race lengths. 

That’s right. Now you watch them and it’s like, yeah. It’s not that surprising that a car can do the Le Mans 24 hours. If anything it’s just a test of the drivers’ ability to stay awake. But the problem is that by the time they screw up no one’s watching them, because it’s such a long race, you only want to see the highlights.

It’s not the same as what it used to be, and I think that takes us back to why electric racing should be the real racing we’re doing, because the challenges are real and definite. As you said, getting a car to do a 60-kilometer race at a reasonable speed is somewhat challenging. People have been saying that the car, the Tesla, has heating issues, it overheats under strain, which we’re working on. But I’d say that’s also part of the challenge. For a good driver to be able to get good lap times and not suffer overheating, that goes back to the driver’s skill.

With that in mind, where did the idea of Electric GT come from in the first place? 

For myself, I’m a software guy. I started working in the late ‘80s. I was in Hewlett-Packard’s research labs, I was in Telefonica’s research labs, and then an American company based in California called Remedy Corporation. After that I started a few businesses. I started a software company which didn’t go anywhere, and then I started another one for big enterprise software which did seem to work out quite well. When I sold that company I was able to contemplate getting into something a bit more stimulating, and that’s why I’m in this area. 

Other guys on the team — Agustín Payá is my co-founder and he’s a professional race driver, especially in electric cars. He’s done a number of things but I’d have to say the most remarkable one is doing the electric Dakar Rally. He was able to build a Tesla style battery pack and actually drive the car in the Dakar Rally

“Well this is an awful lot easier than doing the Dakar Rally.”

It’s such a difficult challenge because the Dakar Rally goes through deserts, very high plains, and it’s 50 degrees Centigrade. It’s great heat, and that’s a challenge for any vehicle, but for an electric car you can imagine it’s even harder. The stages are something like 300 kilometers long, it’s soft sand, so you know it’s hard. 

That gives you an idea of what kind of guy Agustín is, that he’s able to do that kind of thing on an engineering level and then at a human personal level. When he and I started talking about the idea of racing some Teslas, his fundamental response was “Well this is an awful lot easier than doing the Dakar Rally.”

So Tesla was essentially the choice over custom-building a fleet of electric racecars?

The car is fantastic to start with. We’ve just taken standard street-ready Teslas, not even the dual-motor ones. And we’ve raced them on tracks, and with good drivers we’re getting lap times that are just a few percent away from race-prepared Nissans and the like.

That’s just with a street car. We learned if you can get it on a circuit and keep the temperature under control, it’s a very good vehicle for racing. When we did these tests, it was pretty obvious the car was going to be up for the job. 

So this will be an FIA-accredited sport? Or you’re just using their guidelines?

Well there are two levels of doing this. One of them is you can go the Formula E route, which is a full FIA event. That means FIA is backing it, and they essentially give you the license to run the race, but it’s their race. With our championship we’re going along the lines more of a DTM [Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters], or the Dakar Rally, or even the World Touring Car series. These are races where they get FIA approval, they have FIA marshals, and there’s a lot of regulations that need to be approved, and the car needs safety measures that are approved by them. But it’s still an independently run organization. 

When did you decide to form the series?

It was about a year ago that we went to the Monaco race, and that was when we saw that Formula E was really getting things going, that it was a credible, full-blown event. We just felt it was a shame that Tesla weren’t present, being the pioneers, the ones that are really setting the pace for everybody.

But in our case, I think we’re bringing the most important part of Tesla, which is their car, to the circuit. And the way we’ve engineered it, we don’t expect Tesla to be financing the event. I think it’s important to point out that while they know we’re doing this, and we’ve been careful to get their blessing, it’s still our job to make it work. We’re not getting them to build the cars or send engineers over, but it’s a situation we’re comfortable with. 

What did talking to Tesla involve? 

They’re extremely busy, very difficult to get ahold of. They also do what they want to do and no one else is going to tell them what to do. I have some friends who work there, so I was able to approach them a little bit. I go there regularly for the Tesla user meeting anyway. I approached Diarmuid O’Connell [Tesla’s VP of business development] and we essentially got the okay. In no way should I say that we have Tesla support in any meaningful way, I think it could have easily been the case that they’d say “We don’t want you doing this, we don’t want you racing or messing with the cars.” But that was not the case, they just said “You’re going to have to do it on your own.” And that’s fine with us. 

“There’s not much in the way of new championships.”

So how do you go about doing it yourselves? Formula E pulled in a ton of investor money while attracting traditional motorsport companies like Dallara or Williams Advanced Engineering. Other than electric cars, they went the route that everyone else has gone. 

Motorsport has kind of not done much new for a long time, right? There’s not much in the way of new championships. Typically a new championship would come along, it would be a very small-scale operation that would then need to grow organically with a lot of grassroots support.

And then along came Formula E, and I’m not expert on this, but I do know that it was an idea that FIA had for a while. Then they managed to get Alejandro Agag and Enrique Bañuelos with a lot of money behind them to run with the ball. That was a good situation to be in because when you get FIA support at that level you can attract a lot of good sponsors, and you get support from manufacturers, even if electric transport finds resistance within the existing industry.

But that’s one of the very few big-scale championships that’s come around in the last few decades. Most motorsport was established decades ago. So there’s not necessarily a standard way to set up a new championship. We couldn’t follow Formula E because they launched with tens of millions of financing, and that’s quite challenging to raise. So we’re doing this much more in a tech startup way. You have an initial idea, you pursue it, you get some seed capital, you take it a certain distance and then get some angel funding. But you get to a point where it seems like a sustainable business.

That said, Formula E opened the door for people to think that electric racing can be a credible alternative to regular racing. No one’s going to say it’s like Formula One because the cars aren’t at that speed yet, but they’re getting there. At the same time, you’re seeing that sponsors understand what’s going on. We can speak to some of the big global sponsors of Formula One or Formula E, and they understand what we’re proposing. That really helps. 

So we’re doing it step by step. Building up the funding, building up the commitments, and making sure that we’re not overstepping the mark. We need to be scrappy, we need to be lean. That said, we have a calendar that is highly credible. We plan to do racing in 2017 which will be right up there. Nürburgring, Barcelona Circuit, Donington Park in the UK — these are great circuits where Formula One would race. 

What about race length? I love watching NASCAR, but I don’t like committing hours to it. Formula E’s 45-minute or so races feel like a really good sweet spot. 

The truth is, when you watch NASCAR, it’s aimed at an older segment. These are people who are not cord cutters. Most folks of the older age group are looking for something they can comfortably vegetate in front of for a couple of hours. And what I’ve noticed in DTM, for instance, kicking it off from the starting grid is awesome, that’s when a lot of the fun happens. The first corner is where the real excitement is, the second corner as well. But then when you get to the fourth or fifth corner it’s kind of done! By that time the field is spread out and it’s just like, “Okay I think he’s going to win, can we just call it a day?” 

Our strong feeling is you can do four or five laps and then it’s really game over. What I saw as well is races like World Rally Cross, where they do very short races, let’s say four or five cars racing, and they’ll do four laps or so of a circuit. So what you get is lots of starting grid action, lots of first corner, second corner action, and then it kind of settles down, but you get more and more of those races. And I have to say that just creates much more entertainment for the public. It means you can tune in and watch a few minutes of action and then say, “Okay, that was good, I’m going to do something else, and then maybe the next one I’ll follow.” 

Mark Gemmell, left, and Agustín Payá
Mark Gemmell, left, and Agustín Payá

It’s kind of what happened with basketball. Basketball was tuned to fit into television viewing habits. And it gained from that, because the public, most folks enjoy basketball because it’s very punchy and exciting. That’s just the way that things are going, we want entertainment to be little bite-sized chunks, and I think motorsport can be that. So we’re looking at making the format something like that.

It’s our objective that cord cutters will be able to enjoy the action. It’s also, I think, important that you will be able to choose which driver you want to follow. There will also be a number of mechanisms to allow you to encourage the driver, live, real-time. These are things that we’re trying to do. All these things require FIA approval, so I can’t say we’re going to be able to do them until it’s all okay. But I want to give you an idea of how we’re trying to change motorsport.

Obviously the Tesla has a fantastic screen, so with a little bit of software and some communications infrastructure you can do some cool things there. But I’ll say no more at the moment. [laughs

“We want entertainment to be little bite-sized chunks, and I think motorsport can be that.”

Shorter races would also help with the limits of the electric technology, right? 

That’s certainly an advantage, going with that format. Right now, if I were to tell you what our race format is, we’d certainly be capable of doing over a half an hour of racing; 30, 35, 40 minutes of racing, that takes us about 60 kilometers of racing. That means on most circuits we’d be doing something like 15 laps. It’s not NASCAR, we’re not going to be going for hours, the cars wouldn’t handle it. But it’s absolutely our objective to increase the technical challenges as times goes by in future seasons. It would be great to have charging be part of the race format. It’s not possible at the moment because even Tesla’s Superchargers aren’t fast enough to do anything meaningful during the race. 

A battery swap would be fantastic, but we don’t want to go that way at the moment. I think that’s something that might incur dislike from Tesla, and we don’t want to do anything that’s frowned upon by them. But battery swap would be a good way to solve this problem. You could imagine a pit stop with a fully robotized battery swap. I’d like to see that in the future, but I think it’s still a challenge at the moment, and until we’ve got multiple manufacturers and engineering teams it wouldn’t be feasible.

There is another aspect of racing that we’d like to explore. We’d also like to see if we can arrange stages of races when the sun has gone down. We’re looking into this with some of the race circuits because race circuits have noise problems, and they generally have to avoid racing in the evening. The noise impact is so low [with electric cars]. It’s not like it’s been agreed but we’re investigating doing that because a race stage at nighttime would allow us to illuminate the cars in very entertaining ways. We could really make a very impressive spectacle of the races at that time of day. It’d also mean we’d be providing a race that fits in with other people’s time zones. 

Back to the cars, you were talking about doing slight modifications but nothing crazy, right? 

Certainly the motor, drivetrain, battery, electronics, that’s all going to stay standard. And that would be the most challenging thing to change anyway. So we’re changing some shock absorbers, changing some of the braking systems up to race standards, but fundamentally the “skateboard” is remaining in tact. And then our challenge is to get the weight down as low as possible, so that is full carbon fiber body, and minimal interior. That’s where we’re going. It means we’re spending money preparing the car but it’s not the kind of money you’d spend preparing a GT car. We have a professional engineering and preparations team working on it, Campos Racing, and they are a very experienced team of engineers. 

You’re working with the discontinued P85+, why is that and where did you get them from? 

We wanted a rear-wheel drive car because it’s far more interesting for drivers. The four-wheel drive cars would probably do a better lap time, but they would not be as interesting to drive and not be as interesting to watch. They’re not difficult to source, and we don’t need that many either. Twenty-two cars is not hard to get ahold of. 

What about talent, what are you doing to secure drivers? 

So we opened up a call for drivers, and we’ve got 20–30 well-qualified drivers interested already. But we realized really the championship revolves around teams. So what we figured is we want to make sure we have the full team package solid, that is to say, we’re making sure the car is technically solid, we’re making sure the contracts and the financing is solid. If you’ve just got drivers, you still don’t have a championship. The teams are not going to sign up because you have drivers, they can get drivers any time anyway.

The key behind the championship are the teams, and we’re also working very hard to get sponsorships, because ultimately that underwrites the championship. Even if we had drivers and sponsors, we still wouldn’t have a race. So we’re 100 percent focused on providing something that makes sense for a team. That means a car that’s impressive, a car that’s reliable, and then the general format, the circuits we’re racing on — these are all key ingredients we have to communicate to teams that what we’re doing is credible. And on the pricing side, we’re aiming for something under € 1 million for the teams.

Is there a go / no-go date for racing next year? 

If we’re going to race in March we need to do a full pre-race essentially in January. That will definitely be one of the key milestones, and in order to meet that we have to have cars prepared all through autumn. That’s when we’ll definitely know if we’re going to be able to keep to our schedule. 

Beyond next year, I get it makes sense to start with Tesla — you’re not going to race Nissan Leafs — but with other carmakers committing to EVs by around 2020, is that what you want to bring into the fold?

That’s absolutely the intention. This is not a Tesla race. What it is is we share that fundamental goal with Tesla in that our absolute driver here is to accelerate the switch to sustainable transport. To do that, you need to show the best car that is around to the public in a race scenario, and show it credibly, and in an engaging manner. In that sense, if next year a Chinese manufacturer were to come out with a GT-class car that we could adapt to a level playing field with the Teslas that we have, then absolutely. We know in 2018 that Aston Martin wants to have an electric sports car. If that car were ready and willing, and Aston Martin were also in agreement, we would love to see that racing. 

“You hear all the time, where is the Tesla killer? Well, where is it going to kill Tesla?”

Electric GT needs to be the forum for all of the companies that are pushing technology. We want to be the place where people come to see the cars fighting it out, where they come to see if the car is as good as a Tesla. You hear all the time, where is the Tesla killer? Well, where is it going to kill Tesla? It’s going to have to kill Tesla at Nürburgring.

The challenge is making sure it’s a level playing field, so what we need to be sure of is that the power-to-weight ratio is correct, that the braking dynamics and cornering forces are within certain parameters. And if they are, then you should expect a reasonably level playing field. And as we were saying, in the early days of motorsport it was a surprise if the cars actually managed to complete the race. That might be the case with the early GT class electric cars, they may run into issues that surprise everybody. There’s no guarantee that it’s going to be that easy to race a GT-class electric car against a Tesla. And if it is a Tesla killer, then it should come kill Tesla on the circuit. That’s what sport is all about, isn’t it?