10 minutes with… Sam Bird

There’s plenty of BUZZ around a brand new motor racing formula that SPARKS into action this weekend.

If the ELECTRIFYING puns didn’t give the game away, we’re talking Formula E, the first ever series to feature completely electric cars.

With the likes of Nick Heidfeld, Jarno Trulli and Bruno Senna amongst 10 ex-F1 drivers taking part, it’s unlikely to be some gimmicky flash-in-the-pan.

The series takes in 10 different street circuits from Miami and Monte Carlo to Beijing and Buenos Aires between September and June. Largely homologated cars mean the racing is set to be… well electric.

Ahead of the season opener in China, I sat down with Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird to get his thoughts…

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BEN CROUCHER: Tell us about the last 12 months and how you came to be involved in Formula E?

SAM BIRD: “Formula E has exploded onto the scene in the motorsport world in the last 12 months. I became aware of it towards the end of last year. I was speaking to my manages quite heavily about this. We went to see Virgin Racing in their offices in London towards the end of last year. It became apparent that they were extremely serious about competing at the highest level in this form of motorsport. We were very keen and thankfully they chose me as one of their drivers. I think it’s great to be on board with this new category because it’s really going places. Formula E being a fully electric series is the future, that’s the way the automotive industry is looking to go. If we can get manufacturers on board, we could see the increase in electric cars on the road.”

BC: Virgin Racing entered Formula One for a couple of seasons. Does it surprise you how much commercial interest there is in the sport?

SB: “Not at all. Because it has this unique selling point of being completely electric. It’s the perfect thing for Virgin to getting involved with. Virgin and Sir Richard Branson love getting involved in pioneering activities. This is perfect timing to do this.”

BC: And with other brands involved too, it looks like it’s got the legs to stick about…

SB: “It’s not another A1GP, which was fantastic but unfortunately fell by the wayside. This has probably the most important unique selling point in any form of motorsport in modern history.”

BC: Tell us about the cars…

SB: “It’s a single seater racing car powered by a battery power unit that’s basically like 10,000 AA batteries stacked next to each other capable of speeds up to 135-140mph, racing on 10 of the coolest cities around the world. We regenerate some of the battery power by using the brakes and the paddle on the steering wheel. We can choose 6 different power modes. You have to use intricate strategies to get our cars around the quickest and last the longest race distance.”

BC: It sounds very complicated. How does that all become accessible to the fans?

SB: “I think fans will get used to that as the season goes on. One very interesting with the fans is a thing called FanBoost. Fans can, for the first time, really interact with the race itself, they can choose their favourite driver to try and get an extra boost during a race. If that driver is selected and they win, a fan will feel a sense of pride that they’ve helped their driver. Not only are they supporting, they’re having a physical influence on the race.”

BC: How do you feel about that? Is it not a little artificial?

SB: “I think it’s great. It is artificial but fans are actually getting involved. It’ll bring in a new fanbase. Young people will want to get involved in this.”

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BC: You’ve got 10 different street circuits all around the world, most if not all are completely new and all posing their own unique challenges for you.

SB: “Street circuits have always been a strong point for me. I’m looking forward to going to Monaco because I’m trying to win 3 in a row there. I think it’s amazing. We’re very blessed with this series to boast such an incredible lineup of cities. It’s such a strong lineup of drivers as well. Formula E is looking extremely strong going into its first year.”

BC: With 10 ex-F1 drivers, not including test drivers. If you take a win in this, it’s a serious achievement.

SB: “Absolutely. It’s not a Mickey Mouse, gimmicky series. This is serious. People are putting serious money and serious development to try and be right up the front. It’s not something that wants to stay around for 2-3 years and make a bit of money. This series will be around for a long time. It will be there to support the automotive industry in the future and will be used as a top line single seater category for years to come.”

BC: The first person you have to beat is your teammate. How difficult will that be when the cars are identical.

SB: “I’ve known Jaime for a long time. He’s a super guy and a fast driver. We’ve worked well in testing. Let’s see what happens throughout the year.”

BC: Having come so close to the GP2 title a couple of years ago, do you feel like this is an opportunity to prove yourself against the best in the sport and remind people that you have what it takes at that top level?

SB:“I don’t see it as a case of reminding people. I don’t feel like I need to do that any more. People will have made up their mind of what I’m capable of or not. I don’t worry about that. What I’m focussed on is my team, Virgin Racing, and making sure we are in the best condition possible to win races.”

BC: Take us back to that moment when you had that first test when you got to feel the car for the first time…

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SB: “I was very surprised. I went into it not knowing what to expect. I came out of the car extremely happy that I’d chosen to do this series. I thought it was going to be not the fastest or challenging. It is fast. It is challenging. You’re very busy in the cockpit and I’m sure spectators will really see that on track.”

BC: But not as physically challenging as the other Formula?

SB: “In terms of physically on the body, it’s not as draining. Mentally, it’s extremely draining. We have to do 15 rotary changes on the steering wheel per lap. We are extremely busy in the car. It demands a lot of concentration.”

BC: How do you train for that?

SB: “By testing and by working closely with your engineers. By using simulators to try to simulate the correct strategy. There’s a lot of time and energy that’s gone into this.”

BC: So all of that going on in the cockpit, whilst listening to your engineers, driving at 130mph around some of the hardest street circuits in the world, I guess that’s what separates you from us mere mortals…

SB: “Well that and the racing talent bit and I think you’re pretty much spot on!”