Meet Ho-Pin Tung: the first Chinese driver who ever test drove a Formula 1 car, scored various wins and titles in single seater competitions and fulfilled duties for BMW-Sauber and Renault F1. This year, the 31-year-old driver races in the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia, the Asian Le Mans Series and the Le Mans 24 Hours. In addition, he was one of the happy few to test-drive the fully electric car which will run in the FIA Formula E Championship, starting in September.
Just before he was heading for France for the official 2014 Le Mans test day, ElectricAutosport.com spoke with him about Formula E, the Spark-Renault SRT_01E and his willingness to participate in the new global electric city centre racing competition.
On a bright day at Circuito Monteblanco in Spain, Tung was offered the chance to test a type of car which he had never driven before. Until now, only Lucas di Grassi, Jarno Trulli and a few not very famous drivers completed – in secret – laps around some unfamiliar tracks. How did Tung ended up there? “I guess it’s a small world. I’ve raced and tested many race cars, up to Formula 1. It was quite an honour when the organisation asked me to test the electric car as I’m very interested in new green technologies,” he says.
Speaking about these new technologies, Formula E is the first global championship that will race with fully-electric race cars. Meaning that these vehicles are solely powered by batteries and electric motors and do not emit harmful emissions. “Concerns about air quality are not only a topic in China, but globally. Sustainability and taking responsibility for the environment are worldwide high on the agenda. And that is also keeping me busy,” Tung explains. “We have the technology to do something about it, for example to improve efficiency of our vehicles. That’s basically what we are doing at Le Mans as it’s critical to control the fuel consumption and tyre wear.”
And he finds that showcasing electric racing in city centres makes sense. “I like that Formula E brings the sport to the people by racing downtown and that’s exactly the place where you don’t want these harmful CO2 emissions. From Amsterdam to Beijing, there are rules to prevent polluting cars to enter the cities and now you are able to race there,” he smiles.
Formula E is not only a marketing platform to create awareness about air pollution and to push the sales of electric cars. Most importantly, the series can function as a test bed for car manufacturers to develop EV technology. “I believe we can expect to see new developed technology embedded in our road cars in the near future,” Tung agrees and continues: “Motorsport has always been a platform for the automotive industry to push new technology. The same happened with regenerative breaking. I’m very positive the series will fulfil this objective, especially after the first year when constructors are able to race their own cars. That will definitely push technology forwards.”
Fun to drive
When Tung arrived at the Monteblanco circuit, he didn’t know what to expect. “It’s concept with the electric powertrain, the weight and the all weather 18 inch tyres have its influence on the handling of the car. But testing was fun and it was useful to feel what it actually is”, he says.
The 200 kW Formula E car has been built by the French company Spark Racing Technology, together with a consortium of leading companies in motorsport like Dallara (chassis), McLaren Electronic Systems (powertrain), Williams Advanced Engineering (batteries), Renault (systems integration) and Michelin (tyres).
Tung stepped into the car, fastened his seatbelt and turned on the car. What was his first experience? “The funny thing was; I heard noise, but of course no normal engine noise. That was different. Also, there is no clutch but just the pedal to go full throttle. Once on the track you can hear the wind blowing past your helmet, which is normal for single seaters, but without the engine noise it was a totally different experience.”
While driving a few laps around the Spanish circuit, he learned the car and got excited. “The car behaved very different to what I’m used to and you can’t really compare it. Because the different aerodynamics, the electronic motor, regenerative braking, much more torque and that sort of things are in play. You need to adjust yourself to the car in these situations to learn it. But in the end we were joking about it: it remains a car with four wheels and a steering wheel and you need to drive it as fast as possible,” he laughs. “It’s not a super fast car, which is impossible when you are looking at the specifications, but it’s fun to drive.”
Expect close racing
First reaction of most regular motorsport fans about electric racing is that it might not be excited as the cars won’t make much noise. “That’s hard to tell,” says Tung after questioning how it would be picked up by the audience. “Motorsport is emotionally driven and we all know the current sound issue of Formula 1. But on the other hand, the Formula E cars are certainly making noise. Perhaps motorsport fans won’t get excited about one car passing by, but a whole bunch of them must be thrilling. When people ask me about the sound, I always tell them that the sound is comparable with an airplane taxiing to its runway,” he finds.
Most importantly is the spectacle we can expect on the track. City centre circuits and renowned teams and drivers taking part with electric cars that are fun to drive. A good mix of ingredients? “The races will be fun to watch because the cars are built for close racing, looking at the aerodynamics and all the teams are using the same material. I also tested the push to pass feature, which enables the driver to use the 200 kW peak power for a short time and that will help drivers to overtake.”
Once the buzz starts
When it was announced that Beijing stages the event around the streets of the Olympic Park in Beijing, Tung got excited instantly. “The race location in Beijing is brilliant. The Olympic Park is such an iconic place for an event like this and it will make a lot of people proud,” Tung knows. “It is very special that the race is located there and it will certainly raise interest of the locals. Race or not, the Olympic Park is for most a great place to hang out. And of course it will matter if there is a Chinese driver racing. But the race promoter must ensure it is brought to the attention of the people and once the buzz starts, I can see it will be a success.”
Of course we asked the inevitable question: will you race? “I’m in contact with a few teams, right from the beginning. I’ve always had strong interest in new green technology. So, I would definitely like to race in September,” he firmly says.
The first public test sessions are scheduled on July 3 and 4 at UK’s Donington Park circuit, where Tung hopes to drive, and the inaugural race is scheduled on September 13 in Beijing, China. From there, it visits nine other iconic cities like Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Miami, London and Monaco.