Formula E

Slow and boring? Formula E is cool and fun, says Richard Branson, and will overtake F1 in 10 years

Billionaire Virgin Group founder says electric racing series is going to have wins and losses as it gets up to speed, but calls on governments to support it and help lead fight against climate change

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 7:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 8:59pm

Being a billionaire business magnate means you must be good at something, but for Richard Branson racing was never his strong suit.

“I’ve tried racing myself at Silverstone and I remember being so far last that I was hoping the crowd would think I was first,” he told the Post, laughing, in an exclusive interview. “But I don’t think that worked.”

Luckily for the 67-year-old founder of the Virgin Group, estimated by Forbes to be the 324th wealthiest person in the world with a net worth of about US$5 billion, he doesn’t have to get behind the wheel for the DS Virgin Racing team in Formula E.

That job is left to Alex Lynn and Sam Bird, with the latter winning the first race of the season-opening Hong Kong E-Prix double header earlier this month.

“I was in New York when Sam won our first races last season, and it’s tremendously exciting when your team wins and anyone who says otherwise would be lying,” Branson said.

“We’ve got a couple of incredibly good drivers, our technicians are excellent as well. The team have a good chance to end the season high up in the rankings and if they can go the whole way so much the better.”

Timing is often the key to success in racing, on and off the track. So it was in 2009 for Branson’s entry into the world of motorsport when a management team led by Ross Brawn bought out Honda’s troubled Formula One team.

“I got ridiculously lucky with a telephone call saying Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello’s new team, Brawn GP, needed a sponsor,” said Branson.

“A friend of my son’s was test driving the car and I rang him up in Japan. He said it was the best car ever.

“So we put a bit of money into the first race on the basis if, if we won, we’d have our brand on every car and they came first and second in Australia.

“I’ve never got so drunk in my life. I think the film The Hangover was based on my evening out. But anyway, I got sucked in to motorsport.”

Button won the 2009 F1 drivers title and Brawn clinched the constructors’ title, but the team disbanded after one season.

Branson threw his branding weight behind the unsuccessful Virgin Racing team – subsequently Marussia – in 2010 and 2011 but was convinced to switch his attention to Formula E by Alex Tai, who is now DS Virgin Racing’s team principal and had worked with Branson on other projects such as space travel.

“Alex came to me one day and said we really shouldn’t be involved in Formula One any more, that Formula E is gonna spearhead clean energy and I agreed with him,” said Branson.

“It’s been incredibly exciting. It’s growing very rapidly, every season they’re bringing in new initiatives. I’m willing to forecast that 10 years from now, if Formula One continue in their current way, I think Formula E will overtake it.

“And so it should, because the world should be powered by clean cars. We’ve all got to wean ourselves off dirty cars, and Formula E can lead the way in that.”

Watch: Richard Branson announces new Race Against Climate Change initiative

Branson and DS Virgin Racing also launched their Race Against Climate Change initiative ahead of the HKT Hong Kong E-Prix.

“Formula E has done a lot to raise awareness of things like climate change,” he continued. “We’re in a position to inspire people from both race fans to governments to play their part in tackling things like climate change.

“The team really wants to use it to accelerate initiatives that help the world achieve the goals of Paris Climate Accord. It’s just a fantastic platform to shine a light of advancing technologies in electronic vehicles.

“And also to show the world electric cars aren’t slow and boring, but they’re cool and fun. And sustainable.”

Branson saw the effects of climate change first hand when Hurricane Irma devastated the Caribbean islands this year.

He rode out Irma in the fortified wine cellar of his 74-acre private island Necker, where his compound is protected by reinforced hurricane blinds, but the rest of the island and others like Barbuda, St Martin and St Barts were left in ruin.

He has since helped launch the Caribbean Climate Smart Coalition with the aim of powering the Caribbean on clean fuel and bringing greater infrastructure resilience through a US$8 billion investment plan.

“The speed of the winds that hit our islands were 285 miles per hour,” he said. “It’s completely unheard of. As the seas heat up, you’re going to get more and more problems like that.

“More people are becoming more conscious of this beautiful world we live in after more episodes like the hurricanes or the fires raging in California that are climate related.

“Formula E is something that helps a lot with that. The great thing with Formula E is we can have fun, entertain people and do something for a good cause which is just a perfect mixture.”

Formula E is not without its problems. The fourth season has already taken a couple of big logistical hits, with the Sao Paulo race switched to Punta del Este in Uruguay and Montreal mayor Valerie Plante cancelling the city’s season-ending double header, calling it a “financial fiasco” which would cost taxpayers up to US$35 million in 2018.

The Hong Kong E-Prix is in no danger of having the plug pulled on it, with its HK$10 million deficit borne by organisers Formula E Racing Hong Kong and Formula E Holdings, though organisers must still negotiate with the government how best to extend the 1.8 kilometre Central Harbourfront circuit to meet FIA standards of 2.4 kilometres with 24 cars starting next season.

“It’s really important for governments to back it,” said Branson. “You’re gonna have wins, you’re gonna have losses. But the more cities that realise the importance of Formula E, the better.”