Coming weekend, history will be made. For the first time, Grand Prix racing will welcome vehicles not powered by internal combustion engines, as the MotoE series makes its debut at the Sachsenring. It is the very first step on the long path toward a future where batteries replace burning hydrocarbons.
But the series got off to a rocky start, even before the first race. At the second test of the electric bike racing series, a fire started in the special tent containing all of the bikes, batteries, and chargers, destroying everything and wiping out the entire series in one fell swoop.
Since March, Nicolas Goubert, director of the MotoE series for Dorna; Energica, who build the spec electric bikes to be raced in the series; and Enel, who supply the charging technology to maintain the bikes, have worked at double speed to rebuild everything needed for the series, and get it ready for the inaugural race at the Sachsenring.
In Le Mans, I spoke at length to Goubert about the progress made in preparing the series, the challenges they had faced, and the lessons learned from the fire in Jerez.
The fire highlighted some of the difficulties of an electric bike series, but just staging the series raises logistical and technical issues which nobody had foreseen.
Here is part 1 of the interview. Part 2 will follow tomorrow:
Q: I want to ask obviously about the progress, because that’s important, but also just in general about because setting up a completely new series, you’re going to run into things that you never thought of. But first of all, do you know what caused the fire yet?
Nicolas Goubert: No. There is an investigation going on, and we’re still waiting for the conclusion of the investigation. Right now we don’t have the explanation.
What we know is that the fire started where we had in our box twelve boxes for the teams, twelve teams, and then one in which we had many things. The fire started from there. That’s all we know. We have to wait until the conclusion, the investigation, to have an explanation of what happened.
But anyway, having gone through an experience, I would call it, like that, of course that makes you think about more things. We always knew that a fire could happen, or electroshock could happen. If you go through the paddock, if you think about what could happen…
Q: We’ve seen this. Last year Suzuki or one of the other bikes caught fire. From time to time…
NG: I think two or three years ago the Tech3 box caught fire as well. So you know that things like that can happen.
This time, because everything was packed together because it’s a Cup series, then we lost everything. It would have been very different if we had been in different boxes.
Q: You would have lost one or two boxes, and that’s it?
NG: When the other box caught fire, I think three boxes. The fire spread into only three boxes and then stopped. It wasn’t the case there. So that makes you realize that you have to be more careful than what we were.
I’ll give you an example. You never take the same measures when you are doing a test or when you are doing a race. The same for the number of marshals. The same for the number of ambulances and everything.
We have made sure with the FIM that, and it’s in the regulations since January, that when we will have races with MotoE, then a fire engine should be less than two minutes away from the MotoE paddock.
That was for races. So next time we will have it even during a test. It looks like details, but at the end of the day…
Q: Does this also mean that when you come to races, you’ll still have everything together but you’ll have it organized a little bit differently?
NG: It will be organized a little bit differently. Actually, just before our meeting here I was with Geoff (Dixon, paddock manager for IRTA) and Carlos (Ezpeleta, right hand man to his father, Dorna CEO Carmelo) to talk about the exact setup.
It’s not 100% fixed, but what we’ll do is we’ll separate, for transport reason as well, we will separate the charger area. We don’t know exactly if we’ll make it very close. It will be a case by case. We’re still defining exactly the way it will be organized.
Q: Also because each paddock’s shape is different, so the logistics change?
NG: Yes. It’s a question of making choices. If you go around the paddock, wherever you go it looks packed. So basically if you want something else, you have to move. Question of variety and choices to make.
Q: Obviously the fire put you back a long way, because you had the chargers and the bikes destroyed…
NG: And the tent and many things. The riders, we had – maybe you were not aware of that – but our press team was there to do a photo shoot with the media guys.
So we asked all the riders to make sure they would be ready with the new leathers and everything, and all of them were ready with all the nice leathers in the box.
Q: So all those leathers went as well?
NG: To come back to your initial question, you said it was really fast the way we were turning things around. I’m really thankful to the work that Energica has been doing.
Q: Impressive for a very small manufacturer.
NG: It’s a small manufacturer. The day after the fire, I could tell that they were very motivated to stand up again and to be ready as soon as possible. Really what was the most difficult was not for them to find the resources, because the guys were ready to work night and day, Saturday and Sunday, whenever needed.
Again, because it’s a Cup, then all the suppliers are the same. If something like that happens in MotoGP, you have six brands with six lots of different suppliers around them. I wouldn’t say easy, but not as difficult.
It’s all down to six suppliers who supply all the grid, basically. But I’m very happy with the suppliers as well because they reacted very positively trying to find a way to bounce back. Honestly speaking, I never thought it could be faster than that, and not even needed.
That thing happened mid-March. We knew that race end of April was impossible, and just two weeks after it was impossible as well because you have to be aware as well that we needed one test before the beginning of the season.
So, to slip in a test session in-between these two races was impossible, because you have to find a track, everyone has to be available and so on. So even the day after, or during the night, I thought the best we can do…
Q: What time did you get to sleep that night?
NG: I went to bed maybe at 3:00 at night, but that was not a problem not to sleep. Actually I was called by one of my mates from Michelin. I was staying with them in the hotel. I was in my bed. It was 12:00 at night.
He called me and he said, “You have to come down to the reception.” I’ve just gone to bed. It’s not the time to joke. It’s not a good joke. He said, “No, it’s very serious so please come down.” So he explained to me and I was there to see the fire. Not nice.
So even my best dream, we couldn’t have started earlier than Sachsenring. It’s what’s going to happen. So hats off to Energica and all the people around them who will have supplied everything on time.
Dell’Orto, Brembo, the wheels, Marchesini . It’s not easy in two months and a half, less than three months to do again everything, because all that stuff is specific.
Q: Were there any lessons from the tests which you’ve already done which can help with the development of the class? Or was it just still too early, not enough data?
NG: I would say the first day of testing in Jerez went very well. I was very happy because that was the first time all riders had their own bike. When we ran in November, they were sharing bikes. So it was very difficult. It was important to have that test for Energica to have some feedback, but to make slight modifications.
In between November and March that’s what they did, so that was really important. For example, the riders asked to have a double common rear brake. There are some slight modifications in the position of the switches and so on. So Energica had time to do that.
But the first day of testing in Jerez was really good because they all had their own bikes and the conditions were very good. The times were a lot faster. Everyone had a smile on his face. And then… [snaps fingers] Gone just like that. So the bikes will be exactly the same as the one we had.
Q: At the beginning I asked you, is there something that you ran into through all this process? Not just the fire, but everything, that you didn’t expect? Were there problems where you thought, I hadn’t really thought of that? There’s lots of things you can plan about. You can think about energy charging, parts of the bike, supply… I remember going to the bikes at the November test and all of the teams were suddenly really surrounding the bikes with coolers because they hadn’t sort of realized that actually managing the temperature of batteries was important. There must be something that you’ve run into, as well?
NG: That’s a good one actually. With the teams what we tried to do, and that’s something Enel ran into as well, when we tried to do the first test we tried to give three slots to the teams during the day. Then the chargers didn’t work the way we thought they would. It’s just something tricky.
Basically they were normal chargers that you can find on the street. These things, they are not made to be connected to a single source in parallel. So basically you never have a place where you have ten of them plugged into the same source, because they stand alone.
Q: Normally you would have ten of them spread over a city, instead of ten of them connected to the same mains?
NG: Yes. It took us and Enel a while to work out why they were not working well. We thought that the energy supply at Jerez was not the right level. That was only part of the reason, but then the other part of the reason was because these things were not made to plugged into the same thing.
We were going to use them only for a couple of tests, so they are not, and we have not required any specific work on them because it’s not something we were going to keep. But that’s the kind of thing you run into.
Q: They’re not 220. They are…?
NG: 380 three phase. So basically they modify the software for them to be able to plug in to the same energy source, energy supply. For us, here’s something not difficult focused, but when we worked with Mike on the regulations, when we looked at the restart race procedure, we had to modify what we used in the normal races because of the charging time.
Q: You can’t just refuel?
NG: You can refuel, but it takes you time.
Q: You can’t do a quick restart.
NG: So theoretically speaking, it should be different from a race to another one, because the energy consumption is not the same. But when you make a regulation, you cannot have the regulation change at every race. So you have to sit down and take the most demanding track and say, “Okay, what we can do there?” I’m sorry, but we have to apply that everywhere else.
So things like that are in all parts of the regulations. The fact that we will be in the paddock, not on the pit lane, basically depending where we will be the riders will have to go through the paddock for a while and then if the tires cool down, we have to think about a holding area for them to make sure the tires are warm before going? Details like that.
Q: Also if they’re going through the paddock, again they might be using energy unless they’re being pushed?
NG: No, we will ask them to push the bikes.
Q: So they don’t lose charge?
NG: It’s more for the security reason. We don’t want people to cruise with these bikes through the crowd. For safety reasons as well. We ask as well Energica – we found out quite quickly – basically to put a buzzer on the bike to be coupled with the speed limiter, for the people in the pit lane to be aware that somebody’s coming.
We will put a light. The bikes will be fitted with safety lights in case of a crash and in case there is an electroshock risk touching the bike for the marshals to know, don’t touch that bike. There are two lights on each side of the bike.
So you have many things. Something else very, very simple but which can be of importance, that happened to me actually. Last year I was talking to Hervé Poncharal. He was on an electric scooter. I had my hand on his accelerator. When I was talking, and he moved. Actually, that happened to Franco when he did the one-lap thing. When he got off the bike, he touched the throttle.
Q: He didn’t think about it?
NG: No. So the riders have to be aware of that. What we’ve asked Energica to do is to put a flashing light on the dashboard. Let’s say the rider is on the pit lane ready to start and his mechanic tells him, “Wait a little bit because I have to check something.”
Okay. The rider doesn’t think about it. Maybe they were going to be there for two, three, four minutes. If somebody makes a silly thing like I did, touch the throttle, then that’s it. It will be blinking to remind the rider.
Q: So you’ve having to put more visual warnings?
Q: Sometimes in pit lane, sometimes the riders switch their engines up – even in MotoGP they switch their engine, and they cruise in. If you’re not sort of aware all the time, they can catch you out as well.
NG: So it’s things like that you have to be aware of. We thought about many things for safety reasons, but for sure some other things will come up during practices or during race weekends.
Q: Exactly. That’s why you go racing. To go racing to find out these things.
NG: Yeah. So we tried to cover as much as possible, and of course I was involved in Formula E when I was with Michelin. I looked at what they did. These things about the light signal for the marshals, the buzzer, that’s the things they had. So that I knew straightaway that we have to have that.