The future of motorsports raises philosophical as well as technological challenges. It’s these aspects of the sport that have Hazel Southwell hooked. A long-time F1 fan and now freelance Formula E journalist, she talks with us about the Championship’s open culture and cutting-edge technology.
When Damon Hill took out the Formula One World Championship in 1996, the British public was becoming increasingly enthused about motorsports and Hazel Southwell was discovering a life-long passion for car racing. While she grew up watching Grand Prix races with her father and dreamt of becoming an F1 driver, this former BBC staffer is now a freelance Formula E journalist and a go-to source for independent articles on electric motorsports and the technology behind them.
It’s a community that supports each other, from the teams to the media to everyone that travels with it.
An open door and a bold approach
The relative newness of Formula E means the motorsport is comparatively accessible. Breaking into the world of Formula One is notoriously tough, but the need to establish electric-racing from scratch meant building up an infrastructure of interested media and creating a demand for coverage. Southwell compares the feeling within Formula E to that of a family working towards a common goal: “It’s a community that supports each other, from the teams to the media to everyone that travels with it”. Her attitude to mentoring other journalists sums this up: “I think the more we can all help each other the better. And if I can share my knowledge it’s not a zero-sum game… I’m not training somebody to take my job (but) broadening the people who may write about something I love”.
Establishing a new motorsport championship series is no easy feat. Southwell points out that less ambitious attempts have folded while Formula E has succeeded with a business model full of unknowns, including building up totally new race-tracks in city centres and racing untested technologies. In series three, a Formula E car was driven across an iceberg in Greenland, an act Southwell views as cementing not only the key message of sustainability but also the image of Formula E as unapologetically bold. “I think the reason it works is that it did something new,” she explains. “(It’s) not trying to be in any way (a) traditional motorsport… It’s not borrowing any structures, it’s not emulating anything”.
There’s more to e-mobility than battery range
Southwell is deeply passionate about the technology being used in Formula E cars and her favourite part of the job is explaining it to others in a way that creates excitement and engages them in the series. As a reporter, she wants to smash-through the stereotype that electric vehicles are bulky, non-responsive and limited in range. Though she recently gave a talk on batteries to a group of young school children (“I have to say I was a little bit worried that the content matter might not really engage an audience of mostly under ten-year olds”), she laments that many articles written about electric vehicles focus largely on battery life. “I think for me, when you see electric vehicles really fighting each other, when you see the level of passion that the drivers have for it, when you see electric vehicles pulling off cool moves… I think it does help people understand more about them and to also see them as robust, tough vehicles,” she explains.
Though road cars don’t need to perform in the same way as race cars, the breakthroughs and advancements being made in Formula E are pushing the boundaries for what’s possible in electric passenger vehicles. “What does go directly into road cars from Formula E is managing electric vehicles to a very, very high-performance level, managing efficiency, managing different driving styles…” Southwell explains. “Formula E cars undergo much, much more strain in that respect than any road car will ever undergo and that is a perfect testing ground… It’s (ultimately) making more robust and longer-range electric vehicles for the road”.
Autonomous vehicles have to be incredibly risk-averse, they have to avoid any kind of risk, any kind of safety issue and that's the opposite of what you have to do on a racetrack.
Taking racing to the next level
It is not only Formula E influencing the future of mobility. Having recently ridden in a Roborace car, Southwell finds it fascinating that this new autonomous electric motorsport is not only engaging and entertaining people but also raising philosophical questions, such as what can an autonomous driver be and how should we approach creating autonomous drivers in autonomous vehicles. “Autonomous vehicles have to be incredibly risk-averse, they have to avoid any kind of risk, any kind of safety issue and that’s the opposite of what you have to do on a racetrack,” Southwell explains. “And motivating a machine, motivating a program to want to win a race is such a fascinating thing to do and so difficult.” As motorsports so aptly illustrate, the beauty of electric mobility is that the technology is new and therefore so are the options and discussions surrounding it.