Mark Preston is team principal of DS Techeetah Formula E Motor Racing Team. Having career in motor sports for more than 30 years, Mark stepped away from Formula 1 and joined Formula E to be more relevant to the future.
smalltalk with Mark Preston
“Formula E is relevant to the future, and to sustainability. We race close to the people in megacities, which will shape the future.”
How did you get in to Formula E? (Mark Preston) I started racing in Australia almost 30 years ago while I was at university. When I was 27, I went to the UK to work in Formula 1 and I worked my way up in different Formula 1 teams having jobs like Head of R&D for the racing team Arrows Grand Prix and working with Adrian Newey at McLaren. Then I started a Formula 1 team with Aguri Suzuki and Honda called Super Aguri, which we ran in Formula 1 for two and a half years.
When I left Formula 1, I went and ran a carbon fiber composites company called Formtech Composites. I was also looking for what was then future in motor sport and automotive. After a trip to San Francisco to look at how the Valley dealt with the new coming disruption in the automotive sector, I realized that maybe we needed to be looking slightly differently.Before this journey, I was wrapped up in the Formula 1 world and didn’t really look to the future. That changed things though and I became very interested in what was going to happen in the industry in the future. I currently do quite a lot of thinking around things like smart cities, autonomous cars, urban transport, and mobility to name a few, because I believe that its’ the future of automotive.
In 2008, I helped an electric motor spin-out company of Oxford University called Oxford YASA Motors. That got me involved in business planning and understanding the coming changes in automotive and I was very early on in the electric vehicle space. We started to look at what could we do on the racing side. Could we race electric cars? So I worked with James Hunt’s brother, David Hunt, on what sort of concepts we could do with electric vehicles and race cars. And then all of a sudden the FIA were looking at electric vehicles so I went for the tender to supply electric race car. We weren’t successful in that bid but Alejandro (Alejandro Agag, former CEO of Formula E Race) was. He came with the whole package and a total plan for the whole series, so we joined as soon as it got announced that Alejandro had won the project. And that’s how I got involved in Formula E.
“The driver is really has to be on top of their game. Going to a new track in a city is a lot different than going to a Formula 1 track. They’re bumpy, unknown and unpredictable.”
The DS TECHEETAH Formula E team and team’s driver Jean-Eric Vergne have been showing amazing results. What makes team superior? (MP) I think in any sport, you require the whole package. Usually when somebody wins, they have everything. Having two really good drivers, and especially Jean-Eric Vergne, who has now won the championship twice, is really important. But you also need all the other pieces of puzzle too, you need a great management team and great group of engineers and all the support structure. We have really clever and innovative engineers who work on all the technical sides of the car and make if fast. We have a partnership with DS Automobiles which is really important and a big piece of the puzzle too. If you don’t have all the pieces, someone else will beat you.
What is the most difficult part in a Formula E race today? (MP) The drivers really have to be on top of their game. Going to a new track in a city is a lot different than going to a Formula 1 track. They’re bumpy, unknown and unpredictable. We’re racing on streets that buses and cars have been driving on for the last 30 years so the road is sometimes really slippery with oil from old buses and there are bumps everywhere from constant usage. It’s a bit difficult racing in cities when you just arrive with minimal preparation. So compared to other form of motorsport, like in Formula 1 for example, where you get testing on Friday, you’ve got Friday night to think about the problems, you’ve got more testing on Saturday and then you race on Sunday, whereas we’ve got everything in one day in Formula E. So the challenge for a driver to come up to speed fast enough on a Saturday morning and then carry through, make no mistakes during the day through the race is one of the most largest challenges in motorsport.
“As a Formula E race is over one day, it puts more pressure on the drivers.
It makes the sport more exciting as there’s more room for error, as it has less room for the engineers and drivers to get everything perfect.”
What’s the first thing to do on a race day? (MP) You have to wake up really early because we have an early start. First session on the track is about at 8 a.m. and we’re at the track two hours before you run. So that means 6:00 a.m. and a 5:00 a.m. alarm on race day. So the first thing I do is trying to get myself out of bed (Laugh).
Do you think in the future Formula E race will run over several days like Formula 1, If there is more infrastructures? (MP) No, I think it’s better to be on one day because it’s another area that makes us different. If you look at when they have Friday testing for about three hours in Formula 1, that means all the big teams can learn more about the track and the big teams like Mercedes can do a better job. If it’s over one day, then it puts pressure on the drivers more. So it makes a more exciting race, because there’s more room for error as it has less room for the engineers and drivers to get everything perfect. Even though I’m an engineer, I do believe in trying to make competition harder for the drivers. So running the race over one day makes it harder for the drivers, harder for the engineers, harder for the teams but makes it more exciting racing.
Formula 1 has been synonym for most advanced, luxurious, fastest. What would be Formula E? (MP) I think its relevant to the future, and sustainability. We’re also close to the people in megacities which shape the future of transportation. It’s exciting racing.
“Zone 1 in a city will be autonomous because it’s going to be very congested, dense and packed. Then as you go to zone 2, zone 3… that’s where personal transport will still be prevalent.”
Will the day ever come where we no longer driving personal car and driving only exist in the race? What is your take on autonomous car? (MP) You know the concept of zones in public transport? How you have Zone 1, let’s say, in London, which is the inner city. I think that Zone 1 will be autonomous because it’s going to be very congested. It’s very dense, very packed, as in most of the big megacities of the world. And then as you go to zone 2, zone 3 that’s where I believe you will find that personal transport will still be prevalent for at least the next 10, 20 years and the country side will continue to have individual transport due to the nature of the infrastructure in rural areas. But as you get closer into the city, it will be more about shuttles, autonomous buses, autonomous logistics, those kind of things. That’s my current thinking but that could change. It’s very hard to predict the future.
“Megacities are actually defining the future rather than countries.”
Would London dominate the definition of a Smart City? (MP) There’s a lot of discussion about who’s defining the future of the world. What you realize is that megacities that have above 10 million people like Seoul, Tokyo, Shenzen, Shanghai, New York and L.A. are the cities that are actually defining the future rather than countries, or states. I think the megacities will define the future because I have a statistic which says 60 percent of people will be living in cities by 2040. That means the global GDP will be about cities. That means that’s where the future is. Great business is driven by those megacities. So to answer your question, yes, London will be very important. Paris. Seoul, Shenzen, Tokyo, all the really big cities will dominate the future.
Subject you are interested in these days? (MP) Autonomous car is really interesting. I think the big thing is connected, electric, autonomous and shared. We’re looking at some other projects in connected vehicles because they’re really important to smart cities. Smart cities, connected, autonomous, shared and electric. That’s the zone that I’m looking at and that’s one of the reasons I moved away from Formula 1. I wanted to look at the future of our industry. I feel it’s always important to be relevant to the future and this is the right place to be. We might be a little bit ahead of the game right now, but that’s only good in my opinion.