The GSB Interview

Lucas di Grassi, Leading Formula E Driver and Electric Mobility Advocate

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Lucas di Grassi is a true Green-Sports pioneer.

The 35 year-old native of São Paulo, Brazil won the first ever Formula E race in Beijing in 2014. Since then, di Grassi has been one of Formula E’s leading drivers: He won its 2016-17 season championship, backed that up with a second place finish the next season and came in third in 2018-19, driving for the Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler team. 

While di Grassi sits in fifth place in the 2019-20 campaign after last weekend’s race in Mexico City, the season is still in its early days and a championship is still in his sights.

Off the race track, he is a powerful and insightful advocate for the many benefits of electric mobility.

GreenSportsBlog talked with di Grassi about his career, e-mobility, its impacts on climate change and more.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Lucas, how did you get started in auto racing?

Lucas di Grassi: Auto racing is in my family. My uncle had a go cart shop in the São Paulo area and go cart racing was a hobby for my dad. So, it was natural for me to get into it and to start racing.

GSB: At what age?

Lucas: I guess I was eight or nine…

GSB: That’s young!

Lucas: Not really — this is when a lot of kids get started. Anyway, I finished last in my first race but then I started to get it. Soon I started winning, first in regional races and then nationally in Brazil. This was the case in Juniors and in high school. At 17, I joined Formula 3

GSB: …The third tier of open-wheel “formula” racing…

Lucas: I did that for two years, moved up to F2 for three years, made it before to Formula 1 in 2010.

GSB: WOW! You did it all. What led you to switch to Formula E?

Lucas: Actually, I didn’t switch directly from Formula 1 to Formula E: After competing in F1 in 2010 and being a test driver in 2011, I joined Audi in 2012 for their sports car program to compete in World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

I was already interested in electric mobility and at that time, Alejandro Agag and Jean Todt had founded Formula E. I became a kind of adviser for the championship. And of course I was more than happy that ABT and Audi committed themselves to Formula E at a very early stage and I became a part of that.

 

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Lucas di Grassi, after finishing 2nd in the first Formula E race of the 2019-20 season in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Photo credit: Audi Communications Mortorsport/Malte Christians)

 

GSB: When did you become an environmentalist? 

Lucas: You know I’m not an environmentalist in the traditional sense — of course I’m interested in a healthy planet and environment and I know we need to tackle all sorts of environmental issues including urban air pollution and climate change — but I’m not interested in going backwards economically or otherwise.

GSB: What about electric mobility and EVs fascinated you? What motivates you and your Formula E competitors? Is it the environment and/or climate change? Or is it more from a sporting perspective?

Lucas: I can only speak for myself and say my motivation for being a Formula E driver is a mixture of several things: Formula E has probably the best grid in the racing world and more manufacturers than any other category. This means we have a competition on the highest level possible.

And secondly, for me racing in Formula E is racing for a reason: The electrification of mobility plays a key role in the battle against air pollution. Together with Formula E we drive the development and marketing of these technologies. Formula E is the only series that focuses public attention on the environmental problems of our times.

GSB: Which is why Formula E’s existence is crucial. Talk more about your interest in electric mobility…

Lucas: So, for me, electric mobility is about the future of humankind. The key is how we use technology — it can be used to destroy the planet, yes, so it is imperative we use it propel us forward in a healthy, equitable, just way.

Electric mobility is the right thing to do in many ways: for the environment, for urban air quality, for quality of life from a noise pollution perspective, and it will make transportation cheaper.

GSB: I get the urban air quality and the environmental pieces but how will EVs make transportation less costly?

Lucas: The efficiencies are greater in an electrically-powered vehicle than in an internal combustion engine one so it is cheaper per mile per user.

GSB: Is that the case now or will that happen once the EV market grows thanks to economies of scale?

Lucas: Operating an electric vehicle is already cheaper and that advantage will grow as the batteries get even more efficient and as the EV market scales. The cost of operating the vehicle, the cost of the fuel — electrons as opposed to gasoline — is becoming cheaper. This means the cost of owning a car will go down dramatically. In fact, in urban areas, at some point it will be more expensive to park a car than to own it. One trend you’ll see is that car ownership will go down, especially in urban areas…

GSB: …Makes a lot of sense. Does that mean ride share and shared ownership models will take the place of individual car ownership in cities?

Lucas: That should be the case. Really, we’re moving to ‘Mobile As A Service”. Think about it: Cars, especially those in urban areas, are idle maybe 95 percent of the day. That’s billions of dollars of assets depreciating while not being used. So there will be different ways of sharing cars so that they’re used more of the time, with fewer people actually owning individual cars.

GSB: That’s a fascinating take, one that makes a lot of sense. I’d love to delve into it more deeply another time. For now, please talk a bit more about your thoughts about climate change. How does e-mobility fit into the fight to rein in emissions?

Lucas: Well Lew, in the big picture it is the duty of all of us, no matter what our profession, to use all knowledge, including about climate change, to serve humankind. In my case, regarding my knowledge of climate change, I have a moral duty to promote the need to find the best approaches to deal with this serious global problem.

Now, as far as e-mobility is concerned, cars represent about 10 to 12 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is similar to the percentage that comes from the methane produced from cows. So, electrifying all cars won’t solve the carbon emissions problem and thus the climate crisis. That is especially the case when one considers that most of the electricity stored on EV car batteries is generated from natural gas or coal. As that changes to electricity generated from solar, wind, hydro and other renewables, the GHG reductions by shifting EVs will grow. But it still won’t be enough to solve the problem.

For now, the greatest contribution mass EV adoption can make to the climate fight is psychological. You see, there is evidence that shows that people who buy EVs become more likely to make more climate-friendly purchase decisions and other actions. This is very important.

GSB: Absolutely!  Back to Formula E, what are the differences between it and Formula 1 driving?

Lucas: From a racing perspective there is not a big difference between Formula E and any other single seater category.

The unique thing about Formula E is that as a race driver you have to take care of things like energy or temperature management which is quite demanding – especially given the fact that we have hardly any driver aids in the car and compete on very narrow street circuits. It’s like playing chess at 200 kilometers per hour (124 mph) sometimes…

GSB: I can’t play chess, even at zero mph, so this is hard to imagine! How was Formula E received by the racing public back in the early days?

Lucas: It was a hard fight at first to convince the entire racing world that Formula E would be successful. There was skepticism about E-mobility and whether could go fast enough to excite fans. And some fans miss the noise of a traditional auto race and the smell of gasoline.

GSB: I went to the Formula E race in Brooklyn last July and was amazed at how…quiet it all was. Didn’t need ear plugs at all. And there was absolutely no smell of gasoline. Both to me were very good things. But admittedly I am not an avid motorsports fan. So, how did attitudes change?

Lucas: Really, humans are wired to be averse to change, so much so that they’ll make passionate arguments without facts. Which slows the pace of change.

Think about the early days of auto racing back in the late 19th century. Then, people said ‘why would I want to watch cars race? Cars don’t have a soul; horses have souls. It’s better to ride a horse, to race a horse.’

Eventually progress and facts win.

Look at a photo of New York City in 1900: Horses are everywhere, barely a car in sight. Compare that to a photo from 1913, just a mere decade later: All you see are cars.

 

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Horses dominate 5th Avenue in New York City on Easter Sunday, 1900 (Photo credit: Reddit)

 

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Fast forward to Easter Sunday 1913 and automobiles dominate 5th Avenue (Photo credit: Photo credit George Grantham Bain Collection)

 

The point is, attitudinal and actual change seems impossible — until it isn’t. And then change happens fast. I see that happening now with EVs and Formula E.

Slowly, fans are beginning to see that EV racing is the future. They see that the cars are fast and people find that they like racing no matter the power source. And they’re starting to like driver strategy around power management in Formula E racing — that’s a huge aspect of EV racing.

GSB: Plus doesn’t every Formula E driver have the exact same car, which puts a premium on driver skill? As opposed to F1 or NASCAR, where the cars vary?

Lucas: That’s only partially true, Lew.

Every Formula E car has the same chassis and car equipment. But every manufacturer that races in Formula E, from BMW to Audi to Jaguar and more, uses their own drive trains — basically the motors that are powered electrically by the batteries. And so each team is trying to design and build a better motor, which ultimately is an advance for E-mobility.

GSB: So with that being the case, you are currently in 5th place in the 2019-20 season, after the Mexico City race the weekend of February 15th. What will determine how you and your Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler team finish the season? Can you still win the season long championship?

Lucas: So far this season, I’m doing OK but of course 5th place is not great. Team-wise, we’re in 4th position. Also not great.

The good things are 1. There is time left to move up and win the championship, 2. Our team is great, and 3. Every race is different, from the weather conditions to the track and more. For us to do well, I have to drive well, the car needs to operate at peak efficiency, and the software needs to perform well. And we can use good luck.

 

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Lucas di Grassi racing his Audi e-tron during the Mexico City Formula E race on February 15, 2020 (Photo credit: Audi Communications Motorsport/Michael Kunkel)

 

GSB: Amen to that! Do you foresee NASCAR adding an EV stock car circuit any time soon? The size of their fan base in North America is massive and that could further accelerate adoption of EVs and the need for climate action.

Lucas: NASCAR is a different animal as compared to F1. It’s purely an entertainment platform, it’s not technology-based. They were using cars with carburators not that long ago and that is an ancient technology.

Another challenge to an EV NASCAR circuit is that on big NASCAR oval tracks, there isn’t much need to decelerate, which helps EV batteries charge.

GSB: Are you referring to regenerative braking, which means that the friction caused by braking produces heat that can be stored as energy as in a hybrid car?

Lucas: That’s right. Because there’s no braking to speak of in NASCAR, a current EV would only last maybe 10-15 minutes. But because Formula E courses have many twists and turns, drivers are constantly braking, adding to the power stored on their batteries.

GSB: Battery capacity sounds key not only for there to be a viable NASCAR EV circuit but also for Formula E. Where do things stand?

Lucas: The next advances for e-mobility overall, including for Formula E surround high-energy fast charging which will allow a full charge in five minutes. Work is being done to improve battery materials, heat management and more.

Longer term, as I said earlier, as renewables scale, EV driving will get less carbon intense. But it’s not only renewables — we also need to be adding nuclear power, not reducing it as nuclear is virtually carbon-free. And nuclear is more scalable now than are renewables.

Look at Germany: They mandated a big switch from nuclear power to renewables and, because renewables are not ready at scale, their carbon emissions went up. This is not the way to go.

GSB: I agree. One last question: What happened on the streets of Mexico City last weekend?

Lucas: Mexico City was one of the most amazing Formula E events with enthusiastic fans and an absolutely unique atmosphere. We had a difficult day from a sporting point of view: After a small mistake in Qualifying Group One, I started 15th, made up nine positions and ended up finishing sixth. That was the best we could do, but it obviously was not what we had hoped for after our successful streak in Mexico in the previous years.

But still, we earned good points for the season long championship: Right now we are just 15 points behind the leader, so nothing is lost.

 


 

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