Formula E: An Unforgettable Experience

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After months of pestering via email, I was invited to the final Formula E pre-season test, courtesy of the host broadcasters, Aurora Media Worldwide for work experience, and it was unforgettable.

I suppose it’s not your usual work experience that most school leavers find themselves doing, but as a passionate journalist, broadcaster and general fan, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. And next thing I knew, I found myself packing a bag and driving up to Donington to check into a hotel on Sunday evening.

Formula E: An Unforgettable Experience

Aurora is a sports broadcasting company and provide the live feed for Formula E, which channels such as ITV in the UK and FOX in the USA then pick up. The commentator Jack Nicholls and presenter Nicki Shields are included in this, but unsurprisingly, are mainly picked up by the English TV channels when they provide their links, with FOX for example using other people.

So I had arrived at the hotel and checked in and waited for the next day to begin. I was nervous. Very nervous. Looking back on it now, I needn’t have been, but I had no idea what was waiting for me, or the pressures I would soon find myself under. I set three alarm clocks for 9.00am on Monday morning, because, like most people, I assumed my usual alarm on my phone would naturally fail when I needed it the most.

Unsurprisingly I was abruptly awoken by a swarm of alarm clock tones and after moving at the speed of light to turn them off, headed down to breakfast.

The first thing to happen which allowed me to realise that I was a part of the Formula E circus was when someone walked into breakfast wearing an Amlin Andretti shirt. Instantly I thought I recognised his face and after a subtle Google search to check if my suspicions were true, I was surprised yet delighted to be sitting a few tables away from GP2 winner, Formula Renault 3.5 champion and former F1 reserve driver Robin Frijns. I got quite a buzz after I realised that I was one of the few ‘outsiders’ to know Frijns was to be testing for the Andretti squad over the two days, with his arrival being confirmed by the team a couple of hours later.

So I set off for the circuit, only a five-minute drive away. I picked up my pass from the accreditation centre. Members of the media received green passes, but I was given a red pass. I felt very special. As I then drove through the gates I saw Jack Nicholls casually strolling in beside me as I drove past the Formula E HQ. On my way to park I was confronted by a mass of BMW safety and medical cars and the Mercedes rescue car. Then I set off for the media centre. On my way there I met many people I recognised simply from following them on twitter. As I strolled towards the steps up to the media centre, I was shocked to see how much I could see into all the team garages, as they were setting up their cars while various drivers and high profile broadcasters walked past me. The one thing I must say about the Formula E cars is how beautiful they look in person. They may not be as fast as other motor racing categories, but the liveries and design is very easy on the eyes!

As I entered the media suite, I picked up my media tabard, which, if in the pitlane, everyone must wear. I proceeded to wait as all the drivers were in a conference room for a safety briefing. It was very odd seeing the drivers in person as they came out of the room. As someone who has only ever seen drivers on TV, to see them in person is, well, weird. They are a lot smaller than you think!

As they all filed out I was introduced to Jack Nicholls. The commentator is known for his very energetic and over excitable tendencies, which certainly came across when talking to him. He complemented me on my beige chinos. Then I walked to the garages where Aurora was set up. The teams occupied most of the garages of course, but then comes Michelin (the tyre supplier), Aurora, the FIA and then Magnetti Marelli (the break supplier). The media centre and the commentary booth are directly above.

When working in TV, there is a lot of waiting around; particularly in motorsport, as drivers do not like the media one bit, well most of them. Eventually we managed to snag Daniel Abt for a green screen after the unveiling of the new Abt car. The green screening was for the on screen graphics that you see during the race. The drivers had particular movements they had to do and then they could leave. However, the majority refused, as they didn’t have their up to date overalls with all their sponsors. And Daniel Abt refused to take his hat off. Drivers popped in and out, but the green screening footage, for the first day at least, was proving difficult.

As there was a lull in filming, I decided to take a wonder down the pitlane. It was surreal just to be walking there. I walked all the way from Trulli to e.dams and popped into a few garages to see what was happening. I was surprised at how up close I could get. I didn’t stay long as I didn’t want to get in the way, and it was interesting to see the journalists and the photographers do their job in the pitlane. Immediately I knew I would find it almost impossible to be a simple fan again, attending a race only to watch from a stand. The access I got was incredible.

I headed back to the Aurora garages after dodging a car coming down the pitlane. When they enter they are almost silent, so a very loud siren goes off every time a car enters. A Team Aguri car came hurtling into the pits and I was slightly startled and rushed out the way, pushing newly confirmed Trulli driver Salvador Duran out of the way in the process as well!

A few minutes later, I headed out to the chicane with one of the cameramen to get some footage of the cars at the chicane and Melbourne Loop. As a fan, it was great to see the cars racing around a track live. To me, they sounded great. Different but something I think if you are a true motorsport fan, you can appreciate.

While we were out trackside, I was asked to get a ‘vox pop’. This means questioning fans to get their opinion on Formula E. This was great fun and great experience, if a tad daunting.

I didn’t leave the circuit until 7.30pm, so it was a long day, and I fell asleep as soon as I got back to the hotel.

The second day came and I only turned off the one alarm clock this time. At breakfast I had the pleasure of bumping into the Dragon duo of Jerome D’Amrosio and Loic Duval who were having breakfast together. I set off to the circuit again, this time much earlier, ready for an 8.30 start. As I arrived it was a very subdued morning, as the news of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson came through. He had died from a head injury during the late hours of Monday evening (UK time) after a piece of debris hit him during a race on Sunday. It was especially emotional as all the Formula E personal made their way out to the pit lane. There we all stood for a minute’s silence to honour the British driver, who had indeed raced for the Andretti Formula E team in Russia, earlier in the year. The morning session then got underway.

Inside the Aurora garages it was a much busier affair than the previous day. Drivers were coming and going for their green screens, as the production manager got quite feisty with all the team PR staff after the lack of drivers on the Monday. It was interesting to gauge the driver’s personality from the way they behaved during the pictures. The likes of Senna, Duval, Vergne, Silvestro, Bird and Piquet were all lovely and friendly and making jokes. I don’t want to say anything negative about any of the drivers, and there isn’t much to say. However, the Venturi drivers were not as approachable as the rest!

Halfway through the morning session I was out in the pitlane when all of a sudden a Trulli car appeared for the first time at the hands of Tonio Liuzzi. Almost the whole pitlane burst into a roar of applause when the car then made it back. It was a great example of the camaraderie evident between all the teams in Formula E.

The green screening continued and during the break between sessions, I decided to follow and help Nicki Shields interview some of the drivers. We set up in the pit lane and interviewed as many drivers as we could get hold of! One of the most interesting interviews Shields carried out was with Mexican Salvador Duran. I found his honesty during the interview compelling. He admitted that only a couple of days ago he had no idea where his career was headed and was really pleased to join the Trulli team. And it really showed.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience. To see how the TV side is all put together, to watch the journalists go about their job and generally as a fan, the access was like nothing I could believe. Something I’m sure would never be possible in a million years within the Formula One world.

Motorsport, in the UK at least, is definitely not a glamorous affair. It was raining, it was cold and there was a lot of waiting around on the floor for drivers, while discussing your favourite films with the cameramen. Indeed, when Piquet came for his green screen, he initially refused to take his cap off because of his hat hair. That was until Shields gracefully pampered him with a basic hairbrush from her bag. Needless to say, he didn’t quite like his ‘new’ hairstyle and soon put his cap back on!

What my experience did show me was how friendly the Formula E world is with such an open and honest atmosphere. I will be watching thoroughly this season and for the seasons to come to see how this futuristic series grows and develops to one day, be known as globally as Formula One.

It deserves to be.