• Mercedes in Formula E: The power of silence.

“Mercedes enters Formula E!”

Sometimes a mere centimetre makes the difference between past and future. Other times it’s a solid brick wall. Like now. The DTM season had just come to a close a few weeks prior. Once again, Mercedes – along with its partner HWA – finished the season as champions, with driver Gary Paffett clinching victory in the drivers’ category.

Now the team’s six racing cars are on hoists at HWA in Affalterbach, north-east of Stuttgart. Mechanics there are overhauling the Mercedes-AMG sports cars one last time; some of them will be sold to private customers. Four-litre, V8 engines: that was Mercedes in the bygone era of the DTM. But the electric era has just begun. It’s being forged on the other side of the wall, at the HWA Racelab.

“Mercedes enters Formula E!” read the headlines in summer of 2017. And step by step this project began to take shape. For its debut season in 2018/2019, Mercedes’ partner HWA procured a car from Venturi, an established Formula E team from Monaco. The following winter will see the Swabians line up at the start as a bona fide Mercedes works team, complete with its own engine from the repeat Formula 1 world champions’ engine shop in Brixworth, England.

Down to the last detail: the team has to learn as much as possible in the shortest possible time.

Down to the last detail: the team has to learn as much as possible in the shortest possible time.

Mercedes partner HWA is using a racing car from the Venturi team in its first season, and is set to get its own vehicle next year.

Mercedes partner HWA is using a racing car from the Venturi team in its first season, and is set to get its own vehicle next year.

A bit of an adventure at first.

You could say that, for Mercedes, Formula E will be a bit of an adventure at first. No other vehicle manufacturer in the world was more successful on the racetrack this millennium. Five Formula 1 world championships in a row, the most titles in the history of the DTM – these are all achievements that set standards. How does one go about transitioning to the power of silence from the thunderous sound of hybrid engines?

Neon lights reflect off the grey, antistatic, spit-and-polish floor of the HWA Racelab garage. A casual club sound echoes throughout the practically empty workshop. In a minimalistic ambience, the HWA team is getting Mercedes ready for its Formula E debut. “Lately,” one of the employees says, “it feels like we’ve taken these cars apart and put them back together again every day.” The parts will later be packed into flat, white metal boxes and travel with the Formula E entourage for the next six months. Six and a half tonnes in all.

Franco Chiocchetti, 44, has been the head of Formula E Track Operations at HWA in Affalterbach, since last March. The first year promises a “soft entry”, he says. “That will eliminate some of the pressure. We want to size up the new competition first.” What a novel concept: the champions as apprentices.

A street light in the pit.

Season five of Formula E is currently under way – and people really are talking about it as if it were the fifth season of a TV series. Each race lasts 45 minutes plus one lap. The once-common vehicle changes are now a thing of the past. Soon it will be the major vehicle manufacturers competing against one another: BMW, Audi, Porsche, Jaguar, Nissan. And, of course, Mercedes. They see the series as a platform for demonstrating the possibilities of electromobility in a sporty context. They want to test the limits of this technology while promoting a mode of transportation that is free of local emissions. Mercedes’ motorsport boss Toto Wolff has proclaimed that “the future is electric.”

A show car stands on display in the foyer in Affalterbach, just as you would expect of a racing team. It has a matte-black paint job, turquoise lines and a cool carbon look.

It slightly resembles a rocket. Franco Chiocchetti is sitting in a conference room on the next floor. He has a 5-o’clock shadow and is wearing jeans and a shirt. The engineer has Italian roots but grew up in South Africa, and he spent nearly 20 years in the Allgäu region of Germany. As chief technologist, he led Lucas di Grassi to victory in the Formula E drivers’ category in 2016. He may know how to win, but he also knows that it doesn’t just happen overnight.

Formula E races are held in metropolises around the world, such as Hong Kong, Paris, Rome and Berlin. The finals take place over two days in New York. Unlike on a normal racetrack, Formula E racetracks don’t have long pit lanes. The 20-some team members have to squeeze into two boxes, each two-by-three metres in size. ­Chiocchetti says that, in Paris, there’s even a street light right in the tent.



After his departure from the DTM series, champion Gary Paffett set his sights on Formula E as a driver for HWA.

After his departure from the DTM series, champion Gary Paffett set his sights on Formula E as a driver for HWA.

Its own power train.

He says that Formula E works like a start-up: “That’s why it’s not such a bad thing to start from scratch.” DTM champion Paffett and seasoned Formula 1 racer Stoffel Vandoorne are recruited for the races with only a few testing days under their belts. You have to think of this transition like a downhill skier suddenly competing on a slalom course. The ability to improvise is a major asset. “Our equipment is stored and transported centrally by the promoters,” Chiocchetti explains. “We can open our boxes on Wednesday at noon, and the race starts on Saturday.” This doesn’t leave a lot of time to find the right setup.

All of the teams use identical chassis and batteries. This makes Formula E relatively inexpensive; the competition costs somewhere in the eight-figure range each year. In effect, the only things that the HWA crew can influence this season are the setup and the software. The team might really be able to set itself apart once it gets its own power train. That’s Andy Cowell’s job. The 49-year-old is the managing director of Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains, making him responsible for the best hybrid engine in the world. There are nearly 25 people toiling away at the new project, and almost all of them come from the premier class of motorsport.

Always change a winning team.

Cowell says that there are many similarities to Formula 1. “We have to scale some things up and other things down in order to comply with the regulations.” His team is adopting design standards from parts manufacturing. Cowell has the cool demeanour of a champion – and the high expectations that go along with it. “Impatience increases the pressure, and that’s only human,” he says. “But what’s so bad about that? Of course we want to impress, but we don’t underestimate the challenge we’re faced with.”

The challenge is one of the reasons that drew Tony Ross, 52, to the new team. As the company philosophy goes: always change a winning team.

Until recently, Ross was Valtteri Bottas’ race engineer in Formula 1, and he helped Nico Rosberg win the 2016 world championship. As chief engineer in Formula E, he commutes between Affalterbach and England, to the motorsport head­quarters and engine department in Brackley and Brixworth, respectively.

What’s so different about Formula E? He says the aerodynamics of the vehicles produce less downthrust than their Formula 1 counterparts and that the all-season Michelin tyres have less grip. Of course the all-electric engines affect the way these racers drive, too. “But no matter what series we’re racing in, one thing never changes,” Ross says. “We have to constantly be pushing the limits of what is possible.”

A typical Formula E track: in Paris, the circuit goes around the Les Invalides.

A typical Formula E track: in Paris, the circuit goes around the Les Invalides.

“That just makes us hungrier.”

The idea of Formula E is not for spectators to flock to the racetracks, but to bring the show to the fans. This gives the series a modern, urban look and feel, but it also presents engineers and drivers with great challenges: they have to get used to the fact that the asphalt in cities isn’t just slippery, but often very diverse in composition. Then there are the manhole covers and walls, and hardly any run-off areas. “Monaco was always an extreme race for us in Formula 1,” says Ross. “And now they’re almost all Monacos.”

It will take some time before they find their groove. And there’s another thing they have to learn: how to lose. But Ross isn’t too worried. “That just makes us hungrier,” he says. Humility also plays an important role in Mercedes’ motorsport philosophy.

Upcoming races

  • 23 March 2019: Sanya/China
  • 13 April 2019: Rome
  • 27 April 2019: Paris
  • 11 May 2019: Monaco
  • 25 May 2019: Berlin
A double race will take place on 13/14 July in New York to finish the season.