Sam Bird is familiar to many British motorsport fans. He's tested F1 cars for the currently-dominant Mercedes squad, was GP2 runner-up last season while helping Russian Time win the team's championship, and has generally driven everything under the sun with four wheels.
Along with a busy 2014 sportscar programme, he's now preparing for the first season of Formula E, where he'll be driving for Virgin Racing in the FIA's all new, all-electric series. Needless to say, he's quite excited about the prospect.
“I think the whole show is going to be amazing,” enthused the 27-year-old Englishman. “You’re going to see wheel-to-wheel action with some of the best drivers in the world, some top teams, around some of the greatest cities in the world.”
Along with the rest of the Formula E grid, Bird spent most of last week bunkered down at Donington Park as the field got their heads around the brand-new 270bhp Renault-Spark cars. However, Bird was unwilling to directly compare the new machines to anything he's driven before.
“I think it’s difficult to really compare it to anything; it has it’s own identity and its own character and different feelings. For sure it feels like a single-seater; it’s a good little car, and if we continue to work on it it’ll just get faster and faster.”
Along with getting on with a new car, Bird also has a new team-mate to get to grips with – ex-F1 man Jamie Alguersuari.
“We get on very well; he’s a good guy and he’s very very fast,” Bird said of the 24-year-old Spaniard. “We have the same feelings with the car, so he’s been a pleasure to work with and long may that continue.”
The test was also a good chance for the drivers to get their heads around the unique tyres which Formula E will use. Unlike most series, which use slick tyres across various compounds, Formula E will use one treaded tyre for every situation, rain or shine.
“Grip levels aren’t as high as what I would perceive with a slick tyre,” said Bird, “but it looks like it’s a good little tyre that’s fairly consistent. It does have a peak, but it will last the whole race, so it’s a good thing.”
His “it's a good thing” mentality is one you hear a lot when talking to Bird about Formula E. Obviously he's excited to get going with the actual racing, but on a higher level you can tell that he's excited to be a part of this revolutionary new series. He knows that being a part of Formula E is a chance to make electric cars, for lack of a better word, sexy.
“Obviously we’re not going to [lower the carbon footprint of the planet] with 20 cars going round a circuit. But if we can raise awareness through younger fans and people who follow the sport who think 'wow, those cars are really cool' then maybe in the future they will buy an electric car. Or maybe it’ll improve the technology in five or six years time so that electric cars will go the distance of petrol cars. We don’t know yet, but it’s an exciting thing to be a part of at the start.”
Bird is also convinced that Formula E won't suffer the same fate that other new series have, falling into obscurity once the initial fanfare has died down. When A1GP launched in 2005 it did so with a number of big names – F1 champions Niki Lauda, John Surtees, and Alan Jones owned teams, as did football stars Ronaldo and Luis Figo, while a host of top drivers had seats. But Bird firmly believes that Formula E doesn't face the same risk of a quick slide into obscurity.
“You have to remember that Formula E is completely different to A1GP in the fact that we are an electric racing series, something that’s never-ever-ever been done before. I think its unique selling point is far stronger than A1GP’s was. The fact that we can potentially partner with manufacturers and improve their technology and understanding of battery components and lifespans, and then take it to the production line, is very exciting.”
Despite being keen to talk up Formula E as a series, however, Bird isn't just on board as a PR man. As a top racing driver, he's there to put in the hard graft and win. In fact, our interview was delayed by an hour while he practiced the car changeovers which drivers will have to complete mid-race as they swap to a new, fully-charged machine.
“It's taking less than a minute,” was all he'd reveal, not wanting to give away how well-drilled his Virgin team were at getting the swap done. He was also well aware of the hard work he and his team would have to put in to close the one second gap to the early pacesetter, former Toro Rosso F1 driver Sebastien Buemi.
“We’ve run the car at full throttle and maximum power, so in terms of finding any more it’s purely going to be down to setup and working with the engineers,” said Bird.
Still, to be a regular figure at the top of the charts, Bird is already doing a lot right. Formula E is a single-make series for now, meaning that driving talent is the biggest factor in determining who'll succeed. And in terms of talent, the series is absolutely stacked.
He really isn't kidding, either. The grid is full of ex-F1 drivers – Lucas di Grassi, Jerome d'Ambrosio, Scott Speed, Nick Heidfeld, Jarno Trulli, Bruno Senna, and Karun Chandhok are all joining the ex-Toro Rosso pair of Buemi and Alguesuari – along with representatives from LMP1, IndyCar, DTM, and even NASCAR. This isn't a retirement tour for old drivers, though; they're all active in other series, at the top of their game, and ready to win.
It's lucky there is a lot of talent on the grid, as Formula E's calendar sees the field exclusively compete on city centre street tracks.
“I’m looking forward to all of the cities,” said Bird, “I think it’s going to be a great atmosphere at every single one of them. The American races will be great fun; obviously Bejing, that’s the one that we really can’t wait for as it’s the very first. But all of them should be exciting.
“I think that with the street circuits [the cars] will look faster; I think the skill level will be upped quite dramatically,” he added.
When Formula E does get underway at its first city race in Beijing on September 14th, three lucky drivers will have an extra boost at their disposal. While the cars will run at full power in qualifying, during the race they'll be reigned in a little, with each driver getting a set of boosts to put the car back up to full power for short stints of the race. The winners of an online fan vote will get an extra boost, which they'll hope can give them the power to win.
Although you could think that the drivers are uncomfortable with the fans deciding who gets an advantage, Bird is excited that Formula E is bringing interest in this way.
“It’s a great thing for the fans to get involved with motorsport a bit more, it makes them feel closer to the action and a part of the race itself, so I think it’s a clever thing that Formula E has done.”
It's clear from talking to Bird that he's excited about the upcoming season. The locations he'll be racing, the technology he'll be driving, and the rivals he'll be up against are positively mouthwatering. It has been a long, long time in motorsport since a series has generated as much excitement as Formula E.
Lets hope that Bird is right and Formula E turns out to be something incredible.