until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

The inside story of an important Formula E coup

by Sam Smith
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

A magazine advert never felt so important on a day when Lola has committed itself to Formula E's Gen4 era.

Three years ago Howard Dawson, a lynchpin and right-hand man of the late former Lola owner Martin Birrane, commissioned an advert to be placed in Motor Sport magazine.

It was effectively a last-ditch attempt at a third epoch of the legendary British constructor after the company went into administration almost a decade earlier and sought a buyer. 

Reading that advert was Till Bechtolsheimer. A passionate racing fan and competitor who was looking for a new challenge other than competing in IMSA and various other categories of motorsport.

Lola was a name that resonated with him more than most from his childhood watching historic and contemporary racing before he started to lust after some of Lola’s legendary designs as a competitor.

A few months after seeing that ad and after negotiations with Dawson and the Birrane family, Lola became Bechtolsheimer's, with the news made public in June 2022.

And that came just weeks after The Race did its small part - this writer introduced Bechtolsheimer to then DS Techeetah team principal and commercial guru Keith Smout at the New York City E-Prix.

Then came the long and winding road to the present Lola Formula E entity.

The Lola-Yamaha alliance, the partnering up with ABT Cupra for a 2025 debut, and today’s confirmation of Lola's long-term commitment to Formula E through the Gen4 period and into the next decade, should be seen as just the start though. 

Bechtolsheimer, Mark Preston, Smout and an array of experienced personnel have big plans for Lola in Formula E...

Why Lola is Committing Long-term

The Gen4 regulations will introduce a much more powerful Formula E car and a likelihood of more permanent circuits being used to evidence its pace and explosive acceleration.

Ironically Lola is based at Silverstone which could even be the home of Formula E's British round soon.

Lola is specifically eyeing expansion into other projects further down the line, with Le Mans being one probable place it will return to, a place it has a great deal of history, especially in conjunction with OEMs - something it is actively exploring.

But the bedrock will initially be Formula E because, as its racing director Preston acknowledges to The Race, Gen4 will bring “big increases in usable power and regen software remains the big core focus.

“The full-drive nature of Gen4 and also the fact that we are working with a highly electrified powertrain suits us and hopefully we will be able to take the knowledge that we're learning here in Formula E into other series as well in the future, especially as this will be such a powerful car,” he says.

“There’s a nice flow of technology and also a nice flow in the increase in the technology side of things which plays well with what we want to do.”

Allied to what Preston says there, confidence in Formula E’s future was also needed.

Preston and Smout presided over a successful period for the now-defunct Techeetah entry from 2016 to 2022 where with Renault and DS power it won three drivers' titles and two teams' championships.

But despite the on-track success, there was a fractious and complex funding pattern via the Chinese owners, SECA. It was ultimately the downfall of the squad after suitable buyers were unable to be found.

That switched Preston and Smout’s attention to Lola and a new project that would take the best attributes of all their skills.

But for this they needed a stable platform from Formula E. Both from an existential viewpoint in other manufacturers committing – they have - and a solid commercial cap – long since done.

How Financial Regs Played a Part in Commitment

The spending levels for Formula E are set at €13 million per season with certain transitional exclusions to address existing contractual commitments while next season the spending level will increase to €15 million per season - not including driver costs. 

A separate set of financial regulations govern manufacturer investment in research and development related to powertrain development, with a spending level of €25 million. That includes costs for research & development, manufacturing activities and ongoing mandatory services to support Formula E customer teams.

“I think when Formula E started, it obviously set its stall out to try and be - these weren't the words they used, but it's the way I interpret it - to be more of an inclusive motorsport,” Formula E CEO Jeff  Dodds tells The Race. 

“That means not been about the wealthiest teams finding their way at the top and therefore continually leading the pack.

“It was much more inclusive in a sense that a manageable cost cap at €13 million euros a year for two cars and a single team meant that we were able to continue to sign these manufacturers up. 

“That’s because we've given them a commitment around trying to keep that cost cap at a level of where it is plus inflation. So, we have no intentions to be the most expensive motorsport in the world."

Formula E is on a steep part of the technology curve, which means that its able to continue to offer a rapidly developing car, particularly in terms of power output and battery capacity whilst maintaining a sensible degree of commercial input via the cost cap. 

“On balance it's an attractive proposition,” reckons Dodds.

Why Didn’t Lola Enter as a Team?

What most don’t know is that Lola was looking at the 12th licence in Formula E to create its own bespoke factory entity.

Negotiations with Formula E took place in November and December 2023 and were believed to have been energetic and at times fractious. But a deal was not forthcoming.

“We did have a look at it but if you look at the history of Lola, it's always been a manufacturer and never really owned and run teams,” remarks Preston. 

“I think Till would like to keep with that structure and for us to be manufacturers and support people like Abt.

“Also, Abt’s got a great history of operating racing teams and so it's a perfect team for us to be working with right now.”

From Formula E’s perspective, its thinking is that another major manufacturer will enter in the next year or so. 

That forecast has, in some quarters, been described as overly optimistic. After all, Porsche was the last major manufacturer to commit to Formula E and that was five years ago. Since then, Formula E has lost more than it has found. 

Dodds was touting the 12th licence around recently in the Financial Times. Should that be viewed as a particularly dynamic move, or more a desperate one? Now, it looks more like the former given that Formula E can now back on a decent suite of committed manufacturers well in advance of the June deadline.

“It's nice to have that 12th franchise available rather than rely on OEMs coming in and wanting to acquire existing teams or partner with existing teams because whilst many of them are interested in that, they're not all interested in that,” says Dodds.

“Some of them are very fixated on, if they're going to get into motorsport it's a works team and it's a team they can own, end to end. Therefore, having the flexibility of the final spot available is helpful for us actually in those negotiations.” 

Rumours of Hyundai joining are wide of the mark, with the Korean OEM much more likely to head WEC-wards in the near future should it diversify from its recent rallying roots.

But still, Formula E has done well from recent recommitment announcements by Nissan, Jaguar and Porsche. Now Lola has followed and possibly Stellantis will remain at two [DS and Maserati] and Mahindra and ERT will stick and not twist too.

China may also come calling, with Dodds adding that “we've got four of the manufacturers currently announced very early and we're deep in conversation with many others, that includes Chinese OEMs, there's a number of them that are observing the sport up close and personal for the first time, getting stuck into the technical data.”

“I think, for me, the best balance for the championship is to retain a number of the existing manufacturers, to bring on some new manufacturers and that we have a sniff of a new manufacturer that would be around and competitive in Gen4 early.”

For now, Dodds and Formula E have a decent spread that includes a rejuvenated and re-focused Lola, who brings with it one of the motorsport industry's more feelgood stories in recent years.

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