Venturi has been here before – an ex-Formula 1 star making the switch to new electric pastures in Formula E. But where Jacques Villeneuve failed – after just three events and two race starts in the 2015/16 championship – the Monaco manufacturer is hoping that new recruit Felipe Massa can succeed.
In fact, after an intense expansion process in recent months, which included launching the Next Gen driver academy and hiring ex-DTM racer and Williams F1 test driver Susie Wolff as team principal, the squad is aiming for a spot in FE’s upper echelons.
That ambition is part of the reason why Massa has been signed to a three-year deal. But the 11-time grand prix winner has his own reason to enter FE: he’s not done with racing.
“I don’t want to be sitting on my sofa at home,” he says. “I cannot do that so I need to do something.”
There was a sense that Massa did not really want to give up his spot on the F1 grid at the end of 2017 – as evidenced by his willingness to race on with Williams for that season after previously having to make way for the incoming Lance Stroll at the end of ’16.
In Massa’s 15 years of racing in F1 there were seven champions. FE, from its first four campaigns, has crowned four different title winners. Where Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull are the only squads to have triumphed in grands prix races since 2014, eight FE teams have taken wins in the same period.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons from decades of history that have led F1 to its current problem with a thin success-share, and FE is a start-up spec-chassis championship, but the latter’s healthy competitive spread is the key reason Massa highlights to explain why he wants to join in the fun.
“Formula E is a championship that is unpredictable,” he says. “You have so many drivers winning, everything is a little bit more competitive. Formula 1, more or less, you understand who is going to fight for the championship – almost every time – since I arrived in F1 to now.”
Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2008
Photo by: Sutton Images
While Massa will attempt to add another successful chapter to a glittering motorsport career, the 37-year-old is important to FE, too. He possesses a high profile and his presence will mean at least three Brazilian drivers will be on the 2018/19 grid – the country is a significant automotive market for manufacturers and has a long history of motorsport success.
The first FE team Massa was hotly linked with was Jaguar, and at the end of 2016 he came close to sealing the same arrangement he now has with Venturi – to wait for the ’16/17 season, which was just about to get underway when he ended what he had thought was going to be his final F1 campaign, to run its course and then come on board. But the career moves of Nico Rosberg – now an FE investor – and Valtteri Bottas changed all of that.
“Before I re-signed in F1 I was close [with Jaguar],” confirms Massa. “I didn’t really sign anything, but I did a test to see the [Gen1] car and everything. Maybe after the test we [would] discuss because it was not going to be straight away, it was going to be I’d finish the season in F1, Formula E was already starting to go into 2017, [so] I said, ‘No, if I go, I go after one year because I need a bit of time to prepare myself, to have a little bit of time at home as well and then we decide’.
“Then I did the [Jaguar] test, but when I did the test I had already signed with Williams [for 2017] so it [was] very short to carry on for one more season in the end. But this time I stopped and took the same idea: wait one year, prepare myself and see many things about the championship. But it worked more or less in a similar way.”
So, with Jaguar settled with Nelson Piquet Jr alongside Mitch Evans, Massa agreed to join Venturi – a team handily based near to his Monaco home – and the deal was announced back in May. Venturi president Gildo Pastor is happy to have him.
“He is full of life and he wanted to go on with us and do this incredible challenge,” Pastor says. “We have been training him for some time now and he’s fantastic. He wants to get better in this field so much – he wants to show everybody there is a king.”
Felipe Massa, Venturi Formula E
Photo by: Venturi Formula E Team
Massa may be valuable to FE through his star billing and F1 achievements, but Wolff explains that his arrival has also boosted Venturi when it comes to its business dealings ahead of season five.
“For us as a team, commercially, he’s been a huge asset,” she says. “That’s been one of my areas that I’ve been focused on ahead of season five and I’ve only had positive feedback from the fact that he’s one of our drivers and without a doubt the most high-profile driver on the grid. For the team it’s a massive win.”
But easing deals off past glories is one thing, succeeding in FE – a notoriously tricky category to master – is another, as demonstrated by Villeneuve’s doomed exploits. Massa will be going up against many drivers who have raced in and dominated the series since it began – Sebastien Buemi, Lucas di Grassi, Sam Bird – and other rivals who have used their new FE home to boost their own racing credentials; think Jean-Eric Vergne and Oliver Turvey. Plus, his recently confirmed 2018/19 team-mate Edoardo Mortara has shown rapid pace at times too.
FE enters a new era in season five with its Gen2 car, which may level the competition somewhat and features new toys that could ease Massa’s arrival. The new car has a brake-by-wire system for its rear wheels and it has been suggested that this will improve driver feeling under braking, as well as maximising regen for the powertrain.
“There are also systems in F1 that recover a lot of energy from the braking and it’s the same approach for season five,” explains Venturi technical director Franck Baldet, who has been overseeing Massa’s development progress, which began with testing its season-four car on the team’s simulator to learn essential brake balance and energy management techniques before switching to the simulated VFE 05 Gen2 car and then testing the real machine on-track.
“His experience from F1 on the brake-by-wire system is helping a lot because he can bring us the F1 experience, where we have a similarity,” adds Baldet.
Felipe Massa, Venturi Formula E
Photo by: Venturi Formula E Team
Gen2 will wipe the FE slate clean to a certain extent and Massa’s relationship with Mortara appears to be very good on the surface – Wolff highlights it as a key reason why the Swiss-Italian racer was re-signed for a second year at Venturi. But when it comes to success on street circuits, Massa will need to regularly produce performances along the lines of his pole lap at the Monaco Grand Prix in 2008, and not his double crash at the same venue in ’13.
Massa attended the Zurich and New York races at the end of season four to see first-hand how an FE event works in full and to gain an understanding of Venturi’s race operations. When discussing his decision to join Venturi, which pushed “harder than all of the others” to sign him, it’s clear he views the team as one that is going places, even if it is still yet to score a first FE victory.
“[With] a new season, a new car – it’s a big change for everybody so it’s impossible to say who is going to win the championship next year, who is going to be more competitive or not,” Massa says. “But if you see everything that the team is preparing – it’s quite interesting and I really hope we can have a competitive car.
“It’s true that Venturi have never won a race, but they were very close to winning and they’ve managed some very good results in terms of points.”
Massa has already impressed Venturi as “a very open-minded colleague” according to Baldet, who adds: “He really is pushing a lot to always be with us.” There is a real sense that Massa has not just joined the team or FE to simply collect pay-cheques.
“My goal is always to be the best I can,” he says. “My goal is to try to win races – this is always what I had in all my career. I want to try to win and be the best – my goal never changes.”
Massa’s presence on the FE grid and the results of his debut campaign will undoubtedly be one of the tales of the upcoming season. But if he can bring success to Venturi, he will also rewrite the team’s own FE story.