There is a conflict brewing in world motorsport, a philosophical cold war where two different ways of motorsport life seem to be on something of a collision course – and just like the Cold War, it bubbles up in slightly unexpected corners of the world. The unexpected corner, last weekend, was Shelsley Walsh.
Since Jaguar brought along their 1st generation Formula E car along for its swansong event (the next season with the new, improved Gen 2 cars starts in December), there was healthy debate in both the paddock and bars – and after the event on social media – about what this all means.
We do appear to be at a point of a genuine generational paradigm shift in motorsport. Probably the most significant one since someone decided to start seeing what cars could do against the clock, and Mr Instone made his way to the top of Shelsley in 77seconds in his Daimler.
At the heart of it is ultimately a clash of cultures and a battle over both hearts and minds. One where technology and cutting edge modernity is championed against a traditionalism – and ultimately a century of experience – that fostered a passion to the point of obsession. You can see why battle lines are being drawn.
But what of those stuck in the middle?
At around 5.30 in the evening, as the overcast day gave way to an increasingly damp gloaming – a site that bordered on the other worldly occurred as Mitch Evans ascended the hill for the first time and the Jaguar I Type slid its way gingerly through the esses, the turquoise highlights popping against the carbon grey livery and emitting a banshee wail as it passed. The shift lights in the cockpit and the rain light on the rear of the car illuminated the drab – almost autumnal – surroundings of under the trees as the car moved past and on into the evening.
I hate the word ‘impactful’ – but it was. An unexpectedly striking vision and, despite what the critics say, sensory experience – a startling shimmer of colour through an old school English setting.
have always been fascinated by technology. It is the pursuit of what is possible, of what can be achieved not only right here, right now but also in the future. I have only driven an electric car once, and briefly at that, but had enough open space to press the (not so) loud pedal – and I know sceptics are bored of the phrase, but the instant torque characteristics were astonishing. The way the car gathered pace with no gearing and no peaks or flat spots in delivery was simply relentless. You cannot drive one and then look someone in the eye and call it a dead end – you simply can’t.
The increasing momentum behind is making itself seen at the highest end of motor sport as well. Formula One (in)famously adopted hybrid technology in 2014 – though amoungst accusations of over-reaching are pulling the complexity back. Le Mans has been won by a hybrid car every year since 2012. What is more, the Pikes Peak record is now held by an Electric Vehicle – The Volkswagen I.D R – and given the fact that the motors do not suffer from oxygen starvation, it is difficult to see a pure internal combustion engine vehicle reclaiming the record
Then there is the subject matter that started the whole thing off – Formula E – which has proved to be a big pull for manufacturers – and more tellingly is starting to get a toe hold into the fan base that is the generation after you and I. Formula E is most certainly an investment in technology rather than a get rich quick scheme.
The logical case for this all is starting to look overwhelming….and yet…
As the proud possessor of a degree in History, something of an old romantic at heart and an enthusiast of classic and vintage cars as well as modern racing, there is something about this brave new world that is just missing – and you cannot simply put that to one side.
I have in the past – and as recently as the weekend of the Jaguar I Type record run – actively shut up in a commentary box so the crowd – and I – can listen to a big ol’ V8 and for a precious, fleeting moment feel 8 years old. The XJR15 also reminded us all that a big angry 12 can tingle the spine and stir the soul in equal measure.
But to say it’s a noise thing would be to miss the nuances of the issue. At the risk of this getting all Oz Clarke – the wine industry has a special catch all term – ‘Terroir’ (pronounced (sort of) tair-wah). This refers to the general environment a grape is grown in – so the soil, how much sun it gets, how much water, the temperature etc etc. Motor sport has its own particular ‘terroir’.
It’s not just the sound, not just the smell, not just the sight. It is everything – including the sense that we are carrying on a tradition of what has gone before, the fact that we see the ghosts of Davenport and Mays in their cars, the romance of history and harking back to a simpler time (though it wasn’t really).
It is about passion and about pedigree.
This is why the new technological revolution is struggling to find admirers amongst the old guard in particular. It is why some people feel stuck in the middle, able to see the point – less able to feel the point.
Electric motor sport is at the start of its journey – and is 115 years behind its petrol-powered cousin. It still has a long way to go, but its foot is now most solidly in the door and it will continue to grow and attract new followers, whilst at all time forging its own legends and its own stories. In 50 years time it may be a very different story.