For new DS TECHEETAH driver Antonio Felix da Costa, the decision to leave his long-term Formula E team, now BMW i Andretti, was far from easy.
Having driven for the Andretti outfit for the past three seasons and challenged for the title in 2018/19, da Costa knew that it would take something special for him to break that close bond.
Yet, when double team champions DS TECHEETAH, and close friend and two-time champion Jean-Eric Vergne came calling, it was too good an opportunity for the Portuguese racer to turn down.
Before the start of the 2019/20 ABB FIA Formula E season, da Costa discussed how his latest drive came about, his goals for the season and what challenges the series presents.
MT: You’ve left one big name Formula E team for another. What made you come to the decision to join DS TECHEETAH?
AFDC: “It’s a funny story, actually. The first approach to all of this was from JEV, actually. We were racing in Le Mans, he was LMP2 and I was with BMW in GT and he called me over and said, ‘let’s go and get a coffee’, and I said, ‘sorry but I have a meeting’. Then he tried again but I had another meeting, so we kept missing each other! Eventually, I did go for a coffee with him and it was a pretty chilled conversation, but at some point he touched on the fact that Andre (Lotterer) might be leaving the team and if this happens, he said, ‘I want you to be my teammate. You are my first choice’. At that point, I cannot say it hadn’t crossed my mind to leave or to change, but it wasn’t something I was focused on.
“I was happy where I was, and BMW is an amazing racing family. But I’ve been trying to find that little bit extra to try and get the tools to win. Initially it was, actually, more of a no in my head. But then I slept on it, went from Le Mans to another Formula E weekend and then the team got involved and we went into some more serious conversations and then eventually I made up my mind. Weighing up the pros and cons, I eventually believed it was the right change to make. It was probably one of the hardest decisions of my life, but I think it’s going to pay off in the future. As I said, it was hard to leave such a family as BMW and such a brand, but I’m joining an equally big brand like DS and a team that has won this championship twice in a row now, so I think it’s going to be the right move.”
MT: As for your teammate, it must be great to have a double-world champion next to you in the garage and inspire you to push him hard.
AFDC: “I’ve always got on well with JEV before, to be honest, from the Formula Renault 2 litre days back in 2008/09 and in 2009 we actually finished with the same points in the championship! So, I’ve obviously known JEV for a long time racing against him and we’ve also been teammates in Macau with Carlin, so it’s not the first time I’m sharing a garage with him. Then, there were the Red Bull days when I was doing a lot of simulator work for him when he was in Toro Rosso, to help him go faster. So, I’ve known him for a few years now.
“JEV actually says it about himself that he’s grown up a lot and matured a lot, and so have I. Initially, when we were young, every session was the most important session of your life. No matter whether it was a shake down or free practice, it was time to prove yourself. But I think we’ve grown up and we know now when it matters and when it doesn’t. There are more different entities now to protect and to defend than only our names, such as the sponsors and the brands. So we both know how to deal with this kind of stuff and it’s going to be great.”
MT: How much is he helping you get to grips with the car, sharing data etc?
AFDC: “He’s been very helpful when I had yet to drive the car and when we were in the simulator together he’s been very helpful in trying to explain everything, with why things are happening a certain way or why the team has decided to go down this road,” added da Costa. “He’s been very helpful, I have to say, but at the end of the day he does want to beat me and another 22 guys. So, yes, we’re both racing drivers, but at the end we will first of all try and give the team maximum points. And if we do that job properly then it will mean that both of us will get to the end of the year in a championship fighting position, so it’s what we have to do.”
MT: You seemed to fit right in with the team straight away during the first pre-season test and the lap times for DS TECHEETAH were good on all three days. How did the test go from your point of view?
AFDC: “It was good, obviously. As you said, we showed good pace across the three days and in every kind of condition so very happy with the basics. It was, though, my first proper contact with the car as I only had one filming day before and that was it, so it was the first time. So, it was crossing off a lot of basics, making sure I understand everything, all the steering wheel options, the way of doing things, the procedures are very different. So, we were mostly focused on that but obviously the pace was there, so it was a win/win. Most of the cars are very competitive, so it’s going to be a matter of making sure we pull it all together when it matters but happy with those three day,s for sure.”
MT: I was interested to read that you said the car was very different to drive from the BMW with a new system to get used to. How so?
AFDC: “The way that car requires to be driven is slightly different to the BMW so I have to change a little bit of my old habits that I had with BMW and although BMW has only been one year officially in the championships as a manufacturer in its own right, most of the people were the same for a few years now so there were a lot of habits that I had to try and get rid of, kind of thing, so that wasn’t easy. But I used the days to do that.”
MT: Can you read much into lap times in electric racing because all tyres are the same and there are no fuel loads to play about with?
AFDC: “Valencia doesn’t matter so much for lap times, for sure, but we have seen over the years that whoever is quick in Valencia usually has a good car for the season, so it was important for me to see that we can be up there if we want, which gives me confidence for the start of the season but we did see a lot of the cars with the same lap times, so I think it’s going to be the most competitive season yet but it’s a matter of making sure you put it all together on the day when it matters. Every driver has eight qualifying attempts at max power at Valencia and in a normal race day you have one per pre-practice and that’s it, so it’s a lot harder for us drivers as well to put it all together and that’s why in Valencia the lap times way too close. So, going into city tracks with less traffic and being well prepared might make a difference.
MT: Of course, you’re a race winner yourself and the opening race of the season is at Ad Diriyah again, where you triumphed last year. I bet you’re looking forward to getting back there and starting all over again at a fond venue?
AFDC: “Yeah, I mean that would be great. You know I’ve been thinking about it a lot and last year I did a very good quali, and was three or four tenths ahead of the guy in P2 and I was really driving the track well, the car was very good there, so all then package was working well but it’s important not to go into this weekend over confident. To be honest, if you want to win the championship you’ve got to take home a fifth or a sixth, or even a seventh or whatever. But I’m going to do my best and see what happens. If I have to finish seventh, I’ll finish seventh, if I win the race, I win the race, but I’m not going there really with any massive expectations to win that race. I’m sure it would be awesome to, but if that’s not the case, there is a long season ahead to go for. And now, actually it’s a double-header in Riyadh this year, so a lot of points to grab.
MT: Last season was such a topsy-turvy one in terms of unpredictability and different winners. Why do you think that is? Very even driver competition? Chassis homologation? Circuits?
AFDC: “I think we’ve seen some key moments on Formula E over the years. Season 1 was obviously a mess, and I can tell you that because I was actually with this team and we didn’t have the proper resources to do a good job and we lacked a lot of key people who are actually here now and we could see people like Audi and guys who were coming from LMP1 with hybrid cars and all that, and looking at what we were doing then and what we are doing now and we were not doing the right thing. As time goes by, everybody matures with it, everybody understands all the rules and we get closer and closer and closer. And obviously with the start of Gen 2, it was a new car but the power trains were just another step forward from before so I think Formula E the way the rules are written down, everything will end up being closer and closer together. We don’t have a big reshuffle of aerodynamics and the power train between the best and the worst power train, okay perhaps the NIO looks a little bit weaker, but that’s probably only a second and even that is close. It’s so close now that everyone has their stuff well prepared and well thought out and now very close to the limit. So, it’s going to come down to the driver, I think, and the team operationally making no mistakes so it’s down to the drivers really earning their money on the day of the quali and doing a good job.”
MT: Your technical partner is Acronis. How important is data storage, back-up and cyber protection in the world of Formula E?
AFDC: “Absolutely important. Every team tries to be the cleverest team and to get an advantage over the competition. So, it’s very important that we have all of our data properly secured and backed up and all our little secrets secured, so to have a partner like that is awesome. Acronis has been a part of Formula E for a couple of years now and you can see their involvement and their interest in helping the world being a better place in terms of Cyber Security, which is getting more and more a topic to think about in this modern digital age. It’s great to have companies that incentivise people to go green and to watch how race cars are pushing the world to go in that direction.”
MT: With more huge automotive manufacturers in the form of Mercedes and Porsche joining the grid, FE is now one of the biggest series in motorsport. Do you think one day it will rival F1 for popularity?
AFDC: “They will be right there. Maybe not race 1, but then there’s a big gap to race 2, like two and a half months and that’s already a huge thing for them to have that amount of time with all the data gathered from Riyadh. I expect them to have made a big, big step for round 2. And we have seen this, like with HWA last year, where they started quite weak, and then if you have a good team behind you, the right people you will eventually make up the ground. And I’m expecting them to win in their first year, to be honest. It would not surprise me. Let’s put it like that.”
MT: What about the new rules and regulations for this season, aimed specifically at energy conservation under full course yellows, with 1 kWh to be subtracted from the total available energy measured from the point at which the race was neutralised. And Attack Mode increasing from 225kW to 235kW.
AFDC: “It’s actually going to make it that little bit harder to conserve energy, if I’m honest. And if they don’t run out of energy, it will be good. We always plan to finish the race on zero energy, then you have maximised your performance. This was the plan. Now, they will take a percentage away from us as Safety Cars and full course yellows happen. So, the goal is still the same, to finish the race with the least energy as possible, and that means we’ve used it all, and that’s the goal. But the way of managing that now is going to be a dynamic thing now, because they can take energy away from you during the race, so it’s going to be a very big job for teams to understand that as the race is going on and to understand we’ve taken the right amount and not too much, and not too little.
“We’ve seen in Valencia some cars really pulling away and opening a gap of 10-15 seconds away from the rest. These cars would have been disqualified because they would have used more energy than what they should have so I think we’ll see some messy races to start with and people trying to understand properly what to do, but I think in that respect, we as a team are well prepared, investing a lot of time in the simulator and practicing all of those scenarios, so for sure, new rules always make things more interesting.
“I think Attack Mode is great and the way it’s being implemented now is even better because you can do a lot of strategy now with the Attack Mode and the way the rules are written because you cannot activate it under the Safety Car, so you will most of the time lose time, so there will be a loss to then have a gain. Last year, we could sometimes eliminate the loss if you were under Safety Car or fullm course yellow. Now, every race there will be a loss, so there will be more strategy to think of, for sure. And that’s a really cool thing.”
MT: Have you set yourself any goals for this season? The bar must be set pretty high, being the defending team champions…
AFDC: “Yes. I’d love to win the championship. That is a goal. I was in the fight, right up to the last round, last year, although it wasn’t a realistic fight but mathematically possible. I take that as a positive season and coming from two seasons where I was basically just a number on the track and not fighting for anything, to bring the championship fight to the last round was something I was proud of. And now with the season of trying to win the championship on my backpack with some crucial experience is something I can take on to the future and avoid some mistakes I made last year.”
MT: There’s surely another positive to be joining the DS TECHEETAH team, Antonio. Because of your partnership with the Big Cat Sanctuary, you get to meet, pet and feed the big cats!
AFDC: “Actually, the stroke was very, very quick, I can tell you! I love the big cats and The Big Cat Sanctuary is amazing partnership regarding what it does for the animals. But it’s hard to play with them, let’s put it like this! I was allowed to feed through the fence, but I don’t think it’s a great idea to get too close. That’s a job for the game keepers. But they’re beautiful animals, for sure, and it is a perk of the job that isn’t too bad.”