Brazilian racing driver, former Formula E champion and UN environmental ambassador Lucas di Grassi on fast cars, faster progress and Flat Earthers
It’s unusual for a racing driver to be an environmental ambassador, no?
Yes, I think it can only fit because of Formula E. These opportunities come once in a lifetime, when a new technology emerges that is better at everything. Electric cars will be cheaper to operate and more environmentally friendly. I was in the right place at the right time.
Electric cars aren’t sexy. Is Formula E making them more appealing?
One of the difficulties of electric car sales is people’s perception. It’s an important factor and it’s hard to change. Formula E is the perfect format to do that; to show people that the cars are sexy, fast, exciting, and that they could belong to the viewers in the future.
Could you explain what being an ambassador for the UN involves?
I am from a very densely populated city —Sao Paolo — with 20 million people, and the quality of air is horrible. Electric cars, regardless of what energy source they use, at least they don’t emit high levels of molecules into the atmosphere.
When I spoke with the UN I said: ‘Let’s make people more aware of the clean air side of electric cars, and not just the climate change.’ To be an ambassador for the UN is to use their credibility and data sources, and they use you to help promote their cause. That’s how the relationship works, pushing this idea forward without any vision for profit.
Combustion to current
How fast can we make a change from combustion to electric?
The government should push for a faster transition to electric transportation but even if they don’t, it will happen anyway because eventually it will become much cheaper. Don’t forget the combustion engine has been pushed by governments for 100 years and electric only for the last 10 years. In another 10 years we will look back at the technology we use today and these cars will be viewed almost like carriages. It’s been happening in our lifetime. I drove a combustion engine Formula One car, then a hybrid and now I drive Formula E which is fully electric. I’m now developing a fully autonomous, electric car. This is how quick things are changing.
How does an F1 car compare to Formula E?
If Formula E was regulated in the same way as F1 I think they might be faster but they wouldn’t last as long. But this is not the end goal of Formula E. The end goal is to have its own racing series that could be complimentary to motor racing where F1 still exists. Eventually, F1 will have to go electric as well, if they want to keep being the fastest cars on the planet. However, F1 is really about extreme technology. There’s not a single screw in an F1 car that we can use on the road but we can take the motor out of a Formula E car, put it into a road car and it will run for 10 years, no problem.
Speaking personally, what have you noticed pollution wise in your life?
I used to practice sport in Sao Paolo. I’d go cycling and my nose would be all black from pollution. I am very fortunate that I’ve been living in Monaco for 10 years where pollution is very low and I’ve seen a big improvement in my quality of life. Again, I am fortunate that I can choose where I want to live, but hundreds of millions of people, especially in India, China, Brazil and southeast Asia cannot. The important thing is, with electric cars making the air cleaner for everybody, we could theoretically be able to achieve a much better transportation price.
How important is a healthy lifestyle in being successful?
With motorsport the concentration is very important and depending on how tired you are in the car, this changes a lot. You need to be fit enough to finish the race without being tired. You train so that your concentration stays the same for the two hours that you’re driving the car. This is why we train so hard.
What sort of mental training do you do?
Different drivers do different stuff. For me it’s long aerobic exercise, sometimes yoga. For reflexes I play squash, surfing for balance and this helps with the racing. I try to practice as many sports as possible.
What can people do to help the environment?
We have too many people consuming too many resources. What’s clear is that we can’t continue consuming the way we do and emitting the amount of CO2 per person, so we need to find a way of making the stuff we use more efficient without affecting people’s quality of life. It’s easy to say ‘well, people can go and live in the jungle and eat nuts and apples’, but this is not an option. You either replace existing technologies with better ones or start reducing the impact of products like plastic bags by using less of them. Simple stuff that doesn’t change the quality of life is the first step.
You must come across people who think climate change isn’t a thing. How do you try and convince them otherwise?
That’s an interesting question. It’s almost like: you know there are a few hundred thousand people who still believe the world is flat? It took a Greek guy 2000 years ago to calculate that the Earth was round. Now we have satellites and we’re trying to get to Mars and people still believe the Earth is flat. So, people will deny climate change because either they have a personal interest in it or they have such a poor education in how science has advanced, that it’s really hard to use facts to convince them. It’s almost a useless fight, but education is the best way of trying to make people realise that science is the best way to understand what’s around us.
Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler Factory driver @LucasdiGrassi
Read more about UNITY’s champions here