VANTAGE POINT – Diversity – Grassroots Effort
As a former Williams and Ferrari engineer for more than twenty years, Rob Smedley is one of the most recognisable faces in the F1 paddock and perhaps best known for his enduring race engineering relationship with Felipe Massa. Two years ago he decided to step away from the coalface of F1 teams, and although he continues to indulge his passion for the sport in his role as Director of Data Systems for Formula 1®, that gives him the flexibility to spread his wings and pursue other interests, such as applying his extensive experience in motorsport to engineering a better world through his groundbreaking Electroheads Motorsport™ brand. This year Rob unveiled a new ‘e-kart’ inspired by F1 electrification technologies that he hopes will help democratise grassroots motorsport.
One of the key challenges for developing grassroots motorsport – and this is not just in the UK, it’s a global problem – is that we’re just not capturing a wide enough market. And that’s for many reasons, but principally because there are some barriers to entry – perceived and real. Formula One in particular, but motorsport per se, has always done a great job of catering to the small demographic that can afford it – and it will continue to do that and serve that community. As someone who has made a living out of motor racing for the last 25 years, I started to ask myself the question, ‘how do we serve a different, more diverse socio-economic demographic?’
I am passionate about nuts and bolts, engineering, and going fast, and so the challenge I wanted to address was how – working cohesively with governing bodies such as Motorsport UK – we could create a product, that can penetrate that broader market base and exploit the huge opportunities to capture a much wider demographic. In doing so, we wouldn’t just end up with a bigger talent pool – we would build that whole diversity and inclusion picture and effect the change that everyone is seeking. That’s the bit that really excites me as an engineer – resolving this challenge and its intersection with the ‘electric revolution’. Whether it’s motorsport, automotive companies, or the broader mobility landscape, I believe the world is at the precipice of an explosion – one that will see electrification becoming a much bigger part of our life, and very quickly.
We know this from high-profile evangelists, like Elon Musk. For me, it’s analogous to the mobile communications industry, in that the technology existed since the mid-70s and then suddenly mobile phones became something that we now can’t live without. Then you’ve got smaller evangelists, if you like, and what we are trying to achieve – in motorsport, at the grassroots level – to accelerate technical development and at the same time address related issues such as diversity and inclusion.
This is something we have been pushing on with for a few years now, and the basis for what we wanted to put in place – first with Electroheads as a brand and then with the e-karts that we launched back in January. Then with the COVID-19 pandemic came a real examination of the issues around diversity and validated our objectives even more, highlighting that addressing this challenge is a collective responsibility. From an Electroheads standpoint, if we can lower those barriers and get a bigger demographic involved in karting, increased diversity will be a natural consequence of that. I didn’t want to do something that was manufactured – I wanted Electroheads to be something with real purpose.
First and foremost, I’m an engineer, so the whole area of lower emissions platforms that motorsport is embracing is really exciting to me. Democratising grassroots motorsport as a by-product of that adds another dimension of interest to someone like me. It offers parity, it drives the price down and at the same time, opens up the sport to much broader participation. In the same way that Formula One and hybrid technology has been improving technology transfer in the automotive sector, embracing electrification in grassroots motorsport can somehow trickle down into everyday life and provide benefit on a social level.
This whole area is something we’ve studied in some detail at Electroheads; research has always played a big part in what I do and in my personal approach. In Formula One I was making decisions based on 300 sensors and 5000 data channels, all guiding us towards the right outcome. The same is true with Electroheads – we’re trying to apply that same level of objectivity and data-driven research. It needs to be evidence-based for it to be meaningful and we’ve listened to what the grassroots community wants.
As a consequence of that three-year learning process, we’ve arrived at a clear end product – the e-kart – that will actually help fix the problems, grow the market responsibly and really benefit the sport. Having Motorsport UK as a partner on this journey is hugely important for us. With the support of the governing body we will be able to access the broader community and the knowledge that will help us better understand the market and grow the product. Right now, our focus is on the UK and we have plans for the end of this year to get out there, for seeding the market and developing a really clear pathway for people to come and get involved.
It already feels like we’re on a positive trajectory – people are sitting up and taking notice of Electroheads. We’re talking to organisations and potential partners who are really focused on the space of enablement, inclusion and sustainability, and e-karts will allow them to own something tangible in that space. In some cases, our discussions have actually shaped and accelerated their culture and thinking. We are carving out a new space in the sport at a time when motorsport is embarking on a new chapter, adjusting to the seismic event we have all witnessed and are still experiencing. For brands that perhaps don’t have the ambition or the resources to fund the participation costs of Formula One, they can turn their attention to the other end of the spectrum – the grassroots – to answer questions like ‘How do we remain relevant?’ ‘How do we have a sustained relationship with young audiences?’, and also, what has always been the holy grail for brands, how to do all of that and remain ‘cool’.
None of us know what this ‘new normal’ will end up looking like. It’s not easy forging ahead in the current climate, but what we do know is that people will adjust and will still want to go out there, try new things and have fun. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to how we were. How we were is something in the past now and things have to change. There’s going to be a brave new world now and that includes motor racing. There has never been a more relevant time to be working together, for us all to collaborate, to find the good in what we’re doing. And especially down at the grassroots level, there has never been a better time to create opportunity – to create that democracy.
Motorsport doesn’t have to be an exclusive boys’ club; the world is changing – times are changing. Let’s give motorsport to the next generation – let’s give it back to the kids. Because it has to serve the kids. If we’ve all gone through this experience over the past few months with COVID-19 and none of us are able to sit up and make change, and understand how we’re going to help the new generation and how we’re going to make changes in our lives to achieve that – if we haven’t understood that and we haven’t learnt from that, then it will have all been a huge waste of time. Motorsport is such a fantastic sport and platform for young people – it teaches them about teamwork and discipline and hard work. If we add the STEM education aspects in there, it’s even better. It teaches all those great life lessons, so the more we can attract a different and diverse group, the better, and we just have to work together to do that.
Stay updated with the latest developments from Electroheads at www.electroheads.com and look out for Rob on Channel 5’s The Gadget Show tonight at 7pm (9 October)