Last year, electric-car racing superstar Jean-Éric Vergne became the fourth man to capture the Formula E championship trophy. Now, he’s added a different kind of hardware to his collection: a new TAG Heuer chronograph.
By Max Prince
FIA Formula E, the world’s foremost electric-car racing championship, is on a roll. There’s the redesigned-for-2019 race car (beautiful) and the talent level of the drivers (exceptional). There’s also the new deal with officials in Seoul, where the series will hold a race starting next season. BMW now has a team. So do Jaguar, Audi, Nissan, and Citroën’s luxury subsidiary DS Automobiles. In 2020, both Porsche and Mercedes will enter the championship. Oh, and TAG Heuer, one of the series’ founding partners and official timekeeper, has also extended its sponsorship. Talk about momentum.
At press time, the 2019 Formula E Championship season is almost a wrap, and it’s been a wild one. Each race—or ePrix, in official parlance—has been won by a different driver, and the championship is up for grabs. One of the few certainties is that, after finishing second at the opening race in Saudi Arabia and later notching an overall win at the Sanya ePrix in China, veteran driver Jean-Éric Vergne is sure to be in contention.
Vergne, 29, is no stranger in the winner’s circle. Known as “JEV” to his fans, the Frenchman made a splash when he captured the French Formula Renault 2.0 title at the age of 18. He then took the British Formula 3 title, raced in Formula 1 for Scuderia Toro Rosso, and served as development driver on the Ferrari team. Vergne first joined Formula E in 2014, racing for Techeetah—which started out as a privately owned underdog among larger corporate teams— beginning with the 2016–17 season. Last year, he won four ePrix on his way to taking the Drivers’ Championship, cementing his place in history as one of electric-car racing’s first superstars.
That notoriety has paid dividends. In addition to capturing the 2018 Formula E trophy, Vergne also joined TAG Heuer as a brand ambassador. (His watch of choice? The new 45mm Carrera Heuer 01 Chronograph, contrast black-stainless case on a black rubber strap.) The partnership represents something of a electric-car racing power duo: Formula E’s greatest sponsor and its championship driver.
Entering the home stretch of the 2019 season, we caught up with Vergne before the Monaco ePrix to talk history, watches, and the bright future of electric-car racing.
Watch Journal: You raced in Formula 1 before joining Formula E. How does driving a battery-powered race car compare to a V-8 or turbo V-6? What changes did you make to your driving style?
Jean-Éric Vergne: It changes a lot. But the main difference is the sound and the vibrations—you don’t get [those] anymore with the electric car. Then you have less power with the electric car, but you have quite a lot of torque. So you still have a very good impression of speed coming from the powertrain. But, with any type of driving, the tracks are so different that it’s very difficult to compare driving Formula 1 and Formula E.
WJ: You’ve been affiliated with some of motorsport’s top factory teams, including Ferrari. How is driving for a smaller team like Techeetah different? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
JEV: The last two years here we were a private team with the smallest budget. And it was quite fantastic for me as a driver—I had a lot of things to say in the team. I played a much, much bigger role than a driver would play on a factory team, because we were basically building this team from scratch. [My input] had a lot of implications in all the decision-making for the team. [A race team is] a little bit like a boat, you know? If you are small, you can steer much quicker in the direction you want. So that was our strength. I will say that was a big advantage. Then the weakness is that we did not have any testing days, because [that] was only allowed for the manufacturers. But, nevertheless, we were able to win in front of all the big manufacturers. That was quite nice.
WJ: In recent years, other racing series have been dominated by a single driver. Lewis Hamilton has won four of the last five Formula 1 titles. Sébastien Ogier has won the last six World Rally Championship titles. But Formula E has had a different champion in each of its four seasons. Why is that?
JEV: I think the level is so competitive that it makes it very hard for the driver to win every season, every championship. The other thing is that all the cars are extremely similar. We don’t see a [prominent mechanical] difference between the first and last team in Formula E, at least compared to Formula 1. Our budgets are also a lot lower than Formula 1 or the World Rally Championship. Which helps explain why, for example, a small private team like Techeetah was able to compete against a giant like Audi. I think that’s the main difference. This year, it’s more complicated—it’s been a bit of a weird season. But it’s still very difficult to say who’s going to win.
WJ: Last year, you won the Formula E Paris ePrix and finished first in the 24 Hours of Le Mans LMP2 class, driving for the G-Force team. [The latter win was later revoked on a technicality —Ed.] As a native Frenchman, which was more exciting?
JEV: Winning in Paris was an absolutely crazy feeling. It was the best win I ever had, but winning Le Mans was so very special. Obviously as a driver, you always want to win the overall classification [which is LMP1, the class above LMP2] because, you know, that’s the first car finishing in 24 hours. So hopefully one day, I will be able to race in the top category of LMP1, or whatever new category they are going to come up with. I will give it all to win, that’s for sure. But this year, I’m already on a very good LMP2 team, and we’re going to try and win it again—and not be disqualified twenty-four hours later!
WJ: Speaking of Paris, how did growing up near the city inform your taste in music, culture, and fashion?
JEV: I think I started to learn all of that when I started moving away from France, started traveling around the world, and living in other countries. So I guess I’m a multicultural in terms of, you know, fashion, music taste, all of those things.
WJ: So why did you start collecting timepieces? We’ve always noticed the great watches sneaking into your Instagram feed.
JEV: You know, like every man, you love the cars, you love watches, and obviously the other stuff. When I was younger, I obviously didn’t have the money to afford nice cars—the cars that I wanted—but I have a little bit of money to afford the watches I liked. So I always tried to find good watches. To me, this is only jewelry that a man can wear. And watches are an investment as well. It’s a beautiful thing to have and this is something I love. I love to change watches, and that love just keeps increasing year after year.
WJ: What about watches appeals to you? Is it just the mechanical aspect, or something else?
JEV: Well, [the mechanics] obviously are very important to me when I choose to buy a watch. Also the number of watches being made, the rarity. And there is something appealing to me about the story behind the brand, the story behind a specific watch. When the watch is beautiful, but there is no story at all, it kind of bores me. TAG Heuer is an iconic sponsor of my sport, of my world, since I was a kid and TAG was collaborating with [the late Formula 1 champion] Ayrton Senna, and before that, Steve McQueen. When I see the Monaco, it reminds me of all the history, the great people that wore this watch. To me, beside the fact that it’s a beautiful watch, that is what really attracts me, you know? The story behind it, and the history.
WJ: TAG Heuer’s ad campaigns have also featured Michael Schumacher. He crashed into you at the Singapore Grand Prix in 2012, and the television cameras caught a nice moment of you two talking. What was he telling you?
JEV: He said he was sorry. Then he said something else funny—but I can’t really say. [Laughs]
WJ: Do you have a philosophy about time?
JEV: Time is everything to me, and you need to be as quick as possible. But everything in life is time, you know, from the moment you are born, until you die. So I guess what really matters is to make the most out of your time.
WJ: Last question: What does the future hold for the Formula E series, and electric-car racing in general?
JEV: That’s a question I cannot really answer. The only thing I know is that the Formula E is going very well. Manufacturers are getting interested, getting into the championship. We are now nine manufacturers, which is massive. I see a bright future for Formula E, and obviously I’m extremely happy to be part of it, to be able to write the history of Formula E. Hopefully I can write it even more—with more wins and more championships!