Yifei Ye had a torrid season in FIA Formula 3 last year, but has got his 2020 off to a great start in Esports and then Euroformula. The Chinese racer guests in the latest Formula Scout Podcast
Almost two weeks ago, CryptoTower Racing Team and Yifei Ye put their names on footnote in motorsport history by winning the first ever race for the Dallara 320 car. The Formula 3-inspired machine made its debut in the Euroformula season opener at the Hungaroring, where Ye was totally in control in qualifying and the races.
After his double success, the Formula Scout Podcast caught up with the 20-year-old to talk about his successful start to 2020, what it’s like being one of China’s leading motorsport talents abroad, and what he made of the tricky 2019 he’s already bouncing back from.
Click below to listen to the latest episode of the Formula Scout Podcast, or head to Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify. You can also read a transcript of the interview further down
Last time we spoke in depth was the 2018 Formula Renault Eurocup finale, and you said you were turning down Formula 1 junior team opportunities until you thought one was right for you. And shortly before the F3 season last year you were announced as a Renault driver. What was the story behind that?
I mean we don’t have… it was always you have to look at your budget. If you have a lot of budget, backing from either your family or your sponsors, then you don’t really need to rely on such programmes to finance you through your career. If you have the freedom to do whatever you want, with enough backing, then for sure it’s better for a young driver to be free. He can do whatever he wants and he can join whichever team which is doing well or not in the next year or two.
Arriving from Formula Renault to F3, I think there is a big gap to fill in terms of budget, and it was not easy for me to find sponsors in China, so after 2018 Eurocup I did F3 Asian Winter Series. It’s similar like the TRS championship in New Zealand. There was also a couple of competitive European drivers there who raced against me like Ticktum and Fewtrell and Lundgaard. They are all doing well this year in F2 [and F3].
So I raced against them in 2019, early in January/February in Asia area, and I did pretty well. So after my decent season in FR Eurocup, and my decent performance in Asia against several decent drivers, Renault reached out to us to propose to have a decent, let’s say, deal to finance through my F3 career. That was always the…
A decision you had to make to continue? Yeah.
How different is that FIA F3 car? As well as leap in budget, a very different driving style?
I would say the FIA F3 car is based on the previous GP3 car. I think the design and the concept of the car is pretty different to this spec Dallara  F3 car. That car I would say, actually according to my engineer, he says ‘it’s easier to engineer an FIA F3 car because there is less things you can do on the car’.
One thing that really makes the campaign in FIA F3 difficult for me and among any other drivers is that you have no practice time to try out different settings and so on. So basically if you join a team, for instance ART or Trident or Hitech GP – well Hitech was new into FIA F3 in 2019 but it had recruited engineers from other teams [in GP3] in previous years. So technically the guys who were operating the team, they were experienced. So the engineer brings a base set-up to the team, to the drivers, and it’s up to the drivers to adapt and to do some slight changes let’s say to the base set-up.
During the pre-season testing you have plenty of time, you have two days I think on three tracks, we had. So you have a few time to try out different settings. But once you are through that pre-season testing phase and you are into the real race weekend phase where you have, what, 45 minutes in free practice, you have to learn the track, you have to learn the tyres.
Are the tyres you use in free practice the same set you use in qualifying or the race?
Sometimes not. It’s very difficult in that perspective. Another thing people forget is also in FIA F3, we always run Friday morning as the first session. So the track is completely dirty, green, you are like two, three seconds off compared to a decent laptime.
All the factors added up that if you let’s say struggle with the set-up you are given, you most likely do struggle the whole event.
Once F1 and Formula 2 have done their sessions and you return to track, is it a completely different track?
It’s qualifying, straight. You have two sets of tyres, two laps per set, that’s four laps. We have no idea where we need to brake because the track conditions compared to what you drove in free practice is completely different. The tyre compound is sometimes different as well. Temperature is massively different as well. It’s really hard in that perspective.
Was your plan to stay in that series for this year, or wanted to go somewhere else for 2020?
I think first of all I have to concentrate on this championship to do the best I can to show the performance I am able to make. And then hopefully we can get in touch with some teams in F2 or FIA F3 championship, and see what we can do. Or maybe if I have a good deal from a manufacturer, or a drive from other championships. Maybe a different category, prototypes or GTs, you never know.
I think a driver will arrive at my stage with already experience in F3, and feeder series. I think at a point you have to think if you have enough backing to go [continue on that path] or you’re better just thinking far for your career. To really make it work. For let’s say a top manufacturer, I think that’s the goal that’s easier to realise for most drivers.
Partnered with Williams and Rebellion on the Esports side too
Yeah, I think during the coronavirus period, I was trying to do different. I was invited in Formula E races, All-Star series with many F1 drivers [including a dramatic virtual IndyCar win at Indianapolis]. Oh my god that one, that was close. Of course the Virtual Le Mans too, so I have been to many big events, and working with Williams Esports team was quite a special experience.
Also got in touch with Rebellion, who is going to retire [from sportscars], but you know, you never know who will do what in one year or two, so it’s always good to have a good relationship, a good connection with different manufacturers in different areas, so that was a pretty good off-season for me.
Do you think you could step in a real LMP car now and be on the pace, because of the Esports experience?
I think between Esports and real racing is still quite different. Because in simulator you only have steering for feedback. And obviously in real cars you have to drive from your feeling through the back and bottom of your body, to feel the car, how it moves. I think Esports is still quite different to real racing. But I think the fact that I worked with different teams: Hitech last year is English team, this year German team, I used to work with a French team as well. So all this experience can help me to step up easier and adapt myself to a professional racing, like prototypes.
Euroformula car has Michelin tyres, very different to Pirelli. Describe the difference
I would say this tyre is pretty consistent. It’s easy to get the temperature into the tyre, it seems to have a working window. Whereas Pirelli, sometimes, if you don’t get your tyre into the operation zone, you find yourself two or three seconds off without knowing why. So this tyre is actually quite easy to drive for all the drivers. It doesn’t require some aggressive or different strength of driving style.
If you can manage to engineer the car correctly, of course the driver has to help the engineer to make the car work, but overall if you have a good package you should be able to drive this car quite smoothly and quite consistently.
A smooth driving style is not synonymous with a CryptoTower set-up in Euroformula. Enjoy that style of driving?
I think if you want to have a car which works well, it has to move a bit. Otherwise it’s not good, it’s not fast enough.
The problem with the Pirellis is the working window is short, and it’s very easy to get graining and lock and some other tear problems.
And also that they have this artificial layer which – I don’t know if you know, but in a Pirelli tyre during the course of a F3 race, you have one driver who suddenly gets slower from say lap six to lap 12, without knowing why, and other guys are all over him. And on laps 12 to 16, suddenly this driver who was slow in the previous six laps got extra boost from the tyre.
It’s because the tyre has different phases, and Pirelli made it so that racing can be spectacular. But actually that’s not how the real racing should work, right? I mean it’s more spectacular…
And potentially that’s a different compound to what you were practicing with the day before, so do drivers have to go through the whole life cycle of a tyre in free practice to find out? Yeah, yeah, possible, yeah.
That’s difficult. You’re racing on same circuits as 2018 and ‘19, can you carry over that experience to Euroformula?
Yeah. Hungary I’ve been here two, three, four times already, same with Paul Ricard and same with Monza. It’s basically most of the tracks, apart from the last round at Jarama.
You did Pau in French F4? Yeah I did, but we don’t have it this year. Would you have liked to return?
Pau really requires some guts to push through those fast corners. It’s not just about smooth driving, it’s really about having the confidence through the fast corners. But I think if we were going to go there this year, it would have been good as well.
Motopark drivers have gone on to F1 and Formula E roles. Do you want F1 teams to be watching you in this paddock, are you hoping they’re still paying attention?
Absolutely. That’s why I’m doing my best to really outperform my competitors, and try to do the best I can to show what I’m worth of. That’s it basically.
Think you can win every race?
I would say that would be my goal, but I cannot underestimate the strength from my team-mates and from other teams. So I cannot just say I’m going to win everything. I have to work hard with the team to make sure on every occasion possible we do the best we can and max out our potential. I think that’s the real key to success.
Your livery is your national flag. Not many sponsors. Flag there because of no sponsors, or design choice?
I just want the general theme to have the Chinese flag, because China is a very huge country with a lot of business. Certainly for motorsport, we started a bit too late. The car industry compared to Europe, we were like 30 years on the backfoot. While we have, let’s say, I don’t know, 20 karting tracks in Germany.
You karted in China at first. How competitive is the local scene?
I don’t know actually. I haven’t followed the latest Chinese Karting Championship, but I would say if you really want to perform and to be working for lets say an international manufacturer and to do well in the European championships, you really have to come to here to learn, to fight against local karting, local youngsters, since a very early age.
When did you first start having your career supported by sportscar star and FE driver Neel Jani?
Actually I was with him quite late. I just got in touch with him before my first year in FR2.0, so late in 2016. Before that it was just my dad who guided me through my early career in karting.
Did he do much racing himself?
No, not at all. He’s just a huge fan of motorsport. He basically wants me to achieve what he’s dreamed of, let’s say.
At home, do they show Euroformula. How do people at home find out about your racing?
I think currently in Europe, there is [only] me and [Guanyu] Zhou who is racing in top single-seater championships at this level. Many people have been following us closely. I think the guys who are really into motorsport, they do watch the Euroformula championship, and the fact that you can easily follow it on YouTube is actually quite – it’s much easier than FIA F3.