Last year Oliver Rowland got a place in Formula E via the motorsport equivalent of Clearing, replacing Alexander Albon at the Nissan e.dams team halfway through pre-season testing. This year, he faces both the challenge of expectations – and avoiding the sophomore slump.
Formula E’s a tricky series to enter. Especially without warning, in a car you haven’t worked on developing, to the world’s most successful EV manufacturer’s new team. Season 5 saw Rowland either the luckiest man in the world, getting a last-gasp chance at one of the 22 most coveted seats in motorsport or dropped into an impossible position where he was set up to fail.
Rowland didn’t have a lot of time to worry about it. Speaking in Valencia this year, he said: “It’s funny because last year the aim was to maybe reach a super pole and score maybe a top-five throughout the year, and from what I understood Formula E was extremely difficult to get on top of as a rookie, never mind when you get a call one month before to come and race at the first race.”
Rowland had raced in Formula E once before, filling in for a single Gen1 outing years ago, at Mahindra but fundamentally came in as a rookie. “The targets and expectations were pretty low. Obviously, I quite quickly got a pole and finished second in China so those expectations grew a lot. I think that was half of my downfall at the end of last year, I always expected to be on pole then but I had to understand that’s there’s  other fast guys out there.”
The key to consistency in Formula E – cited again and again as the only way to put together a championship bid – is to be able to deal with unpredictability. Sometimes you have a good race, sometimes bad but the trajectory doesn’t follow that good leads to good or that one performance can really raise expectations.
Rowland, like most rookies, struggled with the ups and downs: “If I have to, on a bad day, be fifth or sixth then I have to be fifth or sixth, not making mistakes to try to be on pole. It’s a lot different.”
Expectations inevitably go up in his second year, with signs of promise needing to become solid delivery. Something he’s managed in the past, “When I’ve won championships before, I’ve always been a lot better in my second season. I’ve always been competitive in my first one but a similar story to last year, I’m kind of hoping that carries forward into this year that I can find a bit of consistency and can be at the front all the time.”
Formula is very different to junior series, though – and the pressures of a manufacturer seat are particularly fierce. Rowland managed not to be outmatched by Formula E’s most successful driver ever, teammate Sebastien Buemi but with the Swiss driver no longer in recovery mode from a winless stint, the stakes can only grow.
He said in Valencia that it had been on both drivers to prove themselves in the Gen2 era, “Clearly they thought we both did a good job so we get to continue. I think it’s important because what we did last year, sometimes I’d be behind and then take a step in front and I think that really brought the best out of both of us. It made sense to keep everything the same.
“Obviously, I was learning a lot from Seb. In terms of speed and natural driving, I was immediately quite close straight away but how he is behind closed doors with the team and the feedback and stuff like that, I had a lot to learn and I’d never experienced anything like that before.”
Rowland had a mixed start last season, with two retirements in the first five races. Then a podium in Sanya seemed to gain him momentum until another second-place finish in Monaco seemingly ended his luck.
This year, he wants to put the lessons learned as the final four races fell away from him (coinciding with teammate Buemi’s sudden improvement, to compound matters) into a framework for reacting to problems.
“Last year was about me growing and also I had a tough last few races so I learned a lot there about how to handle myself and what I can do differently in certain situations so I’m happy to be back with Nissan and looking forward to it.”
Rowland’s first chance to prove himself will be this Friday, November 22nd in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia.
(Additional content was added to this piece by Hazel Southwell)