Pascal Wehrlein. A man misunderstood during his F1 career, but universally liked and admired in Formula E. Are there really two sides to his character, or is he simply a driver F1 failed to get the best out of?
Speaking exclusively to Inside Electric, the Mahindra Racing discusses his first year in Formula E and having “the most fun” since his DTM days, and also why he ended the season with uncertainty surrounding his future.
Prior to his arrival in Formula E, there were some who’d garnered the opinion that Wehrlein’s character was more of a determining factor in his F1 exit than his ability. Moody, surly, difficult to work with; ask around and you’ll hear some interesting misconceptions about him.
As someone who has spoken to and interviewed him on several occasions, this writer can testify that Wehrlein is in-fact a warm, open, funny guy who is clearly liked by his team and almost every journalist I’ve spoken to regarding their dealings with him.
He has questionable fashion sense at times, but that’s an article to be written another day.
The sad fact is, Wehrlein was, in some ways, underestimated in F1. It chewed him up and spat him out before he’d had the opportunity to demonstrate the full range of his abilities.
It’s unfair to label a young driver as simply ‘difficult’ when he’s gone from winning the ultra-competitive DTM series at just 20-years of age to sitting in back-of-the-grid machinery with little hope of scoring points almost every time he steps in it.
Wouldn’t you feel a tad frustrated in that scenario?
F1 is a tough tough business as many drivers with considerable talent have found out through the years. Through a combination of driving uncompetitive machinery and the emergence of Mercedes-backed drivers Esteban Ocon and George Russell, Wehrlein was one such driver who found himself squeezed out.
However, as often has been the case when a driver of Wehrlein’s ability becomes available, F1’s loss has proven to be Formula E’s gain. Mahindra boss Dilbagh Gill swooped to pair him with series veteran Jerome d’Ambrosio and he arguably ended his rookie year as one of the stars of the season.
Wehrlein was immediately, and impressively, on the pace from his very first outing in Formula E. A fine seventh-place qualifying in Marrakesh was a strong start, and he was convinced afterwards that he’d have been on the podium but a hit from behind by Lucas di Grassi on lap one.
He followed that up with an excellent second-place finish in Santiago before being cruelly denied a lights-to-flag victory in Mexico City when his usable energy ran low just metres from the finish line.
Given the highs he hit during his rookie year, it’s no surprise then that Mahindra boss Gill described him as “the quickest driver Mahindra have ever had”. It was perhaps a little more surprising to learn in New York that Wehrlein was not yet confirmed as returning for a second season.
“I think, first of all, I probably wasn’t too happy with our end to the season. We started really strong, we had podiums, pole positions in the first few races and probably could have won one or two, but we didn’t have the pace [in the second half of the season] to do that,” said Wehrlein.
“I was looking forward to a break [after new York] to reflect on the season, to think about what I wanted to do this year. I was enjoying the good moments a lot more [in Formula E] than I did in previous years. There were some really good times, but also some times which we were fighting for P10 and it was not too exciting.
“After New York, I took a break, had a think about my future and where I want to go and [what were] my priorities. I was always in contact with the team and with Dilbagh [Gill, Mahindra team boss] and we decided quite early to re-sign.”
As we now know, Wehrlein did commit to a return, but it’s known that he was still seeking the opportunity to make an F1 comeback as recently as this summer.
Haas were one such team Wehrlein spoke with and team boss Guenther Steiner revealed that a lack of recent F1 mileage counted against him when considering the team’s 2020 lineup.
Mercedes’ Formula E team were rumoured to have held some interest in signing Wehrlein for this season but it’s understood that him casting eyes in F1’s direction scuppered any potential for that deal to be explored.
Why then, if Wehrlein enjoyed his Formula E experience as much he said he did was there still a feeling of unfinished business in F1?
“I had a good time in F1 [but] they were not my favourite years because I was in teams which didn’t have the performance…
“First of all, I had a good time in F1 [but] they were not my favourite years because I was in teams which didn’t have the performance to be often in the points or to compete for better positions, so the approach to a weekend was quite different,” said Wehrlein.
“It’s a great feeling [racing in F1] but P10 doesn’t give you the same satisfaction that a win does. With Sauber, we started with the previous year’s engine, and the beginning of the season went quite OK but we continued with [the same engine] and everything got more difficult.
“In the end, it was not too much fun anymore to be 20kph slower on the straight than everybody else. I still had a lot of fun but there was no cockpit anymore for 2018. It’s like that, so I don’t regret anything. It was a good time, but I want to be competitive.”
Wehrlein is still actively involved in F1 and has been working with Ferrari in a development role since his Mercedes exit. It’s clear there’s some frustration felt at how his F1 race career panned out, but still only 25, the Mahindra driver is the third-youngest on the Formula E grid and believes he’s nowhere near his peak as a driver.
“I came from winning a championship in DTM to two seasons [at the back in F1] and I want to be in a winning position again. I want to win championships and to win races as well,” said Wehrlein.
“I can’t compare myself to JEV or Vandoorne, it’s a different situation. Obviously, we’re all here in Formula E and we all want to win…
“I can’t compare myself to [ex-F1 drivers such as] JEV or Vandoorne, it’s a different situation. Obviously, we’re all here in Formula E and we all want to win.
“I’m nowhere near 100% [of my potential]. How far I think I am, I think with experience I’ve got a lot better, especially with race management. I would say if I do the race in Mexico again today, exactly the same race, I would win it.
“I’d say that’s the biggest step I’ve made so far and also still the biggest area [still to] improve on because it’s so unique to have the energy management in racing, it’s quite different.”
With a year’s experience under his belt, Wehrlein already is looking at the areas he believes Mahindra must improve in this season, but his good relationship with team-mate d’Ambrosio is something he feels the team can start building on.
“[What Mahindra need now] I think is consistency. The trend last year was that we started well but obviously the others don’t sleep and they made bigger steps during the season than we did,” said Wehrlein.
“[Jerome and I] have a very good relationship and I’m happy again to be teammates with him. I learned a lot from him, especially in the beginning when I was new to the championship.
“We share data but [you get] your own feeling and your own experience by doing it yourself, you are learning by watching how your teammate is doing and [also] from your own experience.
“Now I know the tracks, I know what to expect. I can straight away start with the setup and work with the team to improve the car so I’m pushing to learn as quickly as possible.”Become a Patron!