How a tough Formula E internship prepped Günther for his BMW graduation
Maxi Günther © BMW Motorsport
Maxi Günther © BMW Motorsport

How a tough Formula E internship prepped Günther for his BMW graduation

Max Günther was on top of the world in Santiago after becoming the first German driver to win for BMW in Formula E, and with that, the record as the series’ youngest ever race-winner.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing though for the German since his Formula E journey began. Rob Watts takes a look at Günther’s bumpy path to success and explains why his career prospects might have looked quite different had the events that followed this same race last year played out differently.

There’s a widely held view in the Formula E paddock that Günther was the standout rookie of the 2018/19 season. There’s certainly a strong case to be made for Stoffel Vandoorne and Oliver Rowland, but Günther had to battle with more than just his car and the 21 other drivers to secure the modest haul of 20 points he achieved.

Günther spent the six months prior to his Formula E debut acting as Dragon’s official test and reserve driver, and after impressing the team with his speed and dedication, the then F2 driver jumped at the opportunity to secure a race seat for season five, even going as far as to skip the F2 season finale to fully prepare for his Ad Diriyah debut.

“High expectations” were the words used by Dragon prior to his debut, so you can imagine the collective surprise when it was announced following the 2019 Santiago E-Prix (just three races into the season) that he’d be vacating his seat for ex Sauber F1 driver Felipe Nasr.

It appeared an odd move from the outside and quite harsh you might also think (so did we), but in fact, Günther was aware there was a chance he’d be asked to skip some races if certain commercial deals fell into place for the team.

It’s understood that the team were hoping to have Nasr in their ranks for longer than the uninspiring three-race cameo he eventually made, but his reluctance to prioritise Formula E over his IMSA programme put paid to that.

For Günther’s development, however, missing three races so early on in his Formula E career was less than ideal and hardly beneficial to his development.
Fast forward to the Rome E-Prix in mid-April, and things were not going well for Dragon. With just two points to show from the opening six rounds, it left the American team rooted to the foot of the teams’ championship.

There was a feeling that Dragon were capable of much better, but a combination of bad luck and technical trouble left them with little to show for their efforts.

It was their worst ever start to a season and the Nasr experiment had not proved fruitful, but Günther was back and eager to show his worth.

The records show he scored points in just two races following his return to the cockpit, but a deeper dive into those results demonstrate why BMW recognised Günther’s potential and made their move to sign him.

Dragon’s competitiveness swung drastically between races last season. There were moments when the team were a genuine superpole threat while at other times they were fighting to get off the back row of the grid.

Fortunately for Günther, he made it count on those rare occasions Dragon were able to provide him with a competitive car. Despite being out-qualified over the course of the season, Günther’s peaks were often higher than team-mate Jose Maria Lopez’s and he ended the season scoring 20 of Dragon’s 23 points last season.

Upon his return to the team in Rome, Günther set tongues wagging in the Formula E media centre by placing his Dragon car fifth on the grid. This really was an unexpected performance, not least given his three-race layoff, but also that Nasr had managed no higher than 14th in his three races with the team.

Unfortunately, there were no points to take away from the Italian capital, but the team had enjoyed one of their more competitive weekends thus far. Two weeks later in Paris, Günther boosted by his return to the team was again one of the star performers, qualifying a fine seventh before converting that to fifth in a race heavily disrupted by incidents and bad weather.

Despite the result, Günther admitted afterwards that his eye-catching performances had not yet resulted in any additional job security, and he was even unsure as to whether he’d race at the next round in two weeks’ time.

“I don’t know yet [if I will race in Monaco]. What will happen in the future, it’s something that I don’t know at the moment. It’s a question that you have to ask my team as I’m not aware of what’s going on in the next few weeks.”

Günther’s uncertainty lasted for much of the season, and the unsettled atmosphere within the team peaked after the Berlin race when Lopez, frustrated by his team’s inconsistent pace, told FOX Sports LATAM that he planned to speak with them about stepping aside.

Speaking to other team members throughout the season, it was clear that Günther was not the only one in the dark about who would be in the car from one race to the next.

His home race in Berlin was the first race he’d arrived at with any kind of assurances regarding his seat for the remainder of the season, but his future beyond that was still unclear.

“[Dragon boss Jay Penske said] that I’ll be in the car until New York, and that’s the information I have. I try to do the best possible job every weekend, no matter what will happen. The decision [on whether I race next season] is not down to myself.”

Understandably frustrated, Günther channelled that superbly at the next round in Bern, equalling both his best qualifying and race result (fifth) to pull his team comfortably clear of NIO at the foot of the championship.

Afterwards, Günther’s stance regarding his future appeared to have changed, and after saying that the decision on his future was not necessarily his, it was now clear he was taking the matter into his own hands.

“When it’s time to talk about next season I will make a decision myself. I’m talking to people and having conversions about next year but I cannot say at the moment in which direction I will go [but] things are moving towards a decision.”

In New York, the first rumours began that BMW might be interested in Günther’s services for next season. It was not clear though whether that would be as a replacement for Alexander Sims (whose own future had been a source of speculation) or for Antonio Felix da Costa, who had already begun talks at this point about replacing Andre Lotterer at Techeethah.

Speaking to Inside Electric, Günther recalls how his “dream” move came about.

“Towards the end of the season, the interest increased and BMW contacted me and we had the first conversation, things developed in a positive direction and then for me, [it was] quite clear which direction I wanted to take,” he said.

“Officially [the approach came] after New York, after the season finale. I couldn’t even tell you which date it was exactly but there was preparation going on for season six already.

His switch to BMW really is “a cool story” as he puts it, as he began his single-seater career with the German marque as far back as 2011. His “dream move” should be seen as much as a coming of age for Günther as it is a new chapter.

“It was eight years ago; it was my first year of single-seaters in Formula BMW. I finished second in the championship so yeah that was my first experience working together with BMW,” Günther recalls.

“Obviously then as a junior driver, living the dream of becoming a professional racing driver and now to finish this circle after eight years to be a factory driver with BMW now in Formula E is a cool story.”

Journalists will always tell you that they are impartial, which for the most part is true, but we’re all humans and Max Günther is one such driver who is impossible not to like.

He’s softly spoken yet engaging, always generous with his time, and unlike some drivers, he’ll be the first to ask how YOU are when you approach him. He doesn’t have the unflappable, gritty exterior of some drivers on the grid, but he does have an incredible ability to focus on the job in hand, and that’s what got him through his difficulties for much of last season.

Günther, in his own words, explains why last season prepared him for the challenge that awaits with BMW.

“It’s my philosophy in general, and one that I had last year, to just purely focus on myself, to try to just do everything possible on my side to deliver my best possible performance,” Günther said.

“At the end of the day, we see in the results where we are and I’m really happy for this. In the back of my mind, I was not thinking about [a BMW drive] last year because it’s not my way of approaching things.

“I have to say I feel ready for this. Pressure you always have as a racing driver, that’s something normal. I think if you watch this field, all those strong drivers, teams, the competition is so high so the pressure is something everybody has driving in this championship.

“For me, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference [switching from Dragon to BMW]. There’s always those expectations and the pressure [comes from] my side because I always want to deliver.”

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Written by
Rob Watts
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Rob Watts

Inside Electric Co-Founder. Freelance motorsport journalist, writer and podcaster. Welshman living in England. Caffeine aficionado.

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