There’ll be a new name on the grid when Formula E returns from its enforced hiatus. Rob Watts speaks to Rene Rast, a driver primed for a potentially career-defining nine days at the Berlin Tempelhof this August.
December 31st 2019 seems a lifetime ago now doesn’t it? We’re not yet six months on, but so much has changed; not least in Rene Rast’s world.
Fresh from a second (and dominant) DTM title win, Rast began the year preparing to defend his crown, but with the arrival of COVID-19 forcing an abrupt pause to the majority of world motorsport, Rast hasn’t turned a wheel in anger since November.
To add to that, Audi’s decision to exit DTM at the end of this year leaves Rast with less long-term job security than perhaps hed like. But as the saying goes, “when one door closes, another opens.”
Rast recalls the news of Audi’s impending departure as “a big shock” not least because his plan was to remain in DTM, as he tells us, for “the next three to five years”.
“Once we got the phone call [to say] that they were stopping DTM, then it was definitely a shock. I saw myself for the next three to five years in DTM – which now obviously is not possible anymore,” says Rast.
“It wasn’t a really nice message, but yeah, that’s motorsport. It’s how the world goes and we cannot really change it, so it is what it is.”
Rast explains that talks regarding a Formula E drive only began once it was confirmed that Daniel Abt had left the team, and he admits that even then, had Audi elected to stay in the DTM, those talks might not have progressed very far.
“We [Rast and Audi] talked about options for the future and we knew Formula E was definitely an option, but the seat for Berlin was never available until [the point that] Daniel was out of the programme.
“Once it was clear that Daniel will not race in Berlin or the remainder of the season, we started talking – before then there was no need to talk. It was all very spontaneous, let’s say.
“I know that obviously Audi tested Kelvin van der Linde in Marrakesh, so he was for sure a candidate if I hadn’t lost my DTM seat for next year. It might be true [that Audi’s DTM exit changed that].”
Rast is technically not a Formula E rookie (he made one appearance for Team Aguri in 2016, coincidentally, also in Berlin) but the 33-year-old admits that he’ll feel like one when he takes to the grid in August.
Even though I’m already quite old at 33, you always feel like a rookie when you come to a championship which you haven’t raced in permanently before.Rene Rast
“Even though I’m already quite old at 33, you always feel like a rookie when you come to a championship which you haven’t raced in permanently before. I felt the same way in DTM when I stepped in, in 2017, and now I also feel like a rookie,” says Rast.
“[There are] lots of different drivers, different tracks, different cars, it’s a different environment. Everything’s different. So I would say I’m still a rookie, even though I have a lot of experience in racing.
“There’s not going to be much time between [the Berlin races]. There is a maximum of [two days] I think in between, so there’s not much time to really learn. But yeah, I mean, I will try to get my laptop to learn, to study the data as good as I can and talk to everyone too. For sure it would be easier if we had three, four days in between, but yeah, that’s how it is. I’m happy to race and to get the experience, at least.”
Audi are certain to give Rast plenty of simulator time between now and his debut on August 5th, and he’ll be in the car too at the Lausitzring in a couple of weeks.
Rast concedes his prior Formula E experience though counts for little this time around, and expectations, at least initially, are likely to be tempered.
His role, however, is clear – to support team-mate Lucas di Grassi, who remains in championship contention, albeit with a lot to do.
“[Audi have placed] no expectations yet on paper, but obviously I have expectations of myself,” says Rast.
“I want to score a point here and there, and obviously to progress over the six races. It wouldn’t be good if I would win the [first race] and then [go backwards], this would be the wrong direction.
“We have six races at the same track, more or less, and I can gain [a lot of] experience in nine days. It’s incredible. I mean, normally in Formula E you need half a season to gain the experience [I can gain] in nine days. It’s just awesome!
“So for me, the most important is to learn, to see how it works and to get up to speed, and then maybe if it’s the last race, or let’s say the last race in Berlin, if I can support Lucas I would be happy to do so.”
Despite his unexpected Formula E opportunity, Rast’s future might not be as clearcut as it seems. He’s unlikely to commit long-term to DTM now Audi are moving on, and a full-time seat with their works team in Formula E is by no means a forgone conclusion.
Inside Electric understand that Rast is not the only driver being considered to partner di Grassi next term; there’s also one race-winning driver currently on the grid believed to be in contention.
Audi are in no rush to make a decision and Rast himself says a lot depends on his own feeling in the car during the Berlin races, as much as his performance on-track.
“If I really feel comfortable in the series, I could imagine racing long term in Formula E. Obviously then we will start to talk to Audi about it. It’s the last real series which exists in Europe which is competitive and attractive for a driver.
“There are a lot of competitive series out there, but in Europe I would say Formula E is the one [that is still to reach] its peak. I think there’s room to go even higher in motor sport with Formula E and I would wish to continue with Audi for as long as I can.
“Obviously we had contact with different teams in the past, but we always decided to stay [in DTM] because I felt at home at Audi Sport, we had a lot of good years and a lot of success and I always had the feeling that we’re a big family.
“If for whatever reason we cannot find an agreement, then obviously I need also to feed my family somehow to look for other options, but that’s still, I would say three steps too far, thinking ahead.”