BMW’s decision to exit Formula E caught the paddock a little off guard, especially given their long-time rivals Audi had only just revealed two days earlier that they’d be leaving too. Given the odd timing of BMW’s announcement, what exactly were the driving factors behind their decision?
Losing two of motorsport’s most famous racing brands is an undeniable blow for Formula E, and perhaps understandably, their impending departure has fülled some speculation regarding the series’ future.
With discussions taking place regarding Formula E’s Gen3 regulations – to be introduced in two years’ time – BMW deny their decision to leave at the end of this coming season implies an unhappiness with the future direction that the championship is taking.
“Formula E has always also been a technology lab for us. We achieved a technology cycle between production and motorsport for the electric drivetrain. We have now virtually exhausted this development potential,” a BMW spokesperson told Formula E.
“The global demand for electromobility is rising, and it is precisely now that we are launching our model offensive – the fifth generation of our e-drivetrain is already in use in the new BMW iX3. It is also soon to be found in the BMW iX and the BMW i4, with other fully-electric and electrified models set to follow. We are now focussing on large-scale production with the fifth generation of BMW e-drivetrain.”
It seems hard to imagine a manufacturer could have “virtually exhausted” the development potential of their electric powertrain through a few years of competition in Formula E
But with no plans to replace their Formula E programme with another series and having confirmed they have no intention of returning to Formula 1, BMW say their focus will now move away from motorsport and towards electric road car production.
If as stated, their aim is to have one million electric vehicles on the road by the end of next year, surely a strong and continüd presence in Formula E would at least contribute to their global marketing efforts?
“First of all, we will still be part of Formula E as a works team until summer 2021,” said a BMW spokesperson. “If the pandemic allows us, we will keep on communicating our technological and e-mobility topics [beyond that]. We are discussing options for Season 8 [and] one option is to supply the Andretti team with BMW drivetrains.”
With BMW having worked with Andretti since 2016, initially as a powertrain supplier but in recent seasons as a joint entry, the German manufacturer’s impending exit poses some tricky hurdles for the American-owned team.
As BMW have already homologated their powertrain for both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, the easiest route now would be for Andretti to transition back to being a BMW customer team for the latter of those two seasons.
It’s unlikely Andretti would have the resources to develop their own powertrain in-house, so beyond the end of this current lifecycle, any extension to that relationship is likely to hinge on whether BMW see a benefit in retaining their Formula E presence.
There is, of course, the option for Andretti to seek a customer supply deal elsewhere, but their likely preference will be to stay with BMW for as long as that’s possible.
BMW insist that neither the global pandemic nor any cost implications associated with that were significant factors in their decision, and they are also quick to refute any suggestions they’d stay had they achieved more success in Formula E.
“COVID or the disruption of the series were not the relevant parameters [and also] the decision wasn’t about results, it was a strategic decision,” a BMW spokesperson said.
“Since entering a works team in Season 5, BMW i Andretti Motorsport has claimed four victories, four pole positions and nine podiums in its 24 races so far. Although we didn’t win championships yet, we consider our Formula E programme a success so far.”
While on paper their results are respectable, it’s fair to say they’ve also been pretty inconsistent over the past two seasons, often flip-flopping between frontrunners and midfielder also-rans from one race to the next.
They do, however, possess one of the brightest young talents on the Formula E grid in Max Günther and his performances last season have already marked him out as a potential future champion. Whether he fulfils his obvious potential with a BMW powertrain in that back of his car remains to be seen.
At just 23-years-old, Günther is just getting started in Formula E, and although his contract is understood to sit with BMW rather than the Andretti team, he’s unlikely to want to move away from the series when his employers decide to cease competing.
When the news broke, Günther said the decision had come “as a surprise and is a pity”, while his new team-mate for the 2020-21 season, Jake Dennis, faces an even more uncertain future in light of the news.
Dennis has only just arrived in Formula E having spent the last few years racing in sportscars with Aston Martin, and his appointment was particularly surprising at the time given he’s not previously had a formal relationship with the German manufacturer.
Many expected BMW factory driver Philipp Eng – who raced against Dennis in DTM – to switch to Formula E, but Dennis impressed sufficiently in the sim and in a private test to secure the seat alongside Günther.
Ironically, the timing of BMW’s exit now seems a little ironic given that they appear to be in pretty good shape for the new season with Günther having set the quickest time of all in the recent Valencia pre-season test.
BMW say they are committed to approaching the new season like any other with the aim of adding to their tally of four wins, and if Günther has the car capable of doing so, you can bet good money he will.
Whichever route BMW take now, their team partners Andretti are almost certain to stick around for the foreseeable as they are the ones that own the Formula E entry.
While it’s not at all inconceivable that another manufacturer could make a bid to acquire that entry, a partnership with Andretti – akin to the one BMW have currently – would probably be more likely as setting up from scratch will be a significant task in this current climate.