Formula E roared back to life with more than enough talking points to keep us occupied until we race again in Rome. Here’s what we learnt from a lively season-opener in Diriyah…
Jaguar’s BIRD gamble already APPEARS TO be paying off
It was a huge statement of intent by Jaguar to snatch Sam Bird away from Envision Virgin. Bird confirmed to Inside Electric a couple of months ago that Jaguar had tried to sign him on more than one occasion in the past, but only now did he feel the timing was right to move. Having invested heavily in Formula E since their 2016 debut, a best championship position of sixth so far is probably not what the British team had hoped for.
Their achilles heel has often been their driver lineup and their inability to get both scoring regular podiums, or sometimes even points. Mitch Evans has unquestionably been their star performer, and over the course of four seasons has contributed 78% of their total points haul. This unbalance has obviously not helped them in their pursuit of either championship, but with Bird joining they may finally now have what it takes to reverse their fortunes.
His win in Diriyah Race 2 felt like a classic Sam Bird victory. He timed and measured his overtake on former teammate Robin Frijns to perfection, and, once in the lead, used his experience to extend his gap to Frijns’ when the Dutchman’s energy consumption began to impact his pace.
Jaguar lead the teams’ championship for the first time ever, and if they can build on this strong start and ensure their new pairing work together harmoniously, they have every chance of staying there.
Mercedes might just be the team to beat this season
Mercedes’ dominance of Formula 1 led many to predict similar success in Formula E when they decided to enter as a works team for the 2019-20 season. Anyone who has followed the championship closely knows all too well that that’s not how Formula E works, and seldom have we seen a team dominate, and fewer still perform consistently well during their first season of racing.
Mercedes’ approach last season was correct; they were humble and realistic about their competitiveness and had moderate expectations from their exciting lineup of Stoffel Vandoorne and Nyck de Vries, but those expectations might have been raised somewhat following their strong performance in Berlin.
A lights-to-flag win to kick start this season probably came a little unexpectedly, but nonetheless, Mercedes will leave Diriyah extraordinarily pleased with their showing so far. It also feels like a major positive that it was de Vries who got the win this time, as he took a little time to find his feet last year and perhaps didn’t get the credit he deserved for a very solid debut season.
A fine performance by Venturi (a Mercedes customer team) in Race 1 will also have given them further encouragement that their package is one of the most competitive on the grid, and it’s a shame in some ways (following their exclusion from qualifying) that we didn’t get to see whether the Mercedes-powered cars could build on their excellent performance from Race 1. So far, so good though…
Season 7 is NOT going to play out the way you expected
The performance in Diriyah of last season’s backmarker teams Dragon and NIO 333 will have made a lot of people in the pitlane sit up and take note. Formula E has long been considered one of the most competitive championships in motorsport, but when was the last time you saw any series where the previous season’s two slowest teams bag a total of 31 points from the opening two races of the next one?
Dragon have long been one of the more unstable teams on the grid, with their temperamental team boss Jay Penske overseeing a revolving door of team personnel over the past few seasons. Quite simply, their drive to score a 4th and 5th place in Diriyah Race 2 is a little tricky to explain, and even harder for any of us to admit we saw coming.
A perfect storm perhaps of being in a favourable qualifying group, having two talented and motivated drivers (Sergio Sette Camara, in particular, has impressed), and an opening weekend where many of the top teams were still shaking off their pre-season malaise.
They were even one of three teams that chose to bring last season’s powertrain to Diriyah before introducing their updated model from Round 3 in Rome, so their performance at the next race will be of particular interest to many.
NIO’s impressive performance in Diriyah was perhaps less of a surprise than Dragon’s, but just as eye-catching. There are several good reasons why they found themselves in the position they were in last season, as a buyout by Chinese company Lisheng Racing shortly before Season 6 testing gave them little time to prepare, and their management and technical restructure left them on the back foot from the start. A newly developed powertrain for this season has given them reason to be optimistic, and a strong showing in Diriyah has only helped to boost morale within the Anglo-Chinese team.
It’s a stretch to say that either Dragon or NIO should now be considered midfield contenders off the back of these results, but the battle to stay off the back has certainly got a lot more interesting.
FORMULA E HAS the spiciest rivalry in motorsport right now
One criticism aimed at Formula E during its record-breaking run of different winners during Season 5 (2018-19) was that it lacked the same narrative of early seasons where a clear rivalry emerged between the title contenders.
We saw some glimpses of Jean-Eric Vergne’s rivalry with new teammate Antonio Felix da Costa last season, particularly in Berlin when it became clear Techeetah’s new signing was on course to take the Frenchman’s crown. In Diriyah Race 2, we saw another very clear reminder that this could be the series-defining rivalry this year and beyond.
Let’s be clear, no one’s pitching this as Hamilton v Rosberg Mark II just yet, but it has the potential to be just as spicy on-track as anything we’ve seen in Formula E so far. Da Costa’s robust defence in Diriyah (fighting for fourth place at the time) was close to the line, and on another day could have easily ended up with Vergne in the wall.
Team principal Mark Preston said the post-race debrief was “lively but constructive”, but racing drivers have short memories and Vergne’s no-score in Diriyah will only fuel his desire to get back on terms quickly.
Motorsport is dangerous, even Formula E
Two drivers being hospitalised on the same day is not the sort of headline any motorsport series wants to make. The cause of Edo Mortara’s sudden crash at the end of FP3 was later revealed to be a combination of front brake failure, followed by a software issue that prevented the rear brakes from being activated as a fail-safe.
The cause of Alex Lynn’s scary crash in the closing stages of Race 2 appears (having not been shown on the world feed) to have been caused by a coming together between the Mahindra driver and Mitch Evans. Lynn’s car rode over the back of the Jaguar, caught the catch fence, and was then flipped upside down before skidding across the track on its roll hoop.
We know, thankfully, that both Mortara and Lynn escaped without serious harm, but it is a stark reminder, should we need one, that even Formula E can be dangerous. I say “even Formula E” as some believe it to be significantly safer than Formula 1 due to its lower comparable speeds, however, the nature of racing inches apart on narrow street tracks prove there’s every chance an innocent-looking impact can progress quickly and unpredictably.
It goes without saying, that the Halo undoubtedly played its part in saving Lynn from more serious harm. It’s been proven to be a lifesaver several times already in Formula 1, but this is perhaps the first example we’ve seen in Formula E where an accident could potentially have been a lot worse had we been racing without it.