Before the start of Season 7 of Formula E – in fact, before the second half of Season 6 – teams agreed one thing: there would only be one new powertrain homologated for both Season 7 and Season 8.
In english, that means that the parts of the car teams design to, well, make it go – the motor-generator unit, inverter, control electronics and other bespoke elements – will only get one update over this and the next season. You’ll be able to replace parts between the seasons, for wear but the powertrain will remain the same, only replica parts allowed.
Powertrains were only homologated once per season anyway, in Formula E – only one of each part is allowed to be used for all races, without facing penalties, unlike the three of each power unit element available in Formula One. But when building for two seasons, teams had to take a gamble: introduce a new powertrain at the start of Season 7 and hit the ground running with it. Or wait, give yourself more development time to get it right and hope that your Season 6 powertrain didn’t lose too much competitiveness during the start of the season.
Speaking in the team principals’ press conference yesterday, James Barclay -Jaguar’s boss – said “I think there’s benefits and advantages to both sides; one is you’ve had more time to develop the powertrain if you introduce [it] later – that’s more time to develop, test, look at data, evolve. On the other hand, you now have to go straight into racing with that powertrain, where we’ve had the benefit of the of the Riyadh two races and it would have been more with the original calendar.
“So honestly I think – for those who are starting their first race weekend [with a new powertrain] they’ve got to have that experience after we’ve had that. But if anything, probably the less races means that it’s taken away some of the benefit of having the powertrain early.”
Formula E should be on its – well, to be honest, it’s a bit hard to count at this point because the calendar’s shifted a lot but assuming all the races that freight had been packed for had happened, it should be race five today, not three. In a championship where – especially this year – the first four races could well have been almost a third of the ones that would take place, that’s a big gamble to leave yourself with last year’s powertrain.
But that’s the situation that Nissan e.dams and Dragon Penske are in. It didn’t pay off for the former, did for the latter in Diriyah as Nissan hit bad luck and Dragon seemed to finally get to grips with a powertrain that had seemed almost unusable during the previous season. They’re both unable to introduce their new powertrains yet, still running older ones for the Rome weekend – and potentially beyond, with Valencia only two weeks away.
Mercedes had to weigh up the same question, according to team principal Ian James. Do you risk the supply chain not being there to get the powertrain in early? Or that it still won’t be ready later, as has proven true for Nissan? “From our perspective, it was really touch and go because of the [COVID-19] situation and supply chain challenges, and so on and so forth. But we eventually decided to go for it and to introduce it at race one.
“That was really because of the learning that we got through our first season, our rookie season. We needed to take that on as quickly as possible, bring that into a power[train] update so I’m pleased with our decision, but I think that everybody’s in a fairly unique or individual situation. So I understand why others have taken a different course.”
Techeetah, who’ve introduced their new powertrain this weekend – the only mid-season update, so far – had a different gamble to take. They’d proven absurdly dominant at the end of last year, looking as though they’d received an update already as they ran away with efficiency and power well beyond other teams’ reach at the Berlin superfinale.
A generally scrappy Diriyah weekend means we’ll probably never know how that powertrain would have held up against others’ upgrades but Vergne back in Super Pole today shouldn’t be – with all credit to JEV – that much of a read on their new powertrain, either. He’d started in group three, where four drivers made it into the top six while team mate Da Costa only qualified 18th from group one. Antonio’s trick to take the title so confidently last year was maximising his qualifying in group one but that gamble, working out the powertrain at the third race, might mean it’s not replicable this year.
For NIO 333, there was no option. Finishing without a single point and with an exhausted, elderly powertrain last year, they had to take the opportunity to upgrade. Team boss Christian Silk said “It’s not one answer fits all, it’s different for all teams depending on what resource you’ve got available in the team. Obviously, looking at last year’s results you can see why we would be quite keen to get a new powertrain as quickly as possible, but it’s really dependent on where your team is. And that’s why there’s different answers.”
Mercedes’ seemingly-dominant powertrain, prior to it’s wall-hurling blip in Diriyah that caused all four cars using it to be excluded from qualifying, has taken pole at the Rome E-Prix in Stoffel Vandoorne’s hands.