Is This Formula E's First 'World Champion'?
In one of the most competitive series in the world, there's 1 driver who I think stands out above the rest.
The ABB FIA Formula E Championship is no doubt one of the most competitive racing series in the world, with world class drivers racing for world class teams. For 2021, the seventh season of Formula E, the series will have ‘FIA World Championship’ status for the first time, making it officially one of the pinnacle racing championships, on par with the likes of Formula 1, WEC, WRX and WRC which all have World Championship status.
It also means that for the first time there will be a Formula E World Champion. This doesn’t mean that any of the champions from the first 6 seasons are lesser however. On the contrary, each champion of Formula E fully deserves the title of their season: António Félix da Costa utterly dominated Season 6, with just under double the amount of points of the runner up. Jean-Éric Verge is Formula E’s only multi-champion with the Season 4 and 5 titles, that says enough in such a competitive series. No one will forget the epic rivalry between Sébastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi that lead to a title apiece in Seasons 2 and 3 respectively, and Nelson Piquet Jr beat both of them to the Season 1 crown.
The title of ‘World Champion’ though certainly has an appealing ring to it, and all 24 drivers will be gunning to become the inaugural Formula E World Champion. Having said that, there is 1 person in particular who I believe will be able to beat his rivals to the crown. That driver is Stoffel Vandoorne.
Firstly, who is Stoffel Vandoorne? Lets rewind all the way to the start of the last decade. In 2010, the Belgian made his car racing debut in the F4 Eurocup 1.6, in the series’ final year before being rebranded as the French F4 Championship. With no teams, the series would really show which drivers were the best in the field, and Vandoorne very much proved he was the pick of the bunch.
From 14 races at 7 venues, Vandoorne won 6 races en route to taking the title first time out, beating Norman Nato by 36 points. What was even more impressive, Vandoorne showed he was consistently fast, finishing only once outside the top 4 all season.
After this success, Vandoorne made the step up into the Formula Renault Eurocup 2.0 for the next 2 seasons. In 2011 he finished third in the Northern European Cup, losing out to a dominant Carlos Sainz Jr and Daniil Kvyat.
Carlos Sainz Jr went on to race in F1, and in 2019 scored his maiden podium at the Brazilian GP - McLaren's first podium since 2014
For 2012, Vandoorne raced in the main Formula Renault 2.0 series, and was engaged in a season long battle for the title with Kvyat, but despite the Russian winning more races, Vandoorne took the title by 10 points, with their nearest rivals being Oliver Rowland a whopping 125 points back.
This success saw Vandoorne move up into the faster, more powerful Formula Renault 3.5 Series in 2013. He finished second, losing out only to dominant Kevin Magnussen who went on to make his F1 debut the year after for McLaren. Vandoorne still had a healthy margin over third place Da Costa however, and for 2014 he moved into the GP2 Series.
GP2, now F2, is widely regarded as the final step in the racing ladder before Formula 1. Win this title and you’re almost guaranteed to be in F1 next year, and with front running ART Grand Prix, Vandoorne found himself in a very good position to do so.
In 2014, Vandoorne made his mark, with 4 wins and 10 podiums propelling him to second in the championship, losing out to dominant Jolyon Palmer, before coming back a year later to completely wipe the floor with the field. From 21 races, Vandoorne never finished outside the top 8, once again highlighting his consistency, which meant he took the title by an immense 160 points over Alexander Rossi, who raced in both F1 and GP2 in 2015.
This result had put Vandoorne firmly in the eyes of the F1 paddock, and as part of the McLaren Young Driver Programme, a seat was surely destined for the 2016 season. However, with World Champions Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso locked in at McLaren for 2016, Vandoorne found himself falling by the wayside, and landed in the Japanese SuperFormula series for the 2016 season.
Vandoorne did however make a one-off appearance in the 2016 F1 season, making his debut at the Bahrain Grand Prix, replace Alonso after he was ruled out by injury from his Australian Grand Prix crash. And of course, the Belgian impressed, in a midfield McLaren-Honda, he scored points on his debut, and McLaren’s first points of the season.
Alonso walked away from his massive Australian GP crash, highlighting the advances in safety in motorsport
After Button’s retirement at the end of 2016, Vandoorne finally made his full time F1 debut in 2017, just 6 years after his car racing career began. In teammate Alonso, widely considered as one of the best F1 drivers in history, he had the perfect mentor. Unfortunately, they were far from having the perfect car.
McLaren were in the middle of their least competitive period in F1. Their return to Honda power in 2015 had been a disaster, with Honda playing catchup to the likes of Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault with the new turbo-hybrid powerunits. 2016 had been an improvement, but it was back to the back in 2017, with just 30 points scored between Vandoorne and Alonso, with Vandoorne best finishes being a pair of P7s at the Singapore and Malaysian Grands Prix.
2018 initially started off with much more promise – Vandoorne scoring points in 3 of the first 4 events, and Alonso scoring in the first 5. However for Vandoorne, he would only go on to score once more all season. It was a season surrounded with question and confusion as to why Vandoorne struggled so much compared to Alonso, as whilst Alonso is a mega driver, Vandoorne has proven he is certainly no slouch, and 2018 made him look like a pay driver.
It became known in the middle of the season that there was an issue with Vandoorne’s specific chassis, as Alonso revealed data showed his car to be producing more downforce despite being ‘identical’. A full chassis change was performed before the Hungarian Grand Prix, however this made little difference, and towards the end of the season the team seemed to have the worst car on the grid, as others improved around them.
After this dismal season through no fault of his own, McLaren dropped Vandoorne in favour of fresh McLaren Young Driver Lando Norris, while Alonso took a sabbatical and was replaced by compatriot Carlos Sainz Jr.
For 2019, Vandoorne signed with Mercedes to be their simulator driver, and later became the team’s F1 reserve driver for 2020. In 2019, Vandoorne made both his Formula E and WEC debut. His WEC debut came in the worst conditions at the 6hrs of Spa, with his first racing stint coming in the snow, but he took a maiden podium at his first race with his SMP Racing LMP1 team, and backed that up at the 24hrs of Le Mans with another P3 finish.
However it was Formula E in which Vandoorne found his new home. He joined fellow rookie Gary Paffett, DTM Champion, at the new for Season 5 HWA Racelab team. HWA is affiliated with Mercedes, and joined the series in a scouting year before Mercedes took over for Season 6.
To start with, HWA seemed to have the slowest and least reliable car on the grid, with no points scored and 4 retirements in the first 4 races, however at the fifth round at Hong Kong, Vandoorne took a shock pole in a wet qualifying session, but suffered a driveshaft failure in the race. The latter half of the season was much more promising for Vandoorne however, with a maiden podium coming at the Rome ePrix en route to P16 in the championship.
For Season 6, Mercedes took over as a full factory entrant, retaining Vandoorne and signing fellow F2/GP2 champion Nyck de Vries, who took the F2 title just before making his FE debut in Saudi Arabia. Right off the start the Mercedes looked to be quick, with Vandoorne taking 2 podiums in the first 2 races. An up and down season followed, but winning the final race of the season in Berlin gave him second in the championship, only behind dominant champion Da Costa.
Vandoorne celebrating his Berlin win, his first career win since SuperFormula in 2016 4 years prior
And that brings us to the present. So why do I think Vandoorne will take the Season 7 title? Mercedes looked very strong at the end of Season 6, taking a 1-2 in the finale. Presuming both Vandoorne and de Vries stay at Mercedes for Season 7, I think Vandoorne will have the measure over his Dutch teammate.
I also think Vandoorne is the favourite for the title in 2021 because he’ll be driving a Mercedes. Yes I know that sounds like a poor reason, but put it this way: there’s a reason why Mercedes are dominating F1. They simply have the best engineers and best designers in the business, and are making everything and everyone in the team gel. Yes, Techeetah have won the last 3 seasons of Formula E, but I believe the relationship between Da Costa and Vergne will break down in Season 7, as Vergne hates losing more than he likes winning. Audi and Nissan will have harmonious teammates (assuming di Grassi/Rast at Audi and Buemi/Rowland at Nissan), but neither team has been able to convert a quick car into a proper title push since Season 3.
I also feel Vandoorne would deserve this title. He has endured a very difficult time in his career the past few years when in F1, struggling in a slow and unreliable McLaren-Honda, always being compared to the great Fernando Alonso as his teammate, to the point where that 160 point GP2 title victory over Alexander Rossi has been very much forgotten. Don’t get me wrong, each driver on the grid is deserving of a title – Sam Bird is the most successful FE driver without a title for example, but I feel Vandoorne’s F1 struggles and his lack of success through no reason of his own would make him a very deserving champion.
I don’t think it will be a walk in the park however. Jaguar in particular I think will be very strong in Season 7, with Bird coming in to partner Mitch Evans, and they I believe will be Mercedes’ closest challengers. However my tip for the title, and to become Formula E’s first World Champion, is Stoffel Vandoorne.