What makes a driver excel in Formula E? It’s not immediately obvious – some extremely talented single-seater drivers struggle, some hybrid prototype drivers immediately excel but then so do some combustion-only GT drivers.
THE GANG'S ALL HERE
With 20 seats on the Formula E grid, there are a vast number of drivers trying to get their bums into them. Last month during the Marrakesh rookie test the field ranged from 17-year-olds to 37-year-olds and the number of drivers either linked to testing or with limited experience in Formula E (such as Kamui Kobayashi’s one-off turn in Hong Kong) encompasses nearly everyone outside Formula One. And a few in it, now-Toro Rosso driver Brendon Hartley has tested for at least one FE team previously and Ferrari's Antonio Giovinazzi was at the rookie test last month.
Adapting to electric racing is difficult; everyone’s a rookie when they first show up in FE and with the seats so few and the racing so close, the pressure is on for performance. Although you’ll likely get a little more leeway than in Formula One, Season 4 has already drawn its first blood with the departure of Porsche LMP1 driver Neel Jani from Dragon, after a works team deal for the marque fell through and one weekend in Hong Kong Jani described as so bad he couldn’t “remember such a bad race day in my career for a long, long time.”
Mark Preston, team boss of Techeetah, has assured in the past that Andre Lotterer was their only possible choice for their spare seat this season – then had to hint in the pre-ePrix team boss conference last weekend that he wasn’t sure the Belgian had been taking the series totally seriously. A question that, happily, seems very much answered on track with a fiercely fought team 1-2.
Fellow Season 4 rookie Luca Filippi, whose own team boss Gerry Hughes said in the same press conference was under pressure to step up his performance, had no such luck. Both talented drivers with strong single-seater and development work records, it’s relatively hard to say what can make the technicalities of the season ‘click’.
With virtually any driver available to them, teams have difficult choices on their hands - and not many races to make that choice work.
Rookies (here with Alejandro Agag) at last month's Marrakesh test spanned two decades - from Benyahia to Makowiecki (Image courtesy FIA Formula E)
Robin Frijns out-scored Andretti teammate Antonio Felix Da Costa to an almost staggering degree last season, ekeing out 24 of the team’s 34 points total. The Audi GT driver is a former Red Bull junior (as so many in Formula E, including Da Costa, are) and undeniably has experience in single seaters and under pressure, maybe helping him extract the most from the struggling Andretti package.
He’s not on the grid this year, however. Although it seems likely Robin will make a return somewhere – too talented to be left out of the sport for long – his Audi association made him persona non grata in the BMW-teamed Andretti garage, the manufacturer bringing in their own drivers in Tom Blomqvist and Alex Sims. Both, undoubtedly, great but lacking two seasons of Formula E racing.
It certainly helps to be a street circuit specialist in Formula E - there are no fewer than six winners in Macau on the FE grid currently, five of them multiple winners. One particularly stand out entrant is Edoardo Mortara, a multiple-time winner in two different categories who was finally brought into Formula E as Mercedes filled the Venturi garage with their own, inching out James Rossiter.
Likewise, two wins on the F3 circuit certainly seem to have done non-manufacturer-backed Felix Rosenqvist, who led the FE championship for Mahindra from Marrakesh to Santiago, no harm at all.
The same can’t be necessarily said for Da Costa, who equals Rosenqvist’s Macau wins but trails him in Formula E. Which can be accounted for by the relative competitiveness of the Mahindra car to the stricken-for-three-seasons-now Andretti and the fact that his own BMW contract holds him there as surely as it kicked Frijns out.
Speaking of drivers in cars that limit their performance, Jerome D’Ambrosio is unquestionably a good driver and specifically a good Formula E driver, respected by the field. Dragon have been struggling for some time and ended up in an undignified points face-off with Andretti over second-to-last place in the championship last year, then somehow seemed to unlock ever more dire performance in the first round of this season.
Which has continued. It might not be worth noticing except that D’Ambrosio has been embarrassingly outperformed by Jose Maria Lopez, coming in to Dragon to replace Jani and with no time at all in an S4 car before Marrakesh.
Lopez’s apparent exit from Formula E at the end of last season was another manufacturer negotiation, with DS rumored to be leaving Virgin for Techeetah in Season 5 and the WTCC champion’s contract linked to Citroen. Lopez alleges that Jean-Eric Vergne, driver and part-owner of the team, refused to have him as a teammate when the discussion came up.
Which is a longwinded way of saying that there’s more to this Formula E business than just being able to take on the challenge of electric racing. Although the series rightly prides itself on not having pay drivers and teams being motivated to recruit on raw talent, manufacturer ties play an increasingly complex role in the lineup of a highly competitive grid.
LAST TO BE PICKED
Last month Formula E completed a rookie test day in Marrakesh. Each team had to select two drivers who had not competed in a Formula E race previously (although they could have done prior testing) to use for a full day of information-gathering, straight after an ePrix.
In theory, it’s equivalent to F1’s young driver testing; giving opportunities to drivers to test the machinery, both for the teams to gather data and to prove their mettle. F1 places experience-level restrictions on it, as of course does FE - but hardly anyone is experienced in a series entering its fourth year, anyway.
Consequently, drivers ranged from 17-year-old Michael Benyahia, who has extensive experience testing and in the simulator for Venturi, to 37-year-old Frédéric Makowiecki, with no prior experience in the series. Averaging an age of 25-and-a-half, the rookie field was only 14 months younger than the Formula 1 grid next year, despite a plethora of junior series testers.
The youngest team of testers were at DS Virgin, taking on F3 teenager Joel Eriksson and 24-year-old F1 driver Antonio Giovinazzi averaging only 21.5. Neither were spectacularly fast - although Virgin also completed one of the lowest numbers of laps, 103 between the drivers against an average of 122. And it would be hard to find a significant difference between them, statistically. Giovinazzi improved between morning and afternoon by nearly half a second more than Eriksson did, suggesting he might get even faster with more experience but they finished within a tenth of each other, showing the younger driver was quicker sooner.
Of course, it's all kind of irrelevant since, as things stand, DS Virgin don't seem likely to be in the market for a new driver – although they have yet to appoint a reserve this year. In fact, the grid is massively oversubscribed, with drivers slipping by the wayside and being squeezed out more than in the first few seasons, where the revolving door was mostly drivers fleeing to Indycar or WEC and the in-stream was a combination of big names and the implosion of the majority of the Red Bull Junior Team.
Some of those big names worked out. One of several former F1 drivers to enter FE early on, Nick Heidfeld has been in the series since the beginning, switching from Venturi to Mahindra in Season 2 and is credited as a linchpin of the team's development. Jean-Eric Vergne, a furiously depressed Toro Rosso retiree when he came to FE a few rounds in, has become a series ambassador and championship contender. Comparatively, Esteban Guttierez suffered two rounds of attempts at getting to grips with electric racing last year before bailing for Indycar so fast he didn't even get his Oval license first.
The oldest driver on the current FE grid, Heidfeld remains fiercely competitive and has developed as a key part of Mahindra. (Image courtest FIA Formula E)
LUCAS IS A MEMBER OF MENSA, YOU KNOW
Asked about the immediate - and dramatic - performance gap between himself and his teammate on starting at Dragon, Jose Maria Lopez told me "I dunno. Everything happens so quick – I think probably the setup of the car fit me very well."
It sounds slightly gormless but Pechito was laughing as he said it; in Formula E, a huge amount is down to the driver. It's what made racing so intensely hard for the rookies in Hong Kong, with lack of radio for much of the track due to tall buildings and what almost every tester said to me in both Valencia and Marrakesh – the sheer work a driver has to put in to doing maths on regeneration while trying not to smash into the other three cars going round the same hairpin bend as them is an invisible part of what makes it so exciting.
Most racing drivers are smart. They need to be quick-witted, learn fast and remember large amounts of information under pressure; the caricature of them as either instinctive prodigals or louche rockstars is way off the mark. In Formula E they have to be really smart, and it shows.
After a session in Marrakesh experienced, semi-current Williams F1 driver Paul di Resta said he was "quite surprised how much weight is on the driver in terms of how their style fits it," which is another slightly cryptic way of saying either you get it or you don't.
There's no question that the two Season 4 rookies whose team bosses were bemoaning their performances at the start of the weekend in Chile are intelligent. Filippi might not have been as prominent a part of a factory programme as Lotterer but both are incredibly experienced at testing new vehicles and working on technical development.
An intense series of sim sessions seems to have let Lotterer unlock the potential in his Renault-powered car, while Filippi still seems to have the kind of bad luck magnetism the similarly intelligent, likeable and experienced Adam Carroll suffered through last season at Jaguar.
10% of this photo of the class of Season 4 no longer applies, four rounds in (Image courtesy FIA Formula E)
THE GET-OUT CLAUSE
Of course, the fact single seater racing involves the drivers having to apply themselves a bit shouldn't really come as a shock. Anyone who follows any of them on Instagram will know there's quite a lot more to this driving race cars lark than showing up and looking cool.
But as previously-dominant-as-Abt Audi flailed their way into yet another retirement for Di Grassi, it's impossible not to wonder how much the departure of Franco Chiocchetti, the former Technical Director, has affected the team. With only 20 people allowed in the garage at Formula E and huge amounts of technical analysis work squeezed into a tiny window, the margins aren't just small going into a tight Turn One.
Some drivers might turn up to Formula E, have a torrid time and be gone in a weekend – like the enormously talented Jani – without this being in any way indicative of their skill in the series, let alone driving in general. But as the queue for the grid stacks up, especially with manufacturer pressures, the inability to work within a team (which did for Jani's predecessor Loic Duval last season) can be both the deciding factor in their future and the reason for underperformance.
Coming in to Formula E, drivers face an enormous challenge to be a complete package; they have to be instantly able to work with the team, able to communicate efficiently and possibly in tricky circumstances, technically knowledgeable, physically robust enough to wrestle nearly a tonne of machinery around tight circuits and smart enough to take on the challenge of regeneration management without many of the sense-tells they will have got used to in other series.
And they probably have to look good in Hugo Boss suits, now. No pressure.