Who was the best rookie in Formula E this year?
Post sponsored by
Formula E is, notoriously, difficult to get into. I don't just mean overcoming your innate prejudices about electric racing, I mean it's literally just a tough gig to get - and then it'll screw you up by being incomprehensibly unlike any other racing series all along the way.
Teams struggle with it, manufacturers struggle with it, drivers either take to it like ducks to water or have to go through an adjustment period that might see them out of a drive if they can't step up with some kind of points-scoring method fast enough.
Season 5 saw six rookies announced: Gary Paffett and Stoffel Vandoorne at HWA, Felipe Massa at Venturi, Pascal Wehrlein at Mahindra, Alexander Sims for BMWi Andretti and Maximilian Guenther at GEOX Dragon.
Three recently-ex-F1 drivers, the current DTM champion, a hugely successful IMSA driver and an ex-F2 up-and-comer who'd decided he was coming to Formula E, rather than hold his breath for an F1 chance, and spent the last season convincing the paddock.
But after a full season of racing in Formula E, how did they actually shake out?
L-R; rookie Stoffel Vandoorne, returning driver Robin Frijns & rookies Felipe Massa and Pascal Wehrlein (image: ABB Formula E)
Toughing it out
Stoffel Vandoorne isn't, of course, especially new to being a rookie in a team that seems set to be uncompetitive. Two years of what might be politely called limited performance from McLaren while he was with them in F1 must have set up some psychological resilience to arriving somewhere fearing you might... well, ‘suck’ is probably the best word.
HWA had to arrive with realistic expectations – taking the pain for a season before the team rebadged as Mercedes, they were being thrown onto the learning curve and hoping they could somehow roll uphill. With two rookie drivers and a completely new team, it wouldn't have been unreasonable to just aim not to make complete fools of themselves.
I asked Gary Paffett, who along with the whole HWA team had gone from sealing the DTM title to trying not to trip over themselves at collective testing within a few days last October, how those expectations can be managed:
"It’s not as if you can get a couple of races in and you’re basically up to speed. Every single weekend we seem to learn something new – I think that’s probably a feature of being in a rookie team as well, the team is learning as the year goes on as well. I think for us, if we’d gone into an experienced team in Formula E it probably would have been easier to be a rookie but the way we’ve done it, we’ve built the team together and we’ve all been learning together.
"It’s a very tough series to come into as a rookie - if you’re confident in other series, winning races all the time and then come into this series and have it not go that well, it can be frustrating but you just have to keep your head down and just keep focussed.
"Sometimes we don’t make the most of opportunities and as a driver you make mistakes and get frustrated and but you’ve got to stay focussed - trust yourself, trust your ability and keep plugging away, keep going, keep doing the best job you can and not let it get to you. I think from speaking to other drivers here, it is a tough series especially in your first year so I think it doesn’t matter who you are, coming into this series as a rookie is a big challenge."
Comparatively, some rookies come in with high expectations. Felipe Massa is the kind of name that sees half of people want to insist this is an exciting move for a fast driver who'll immediately find success and the other half gloomily predict career-ending failure.
The Venturi driver spent a year out of racing, in order to work out where he actually wanted to be and despite testing for Jaguar, settled on the Monagasque squad. Venturi was supplying HWA with powertrains this year, upping the ante in terms of performance and attention on the team.
If anyone had any questions about whether Massa's heart was still in it, they were very much answered on track this year - including a podium in Monaco after managing energy down to the final wire, an art that often escapes new drivers in the series. Massa hasn't driven a flawless season, including a few collisions and tangles but it's unquestionable that he's been aiming for the front and not here to make up the numbers, driving for the team next door.
More experienced (in Formula E) teammate Edoardo Mortara, who's signed up to stay at Venturi with Massa next year, told me the Brazilian had slotted into the team well and was instantly collaborative:
"I think we’ve had a really good year, it has been pretty easy to work with him - he’s quite relaxed and no secrets, rather than in the past when sometimes teammates have been a little bit more stressful."
Something echoed by Antonio Felix da Costa about Alex Sims: "He’s been a really good teammate actually. We’ve known each other for many years and he came into the series very well, speed was never an issue but this series is just so hard to understand that he’s made a few mistakes.
"Which every rookie does eventually - so I think he’s done really well, the speed is there and he’s shown that. He almost won a race in Marrakech and he effectively finished on the podium in Chile were it not for that penalty, so he’s done well. Ups and downs, like any rookie but I’ve had a lot of fun with him. He’s a very fair teammate, no bullshit, no hiding - we share a lot."
Ant's being particularly generous, perhaps, given Sims' missed race win in Marrakech was at the expense of Da Costa, following a collision between the two. How different the season might have looked if BMWi Andretti had taken the first two wins, following Da Costa's return to the top step in Riyadh.
Sims has more than redeemed himself across the season, however - including skipping his own first podium in New York's Saturday race, to move aside for Da Costa's championship position hopes. Then outright claimed second the following day, showing both blistering pace and the ability to recover from a difficult mid-season.
Above and beyond
Two rookies, though, have truly stood out this year. Pascal Wehrlein has more than impressed at Mahindra, scoring a pole and a second-place finish, consistently troubling the top of the field throughout Mahindra's storming first half of the season before the Indian team's performance dropped dramatically in the European rounds.
Teammate Jerome D'Ambrosio told me that Pascal was rookie of the year for him, without question: "I think Pascal, for sure. He’s been there straight up with the pace in qualifying, he didn’t take any adaptation time.
"Straight away in Valencia he was in the car and the car suited him quite well, you can see that some drivers get into the championship and struggle a bit more but he was straight on it. So I think Pascal’s probably been the best rookie this year."
Everyone loves Pascal, though. He came in well-liked and famous as Mercedes' F1 protege, unquestionably the driver who can carry off the coolest fashion choices and with a personality like a ray of sunshine.
One rookie, however, has stood above the rest. Max Guenther came into the championship an unknown quantity.
Having only turned 22 earlier this month, Maxi's level of maturity on-track in his first professional race seat and in the media pen, under pressure and being quizzed about his future, has been more than proven.
Not only that but in a car that can't really be called competitive, he's held his nerve to become the only rookie this year to out-perform an experienced teammate - he finishes the season with 20 points to Lopez's 3, despite having missed three rounds.
In 10 years time, if anyone looks at the Wikipedia page for the 2018-2019 Formula E Season then it'll be hard to distinguish the rookies. The highest finisher was Wehrlein, who placed 12th in the championship after finally falling out of contention before New York. Just behind him was Alex Sims, Massa in 15th and Vandoorne and Guenther just behind him.
But as we head into the silliest of silly seasons, if one of the many German manufacturers in the series were looking for a young driver who can hold his nerve, to build a team around, Guenther's superlative drive of survival in hail-beaten Paris is an exceptional addition to any CV. Especially when you consider he didn't know if he'd ever race in the series again.
All the rookies, bar Massa, currently face that of course. Formula E sorts out contracts over the off-season and none of the others have yet to re-sign. With a little grid reshuffle courtesy of Porsche's entry and some rumoured re-badging at other places, there's a seat at Techeetah suddenly available and a lot of interested parties.
At least all of this lot, whose difficult first season has come in a tricky fifth for the sport, can definitely walk away from it unembarrassed. And some of them with career-high standouts.