Why Formula E can be the remaking of a driver

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Formula E is often talked about as revolutionising motorsport, as challenging the traditional narratives in the field. Which it does - it’s a taboo-busting, tech-bending series in which some of the most forbidden subjects in automotive fields, like climate change, are held up as priorities.

But no sport is a single story - within Formula E, teams and manufacturers and drivers are living out their own narratives. Despite a lot of jibes early on about being a Formula One retirement or rejection home, Formula E has a list of continent-spanning manufacturers any other series would be just as eager to boast about, more teams trying to get in than it has entries and a driver field that anyone who knows their stuff - and especially any other drivers with any sense - knows is incomparable.

When the series first began, it was considered a surefire failure by a lot of people. And the drivers entering were considered idiots, greedy or desperate - depending on their previous racing record, their pay check or the recency of them getting publicly insulted by Helmut Marko.

I asked one of the third category, now two-time race winner and BMW factory driver Antonio Felix da Costa, what he thought of the series then: “When I touched a Formula E car for the first time I wasn’t convinced. But I was going through a really hard time in my life - I’d just lost out on my Toro Rosso seat, which had felt like a sure thing at the time so I was a bit frustrated. I had a test in a Formula E car and I just thought ‘****, I’m only going downhill from now.’”

He stayed in the series, completing his fiftieth race in Monaco last weekend but plenty of people might have called him an idiot for doing it at the time; fellow stalwart Sam Bird - one of four drivers to have contested every round of Formula E - told me the prognosis for Formula E was bleak from the beginning: “It was getting touted as maybe the next Superleague Formula or A1GP, which it obviously, clearly isn’t but those were the kind of things people were saying, that it might die after a year.”

Not the ideal scenario for any driver going through something at the time - and a lot of them were. From Bird being on the brink of quitting racing altogether to Jean-Eric Vergne’s very public fall from grace in Formula One.

JEV told me he was “a bit in shock” when he first arrived, knowing nothing about the series and having been sent to far-flung Punta del Este at almost no notice and stepping into a difficult-to-drive, utterly alien car, in a series very little like any other, even then - car swaps are hardly standard driver practice.

Even so, he described his first race as being a relief: “Like a bird that’s had his wings clipped - I felt like I found my wings again.”

Antonio went even further, saying about drivers like himself, JEV and Sam, “It’s a bit of a saviour for us.” He had to be persuaded, BMW convincing him to keep their own foothold in a championship no one was totally sure of committing to yet.

“That was a massive extra incentive for me and looking at it now, it’s probably the best decision I could possibly have taken in my whole career, to stay in Formula E”, Antonio said.

Sam himself said the same thing: “When I look back on my career, this will probably be the defining series. I would probably say that about a lot of the drivers in this paddock.”

But what is it about the series that’s so redemptive? An ultra-competitive field goes a long way, giving drivers the chance to rebuild confidence, if they can take opportunities where they can but with Lucas di Grassi describing it as the most stressful racing series he’s ever been in, it’s definitely not because it’s all hugs and puppies.

The Season 3 champion was enthusiastically on-board with Formula E from the very start but told me last month that it’s a huge test of driver skill and endurance, even more than Le Mans - “Because of this level of difficulty; every track is different, weather conditions are different and you have very little time to adapt. If you are on top of it every time it’s very difficult for other drivers to match you there. Even if you win two or three races but then you’re nowhere, you can easily be overtaken by someone who’s always there roughly at the front - so consistency is very difficult in Formula E.”

Even coming in mentally at the top of your game is tricky - as we’ve seen in subsequent seasons as highly-rated drivers flounder under the pressure. But something also makes it somewhere drivers can thrive even at what JEV described to me as “the lowest” following F1 rejection, saying at the time he arrived in Formula E – “I needed to pick myself back up if I wanted to have a career at all.”

And Formula E isn’t easy - Antonio had a win in the first season, then nothing until the first race of Season 5, for instance.

Formula E is close - but some teams are much, much closer than others, as we can see from the struggles of Dragon and NIO this year. Antonio said he was glad to see the back of his own tricky seasons: “Last year, when New York was done I was just happy not to have to sit in that car again. It was never a doubt about the team, the people because I knew what was coming but it was just hard. When I know I’m able to fight all of these guys and you just don’t have the tools - I was even lapped in New York. It was the end of the season, my powertrain was so tired, my car was not efficient at all, I was begging to retire - that was a low point. As soon as I got out of New York, though, we went testing for Season 5 and when I sat in this car I thought “Here we go, finally” - like the break of my life was coming.”

Maybe that’s what it is, even if you’re coming from somewhere genuinely dark. As Sam put it to me, “it is very close and on anybody’s day they can be up there” – despite having what he called “a frankly, **** three races” and no luck turnaround in Monaco, he’s still only a couple of good weekends off regaining the championship lead – and there’s four races to go.

JEV, the true turnaround king of the championship, knows that only too well. It took him nearly three entire seasons to finally win a Formula E race - his first victory since Formula Renault in 2011. I was there, on my very first proper flyaway Formula E race as a journalist (having stuck to Europe and North Africa before) and was as keen as anyone to see a heroic narrative play out, to get that redemption story that’s part of what makes sport so inspiring and involving in the first place.

Formula E seems to give back for the faith you put into it. From taking what Sam called “a big leap into the unknown” in the first place, by entering, to knuckling down and committing to it rather than seeing it as a stepping stone to – or back to – somewhere else.

JEV told me that first win in Montreal was “where [he] gained everything,” going on to a summer of building up Techeetah. It was key for him to find his position in the series and be able to compete without getting lost in his own performance.

“I was more confident and more experienced. It was a difficult turnaround and I’m ok. I don’t make the same mistake as before, that when you achieve something good you lose focus and think you’re the king of the world; I won last year but the day after, I was thinking about this season.”

Formula E’s appeal for drivers is a lot in that they make a difference – with cars so close together, they’re fighting for the best performance they can put in, not the best the team could hope for. In a championship where half the grid is within mathematical distance of the title, there isn’t any true midfield let alone back markers. Even after a difficult period spanning over half of the season so far, Sam said, “it’s not like the lead of the championship is far away.”

Even with the weight of nine manufacturers, a paddock that has at times this year turned outright paranoid and some contractual shenanigans in one team that would be the envy of any caffeine magnate, Formula E remains competitive. Every series puts drivers under incredible pressure, but not all of them give them the tools to deliver.

Talent gets a redemption arc in Formula E because it’s possible to showcase it. As JEV put it to me, the attitude is “let’s have fun and go race.”

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