Why next season is the most important in Sam Bird's Formula E career
The most successful driver not to win a Formula E championship is running out of time...
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When tasked with listing the big names in the Formula E series, the likes of Lucas Di Grassi, Sebastien Buemi and Jean-Eric Vergne spring to mind immediately. One driver, however, is often the post 'and' individual on that list.
Sam Bird is, without doubt, one of the fastest and most successful drivers in FE, but despite competing in every race of every season so far, the Britain is yet to score that elusive championship many believe he so rightly deserves.
Brilliant Bird embarks on a critical campaign.
In Season 7, the 33-year-old embarks on his greatest challenge in the series to date as he ends his six-season relationship with Envision Virgin Racing to join Jaguar alongside two-time race winner Mitch Evans.
Arguably the driver to watch going into Season 7, here's why Bird might have more pressure on him than ever before.
Improving the car
Formula E is currently in a boom phase as global automotive manufacturers are looking at the series as an opportunity to display their electric technology. In Season 6, the series welcomed factory efforts from two giants, Mercedes and Porsche as the level of competition took another step up.
Jaguar have been competing in FE since Season 3, and after two disappointing campaigns have seen a turn of pace with the advent of the Gen 2 car and their I-TYPE powertrain. As teams run identical cars besides the powertrain components, the arms race has shifted to the production of the electric heart of the car.
Bird has been with the Envision Virgin team since the start of FE, and has been heavily involved in maximising the pace of the Gen 1 and Gen 2 cars to come from the Silverstone HQ. Over the last two seasons EVR have been the sole customer of the Audi e-tron powertrain, and will have had limited involvement in the progression of the unit.
Now, at Jaguar, the emphasis is on Bird to play his part in improving the performance of Jaguar's powertrain. No longer will he have to make the best of what he has been given, the British driver will be under pressure to aid in continuing Jaguar's upward trend in performance.
This should be an incentive to Bird, who will essentially be working to sharpen his own tools for any championship campaign.
Jaguar may not have the budget at hand that the likes of Porsche and BMW possess, placing further emphasis on how every individual needs to play a part if the British marque are to consider title challengers, including Bird.
Proving himself in a new environment
Bird is one of only two drivers to have competed in every FE race with the same team, but come January the British driver will find himself in a new environment trackside.
Leaving a team in which he has achieved so much must have been difficult for Bird, but as has been proved by Antonio Felix da Costa in his move to DS Techeetah, the decision demands that the driver prove themselves almost immediately.
Although Bird's focus will arguably be on beating the field to establish a championship challenge, his first target is to get the better of his heavyweight teammate.
Magic Mitch - The New Zealander is one of FE's toughest competitors.
Mitch Evans has quickly become one of the strongest drivers on the grid, revered and feared in equal measure. The New Zealander stormed to a mature maiden victory in the hectic Season 5 Rome ePrix, where he passed and held off Andre Lotterer in one of the series' most memorable contests.
Evans is far from an easy opponent, and not an easy teammate to share the circuit with. In his four seasons in FE the 26-year-old has got the better of each of his three teammates, including series champion Nelson Piquet Jnr., with ease.
Bird's first task in his new team will be matching Evans, or even better, beating him. If the British driver is to clinch that championship trophy that has evaded him for so long then getting the better of his teammate will re-establish himself as a title contender. A sizeable task considering that Bird hasn't exactly had it all his own way against rising star Robin Frijns.
Over the past two seasons the 33-year-old has struggled to recreate the consistency that made him the driver best placed to stop Vergne taking the Season 4 title heading into the New York Finale. At Jaguar the pressure will be on to hit the ground running as the British team is not afraid to make changes to their driver lineup.
In their four years in the sport Jaguar have had four different driver pairings, with Evans the common denominator. Highly respected drivers like Nelson Piquet Jnr., and Alex Lynn haven't been able to match Evans and so the team have sought other options for that second seat without delay.
Not even Piquet Jnr.'s status as FE champion helped save his drive at Jaguar.
The pressure of a factory-backed drive will be notable. No longer is Bird representing a racing team, but now has to act as a brand representative for one of the most well-known marques in the automotive world with the knowledge that if his performance doesn't stack up he doesn't have loyalty to fall back on.
Bird will have to prove himself worthy of being considered alongside the likes of Di Grassi, Vergne, Da Costa and Buemi, a challenge he seems to be ready for.
The clock is ticking
The record books show that Sam Bird is one of four drivers to have competed in every single FE event to date. A total of 69 races have seen Bird take nine wins, five poles and compile the fourth most points of any driver in the series' history. As the level of competition increases, and the notoriety of FE follows suit, the clock might just be ticking on Bird's time left in the championship.
With the likes of BMW, Porsche and Mercedes upgrading to full factory-backed teams during the last two seasons, so has emerged a new target for aspiring drivers. Formula 1 is likely the goal for many of the junior drivers around the world, but with more manufacturer involvement than any other single-seater competition, the driver conveyor belt is beginning to turn at growing speed.
De Vries is likely the first of many young talents choosing FE as their career goal.
The most vivid example is rookie Nyck de Vries who, after winning the 2019 Formula 2 championship, saw FE as the best place to further his career and signed for the Mercedes EQ team. There's no doubt in saying that the Dutchman won't be the last young gun looking to the all-electric series as a viable destination on their career ladder.
Team's find these junior drivers extremely attractive, and history has shown that sometimes youth can be favoured over experience. Bird, sat in a lucrative drive with a manufacturer, will need to prove he has still got it, despite being plenty of years away from the end of his racing career.
New names pose a threat to Bird's seat in Jaguar, but more imminent than that is the increasing number of title contenders already on the grid.
In the early years of FE, it seemed that you could count the 'realistic' championship challengers on one hand, heading in to Season 7 you'd need both hands to list those who stand a chance of taking home the title.
The level of competition is now higher than ever.
The exclusive group of champions, Di Grassi, Buemi, Vergne, and Da Costa pose as obvious obstacles to navigate en route to a successful campaign, but it would be criminal to underestimate the Mercedes EQ duo of De Vries and Season 6 runner-up Stoffel Vandoorne, race winner Nissan's Oliver Rowland, and the experience of Porsche's Andre Lotterer. That's before considering the developing talent that is BMW's Maximilian Gunther and the refreshed Alexander Lynn who heads to pastures new at Mahindra.
Just like that, Bird's title task becomes increasing convoluted thanks to arguably the most competitive and talented driver lineups in the motorsport world. Bird's opportunities to end the season atop the standings are decreasing, and are being made smaller by the climbing quality of the field.
Should Bird find himself in a position to fight for the title next season, it could well end up being his final shot at the most lucrative trophy in single-seater racing.
Bird has the number one spot locked in his crosshairs.
Without a doubt the seventh season of Formula E will be a spectacle, but for Sam Bird the new adventure at Jaguar Racing is his most important season in the series. Firstly, the British driver needs to contribute to the forward progress his new team have displayed in their four-season tenure, applying his experience to the development of the car's powertrain
The new environment will pose the biggest challenge to Bird, who must establish himself alongside race-winning teammate Mitch Evans, and make it known that he is still capable of challenging for the title following on from a difficult Season 6. The 33-year-old will also need to carry the pressure of representing the Jaguar brand or risk losing his seat.
Above all, it's become evident that maybe the clock is ticking on his time in the sport as interest from both manufacturers and junior drivers is seeing the revolving door driver market accelerate.
2021 poses the biggest test of Bird in his racing career so far, but should he succeed then what is now the most important season, might very quickly become the most memorable.