Opinion: Review of the Formula E season so far

With the Formula E season currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Last Lap looks at the season so far.

The big story going into the season was the arrival of Mercedes and Porsche to the championship. What has been your impression of these two big name manufacturers and their debut season so far?

Freddie Coates: Both teams entered with completely opposite preparation programmes but similar ambitions. Mercedes obviously had the HWA squad last year, giving them a baseline of the Gen 2 package and an understanding of how to compete in Formula E. Porsche however spent Season 5 off track developing and for a full on attack without the cover of a transitory year. Yet both teams scored podiums in Saudi Arabia. That is unreal for both teams. Some would argue not unlikely for the most successful Formula 1 team currently and the previous WEC rulers, but it is hard to come into a well established series against teams that have been there from the start and be competitive but they have done. It has been incredibly impressive. Stoffel Vandoorne led the championship which is exceptional and Andre Lotterer has had a run of qualifying form showing true pace for the famous brand. 

Rob Hansford: I think both teams have performed well since joining the series, and despite the fact both manufacturers have been dominant in Formula 1 and WEC, it would have been naive to think they would jump straight to the top of the standings from day one.

I think Mercedes will be disappointed not to have scored points in the last two rounds, but i fully expect them to be regular point scorers this year. Porsche have already taken their maiden pole position, but it is clear they struggle more on race pace compared to others, and that is definitely an area they need to improve on as the season goes on.

Mohammed Rehman: With both teams achieving a podium finish on their FE debut in Diriyah, I was impressed to see a strong turn of pace translated into a competent result so quickly.

Mercedes-Benz EQ grabbed some form of experience under the HWA Racelab name, but were hindered under the unreliable Venturi powertrain. FE rookie Stoffel Vandoorne managed to grab a podium at the Rome E-Prix (Season 5) but even then, the car suffered a drive-shaft failure on the in-lap.

The reigning Formula 2 Champion Nyck de Vries alongside former F1 driver/GP2 Champion Stoffel Vandoorne have both showcased competent cars and a strong powertrain, but have missed out on multiple opportunities and have thrown away podium finishes; it was mostly related to the energy management strategies prepared by the team. They have the car and the right drivers, but need to adapt to the unique strategic challenges that the series poses.

As for the Tag Heuer Porsche squad, their debut podium achieved by Andre Lotterer was impressive considering the rookie team they are. Lotterer has been able to grab the team’s first podium in Diriyah and their first pole position in Mexico City, but Neel Jani hasn’t quite been able to adapt to the 99X Electric and compete against his more-experienced teammate.

At a name like Porsche, he is under pressure to step up and secure some points-finishes otherwise he may see himself replaced by someone like Simona de Silvestro, who is the development and test driver at Porsche. With 12 Formula E starts, she certainly has the experience to give it a go.

Kelly Thomas: So far this season I have been impressed with both Mercedes and Porsche. Although they have established race programmes in F1 and WEC it wasn’t expected for them to make solid progress from the off in Formula E, with both teams scoring a podium on the first race of the season.

Mercedes have had the advantage of the two having had HWA last season, and have been using this advantage. Whilst Porsche have had good qualifying pace they seem to be struggling with race pace. Going into the second half of the season Mercedes need to return to scoring points whilst Porsche need to convert their qualifying speed.

Which drivers do you think have stood out in the season so far?

FC: Keeping with the Merc theme, Nyck De Vries has come into Formula E from the highly competitive and different Formula 2. In fact he started the season and the first two rounds before the Formula 2 season concluded in Abu Dhabi! De Vries slipped under the radar in his early F2 seasons, he was sidestepped in the McLaren programme by Lando Norris but was always there or thereabouts, only 10 points the now acclaimed Alex Albon in 2018. De Vries has  proved a match for Vandoorne and the FE field finishing and qualifying strongly making a very respected start to his Formula E career. His versatility is continuing to impress me with his LMP2 performances also coming across very well, FE is very lucky to have him. 

As well as De Vries, Gunther, Da Costa and Evans are all up there. Da Costa and Evans have evolved into the full package and look set to engage in a fierce title fight with Gunther at their heels as an upstart with impressive natural speed that can only improve with the nurture that BMW will give him. 

RH: Max Gunther has been the clear stand-out performer for me. His victory in Santiago was really impressive and he showed plenty of maturity as he battled Vergne for second place, eventually securing that spot after a last gasp move on the final lap.

Mitch Evans has also stood out for me. The way he worked his way up the order from last on the grid in Marrakesh was sublime, and I think he could really be in with a shot at the driver’s title this season.

MR: I think that Maximillian Guenther of the BMW Motorsport i Andretti team has more than lived up to his new seat. I was impressed to see him win in Santiago and claim not only his first win (in his third race for the team), but also to be Formula E’s youngest winner. I think that after a difficult year with the GEOX Dragon team, he has finally been able to show what he can do in that BMW with some fantastic performances.

It would be impossible to mention Mitch Evans of the Panasonic Jaguar Racing team, who has also showcased his natural talent even further this season. The car seems to be far more competent, and he has been able to put on a performance with multiple Super-Pole appearances and of course when he dominated at Mexico City earlier this year. In his current form, I definitely see him as a drivers’ title-contender.

A charge from P24 to P6, in a close (but not equal) field of cars in Marrakesh couldn’t highlight Evans’ natural ability any further. 

KT: The drivers who have stood out for me so far this season has been Max Guenther and Mitch Evans. Guenther showed a maturity in his drive to take the win in Santiago, his first, after battling with the double champion, Jean-Eric Vergne.

Evans has been consistently securing points which has placed him well in the championship to be a title contender come the end of the season. His drive through the grid from last in Marrakesh was also a standout performance.

Nyck De Vries stood out in the opening weekend in the Mercedes as a FE rookie, completing the races before his F2 championship had completed.  

And conversely, who has failed to match your expectations?

FC: I won’t be alone in being a bit disappointed with Neel Jani. The Porsche superstar and 919 specialist has not been the match of Lotterer. In races and qualifying, his teammate has more than an edge on him. Admittedly, Lotterer has had experience with Techeetah but he was never superb. There was always the impression Vergne had more over him. That impression was given by JEV winning races and two championships whilst Lotterer is yet to stand on the top step. Jani has won Le Mans and the WEC championship. Out of all the drivers involved in those teams, he has been selected to step into the FE team but is yet to score a point. A driver of his calibre and experience was expected to achieve more than that, he should have developed that adaptability. Hopefully he can only get better and he unlocks a setup that works for him. Team relationship only goes so far. Just ask Gary Paffet…

RH: Compared to his team-mate, you have to say that Felipe Massa has been a disappointment so far this season. I know he has had a few issues during the season, but with a year’s experience under his belt, I was expecting Massa to be racing higher up the grid, and so far it isn’t happening. Two points in the opening five races compared to his team-mates 32 tells you all you need to know.

Daniel Abt also isn’t quite living up to expectations yet this year. One points finish in five races from a driver who should be at the sharp end of the grid isn’t a great return, and he really should be performing better. Di Grassi has shown what the Audi is capable of with four top ten finishes, so it is now time that Abt steps up to the plate and shows he is a match for his team-mate.

MR: As little as I want to mention it again, Neel Jani hasn’t performed as well as I expected. He thrived in Porsche’s LMP1 project having claimed a Le Mans win and much more in those years. Understandably, Formula E is such a different and unique single-seater championship to adapt to from the perspective of a rookie. But even if he holds the bragging rights of a rookie, a driver of his talent at such a team should be at least battling for the points rather than hanging around the GEOX Dragons.

Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler were a winning team not too long ago, having achieved at least a victory within the first five races of a season. As it is the first season that has not happened, perhaps it represents an eye-opener on how much they need to claw themselves back to compete against the might of BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, DS Techeetah and more. For all that I see, it’s more to do with the car itself as their driver line-up has been the same since Season 1 and has worked well in the past years.

KT: The drivers that haven’t lived up to expectation for me is firstly Neel Jani. Team-mate Andre Lotterer, has proven what pace the Porsche has but Jani hasn’t been able to match this.

Also disappointing at the start of this season has been Felipe Massa and Daniel Abt. Massa looked to have settled in the series after his first season where he was performing well and consistently, but this so far hasn’t transpired this year. Abt also hasn’t performed as well as he has in previous seasons. Again his teammate, Lucas Di Grassi has proven the car is capable and we should be seeing Abt back up the order where, in the past, he has been consistently.

Which driver do you think will surprise in the second half of the season?

FC: There are a lot of drivers that fly consistently under the radar in FE. Felix Rosenqvist was one. He was dominant at the start of Season 4 but was forgotten about in Season 5 despite showing immense speed wherever he ends up. Another Mahindra driver is one of my selections here. Jerome D’Ambrosio is a seasoned force in the championship. Always performing well and having consistent results. It is strange that he is not considered among the upper echelon of drivers in the series, Di Grassi, Buemi, Vergne and the like. The other driver I think will do better than expected in the second half of the season. Eduardo Mortara has similarly kept a low but quality profile for the Venturi team who seem to be on the rise. If he brings himself into victory contention a few times, I would not be surprised. 

RH: If Lotterer can convert his one lap pace into decent race speed, then I think he could really put himself in the mix in the latter stages of the season. Porsche need to make some improvements in order for that to become a reality, but if they do, they could be in for a tense end to the year, and wouldn’t it be great to see Lotterer win his first E-Prix!

MR: I would like to think that Sam Bird will overcome his poor level of luck, and fight for wins and podiums again. His win at Round 1 showcased exactly what he’s made of and I look forward to seeing him take his usual role as to give the title contenders a hard time. 

This time last year, he was merely falling into a streak of unfortunate circumstances that meant Season 5 was one to forget about; hopefully we’ll see that change during the second half of this season.

KT: I think in the second half of the season we will see the established drivers who have been struggling to score big points in the first half come through, such as Vergne, Bird, Buemi and Di Grassi.

If Mercedes can return to form I think we will see Stoffel Vandoorne moving up the table in the second half of the season.

Gen 3 car plans are set to be announced next year during the first Gen 2 EVO season, which direction do you think the next generation of electric racing will take?

FC: This isn’t just a question about the future of Formula E. It is a question that can be directly corresponded with the future of all electric vehicles. Formula E needs to properly take hold of tech that will further EVs significantly to take that next step that will pull the car industry forward. Jamie Reigle, the new CEO of Formula E wants to involve fast charging and use this to provide a pitstop element to increase strategy in the races. Previously all strategies have been fairly similar between teams, car swaps were all at the same time, as is energy saving. Attack Mode has allowed for more variation. Fast charging is needed for the world to believe it can move on from petrol and F1 has proved that motorsport can drive innovation like no other way. If teams can out develop each other’s fast charging software for a spec battery then they can further their own team and the car industry in one. 

RH: Motorsport has always been a fast paced environment regardless of what aspect of the sport you look at and Formula E is no exception. The momentum is definitely with them at the moment, with great action, and a lot of that is down to the lower speeds and less downforce. 

If Formula E wants to appeal to the mass markets, they will need to increase the speed. I believe that will come and as the technology gets better, the cars will get faster, but they also need to be wary about the downforce levels, and ensure they don’t become too high, otherwise racing will mimic Formula 1, no matter how much you work on the speed.

I don’t think races need to be extended, and I think they actually have a good balance in order to keep the target audience fully engaged, but no doubt the next generation will focus on the battery charge, from both a capacity and speed perspective, as well as the range available. It could be that with a combination of all of these aspects, Formula E could take to full international race circuits, and prove to be fast enough to provide exciting races without looking too slow.

MR: With the Gen2 Evo car certainly looking impressive, we’ll start to see more changes made to the championship as battery technologies start to evolve. I admire the focus on energy management that works well alongside ‘Attack Mode’ to bring out exciting spectacles in the form of close racing. Extreme E can work alongside (what will be) the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship to establish more durable and proficient batteries that can allow such instances as re-charging during pit-stops; imagining that it would be able to provide at least 90 mins of action in the current state.

The Gen3 car will be an exciting thing in itself as it will have nearly double the output of the current cars, with the addition of other possible developments like all-wheel-drive powertrains. 

I think that the series has evolved so much over its six years, but we have a plethora of developments to look forward to in this decade.

KT: I think the next steps forward in the evolution of the electric cars will be predominantly related to the battery life and speed.

The electric car market is increasing in the wider sense and it is to the developments made here that many will be looking. Speed I think will be a key factor, but also the battery. The speed will bring closer and more spectacular racing, whilst the development of the battery could allow for recharging during pit stops.