Formula E starts up again this weekend with a double-header in Saudi Arabia and there are plenty of new drivers and teams to get to know
Last season, Formula E stepped up to its faster, more sophisticated second generation of cars, added in a few new rules (Attack Mode anyone?), and the result was some of the most outrageously competitive and unpredictable racing on the planet.
Although it doesn’t feel like it, it’s been more than four months since Jean-Eric Vergne clinched his second championship and, thanks to the championship’s structure of spreading a season across two calendar years, that means that we’re on the verge of the sixth season.
Once seen as a place for outcasts and those with nothing better to do on their free weekends, Formula E is now a serious credible championship in which drivers are looking to forge careers. There have been a few high-profile driver changes, new names coming in, and even a couple of returnees. And when it comes to the teams, we’ve got a couple of the biggest manufacturers in motor racing coming together for their assault on a championship which only continues to grow in stature and significance.
The reigning teams’ champions return with Jean-Eric Vergne, who’s going for his third title in a row with the squad. However, this season he’s got a new teammate in the form of Antonio Felix da Costa, who’s come over from BMW, as Andre Lotter has left for… well, more on that in a bit.
As driver line-ups go, it’s a helluva pairing. Unfortunately for Techeetah, the same can be said of most of the other teams this season. Just coming close to winning both championships again would be an achievement, let alone actually winning it!
The only team on the grid to have kept the same drivers since the very first season, Audi is always in with a shout. Lucas di Grassi has an incredible knack for winning races out of nowhere and has never finished outside of the top three in the championship, while Daniel Abt has developed into one of the most consistent drivers on the grid. They’ll almost certainly be somewhere in the mix this season, too, and sheer experience could give them a bit of an edge.
Another unchanged line-up, there’s an awful lot to like about Envision Virgin’s chances. It almost seems criminal to think that Sam Bird somehow hasn’t won a championship yet, while Robin Frijns proved last season that he was always capable of delivering in Formula E, he just needed a car which allowed him to show it.
At this point I’d like to say that either could be a real championship threat. However, I alluded to the same thing with Techeetah and Audi and have quickly realised that the same is likely to be true of a number of other teams. So, from this point on, simply assume that all drivers will be candidates for the title fight unless I mention otherwise.
Last season was Nissan’s first in Formula E and, as the season progressed, went from having a car that was incredibly fast over a lap to one that was incredibly fast… everywhere. Sebastien Buemi somehow pinched the runner-up spot last year and is hoping he can carry that form over into Season Six, as he told us during testing in Valencia:
“It was pretty crazy at the end [of last season] for me to finish second in the championship, I think I had the most DNFs compared to most of my opponents so to be able to finish second is pretty impressive. I hope I can build upon that and start the season strongly.”
Meanwhile, Oliver Rowland impressed in his rookie season with a series of poles and podiums. That first win still eludes him, though he’s aiming to put that right in his sophomore year:
“I haven’t really set myself any goals. I had stuff to improve from last year in terms of consistency and I took three poles in a rookie season which wasn’t bad. So if I can work on that and just get a bit more consistency - so instead of being first or 15th I can be first of fifth - I think I can score a lot of points.
“Of course it depends a lot on the car and the performance of the car - we’ve had to change a lot since last season, we’ve gone from a twin to a single PU which is a lot of work for us. We have to design all that, we have to understand it, so I think it’s difficult to know exactly where going to be but you know, if the car’s competitive I want to be fighting for wins and the championship.”
After the first two races of last season, it looked like BMW was going to utterly walk to the championship. However, da Costa’s win in the opening race proved to be the only one of the season and BMW ended up a lowly fifth in the standings, proving that being big manufacturer back isn’t a guarantee of success.
Alexander Sims stays on with the team as he aims to put the experience gained to good use in his second year, and he’ll be joined by a fellow Season Five rookie - Maxi Gunther. He had some mega drives in a disrupted season for the GEOX Dragon team last season and deserves his place with a big team. The drivers have the speed, but will their relative inexperience cost BMW across a championship campaign? Time will tell.
Mahindra looked like one of the teams who got the second-generation car sussed right out of the blocks last season, but missed chances and the improvement of others saw them look increasingly midfield with each race.
They’ve stuck with the same drivers, too. Pascal Wehrlein showed undeniable speed in his rookie season and could well be a force to be reckoned with. The experienced Jerome d’Ambrosio is a dab hand in races (especially if they get a little crazy) but will have to improve his qualifying performances if he wants to taste more regular success.
Now entering its fourth season (yep, that’s more than I thought, too!) and with a race win under its belt, Jaguar has a very solid platform to work on.
Mitch Evans is the real deal - if the car’s halfway decent, he’ll be up there winning races. Following the departure of Nelson Piquet halfway through last season, Jaguar has opted not to stick with his replacement Alex Lynn (who misses out on a drive altogether) but has instead gone for rookie James Calado. He’ll be an unknown quantity at first but, with plenty of experience in all sorts of other categories, it probably won’t be long before he starts becoming a factor in the races.
Venturi has finally decided to stop persisting with its own powertrain and instead become a customer Mercedes outfit. Given the prevalence of proper manufacturers in Formula E now that’s almost certainly a good thing, especially as reliability was an issue for all of the Venturi-powered cars last season.
The driver line up stays the same - race-winner Edoardo Mortara is immensely quick but has been prone to the odd mistake, while Felipe Massa’s steady improvement throughout last season (particularly when it comes to battery management) shows that the oldest driver on the grid has still got plenty of vigour for learning and improvement.
Will Venturi be title contenders? Probably not - but expect them to be the fly in the ointment on more than one occasion throughout the year.
Unlike Venturi, Dragon is sticking to its own path when it comes to power and will continue to run the Penske powertrain for Season Six.
There is an all-new driver pairing, though, as Gunther has gone to BMW and Jose Maria Lopez has gone to… well, he’s just gone. In their place come this season’s DTM runner-up Nico Muller and Toro Rosso refugee Brendon Hartley. They’ll have to learn the ropes the hard way but they’ve both got extremely good backgrounds which will serve them well in Formula E - Muller knows all about incredibly hard, close racing from DTM (and he’ll see plenty of that this season!) while Hartley’s years of hybrid LMP1 experience with Porsche and Toyota should help with the learning curve of energy management.
It shouldn’t take too long for either of them to get to grips with the series - just don’t expect to see them getting to grips at the front just yet.
Nio has had another of its seemingly annual name changes, this time from ‘Nio Formula E Team’ to ‘Nio 333 FE Team’ - which is funny, because the team was to fellow Chinese outfit Lisheng Racing for this season and now has nothing to do with Nio. Ever since Nelson Piquet won the inaugural Formula E championship for the team (then called China Racing) back in 2014/15, results have been hard to come by, with just the one podium since and finishing at the bottom of last year’s Teams’ Championship.
Now running the Penske powertrain instead of its own, Nio is keeping the remarkably loyal (and seriously impressive) Oliver Turvey, who has been with the team since the end of that first season. Tom Dillman has departed and been replaced by Ma Qinghua, who’s dabbled with the odd Formula E race here and there over the years. He never looked that impressive, but perhaps being in the car from the start of the year and with all the proper preparation will help him hit the ground running. It’s probably fair to say that expectations are low, but that just increases the capacity for the team to produce some big surprises.
Now we’re getting into two of the major players - and the source of enormous anticipation. What was last year’s HWA squad has morphed into the full factory Mercedes Formula E effort - and from their Formula 1 success over the last six years, you just know they’re not going to be messing about.
Stoffel Vandoorne has made the transition across after a promising debut season, with current F2 champion Nyck de Vries replacing Gary Paffett as his teammate. An inexperienced line-up? Perhaps - but there’s no denying the talent on offer. If the car is strong, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see these fighting at the front. Whether they can do it consistently is the challenge that all the major manufacturers face - but if any team can do it, it’s Mercedes…
…or Porsche. Rounding out the 12-team field for this season is the brand that has been so successful in pretty much everything motorsport-related that it touches. How soon can it conquer the all-electric sphere of Formula E?
Driver-wise, Porsche stalwart Neel Jani comes into the fold for his first proper go at Formula E since an aborted attempt with Dragon a couple of years ago. He’ll be joined by Andre Lotterer, who’s made the move across following two years at Techeetah to lead the charge. Although he’s yet to actually win a Formula E race, there’s no doubt that he has the speed - and the aggression - to do so.
At the risk of bigging it up too much, this has the potential to be one incredible season. All those manufacturers going all-in with electric motorsport, all those immensely talented drivers coming into the sport and trying to upset the established order. And they’ll be doing it all in cars that can race extremely closely, on tracks that throw up all kinds of drama, and with regulations that almost make the concept of ‘unpredictability’ almost predictable.
I can’t wait - and thankfully, we won’t have to. The first race takes place on Friday 23 November in Riyadh, with the second race happening on Saturday the day afterwards. Still not convinced? I’ll leave it to the Nissan guys to convince you otherwise:
Buemi: “The racing is unpredictable, you never know who’s going to win and there is always things happening until the last lap. I think the energy system we have makes it really interesting until the end - and the places that we race are quite nice!”
Rowland: “Switch one race on from last year and probably any of them, they’re all pretty interesting. The passing, the overtaking, the circuits, everything is pretty fun. And also to come and watch the races there’s plenty of stuff for the fans to do, it’s really engaging with the fans. And as I said before the racing’s extremely close, you can see by the times already here in Valencia we’re within tenths between 10 of us.”