Audi is a stalking horse in this season’s ABB FIA Formula E Championship, and one that should thrust itself into the congested title fight this summer despite its weak start to the present campaign.
Should it do so, Audi would complete a kind of valedictory ‘burn from the stern’, which would be an achievement akin to its initially troubled first full-factory FE campaign in 2017-18.
On that occasion it took just 12 points from the first four races as a complex inverter issue threatened to destroy its season.
That Audi sprung back to take a remarkable teams’ title, scoring an astonishing 252 points in the remaining eight events, still acts as a spur for a manufacturer that knows it has underperformed in the last two seasons.
That average score of 31.5 points per race back in the 2018 run-in was kick-started by Daniel Abt’s breakthrough win at Mexico City and then consolidated with three more victories for the team, which went on a record-making run of eight consecutive podium appearances.
Three years later Audi is on the cusp of leaving Formula E to concentrate on Le Mans LMDh and Dakar Rally projects.
Many in the team are known to have been privately baffled by the decision that the Audi board took late last year.
But perhaps they really shouldn’t have been. A day after the news broke – and it emerged with less than impeccable timing at the pre-season Valencia test last November – new boss Julius Seebach was formally installed as Dieter Gass’s successor as managing director of Audi Sport GmbH.
The discrepancy between these two men’s motorsport experiences and immersion within it was vast. So perhaps the decisions were merely a reflection of a bigger-picture outlook at Audi that led it to make an about-turn on its motorsport programme.
Six months on, well into its farewell season, the Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler squad has ultimately flattered to deceive. The pace is there but the results just haven’t come… yet. The team sits sixth in the championship, 52 points from the lead, its drivers eighth and 19th in their title race.
There is no doubt that the Audi e-tron FE06 is a very quick car and it seems increasingly likely that, when it can tame the vagaries of qualifying, both Lucas di Grassi and Rene Rast will have a very strong shout for wins in the remaining eight races of the 2020-21 campaign.
Team principal Allan McNish certainly hopes so. He believes that Formula E’s own chaos theory will mean the random states of disorder and irregularities swing back to Audi via the underlying patterns and deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to the initial conditions of Formula E.
“I think you’ve got to separate the championship table to the performance so far this season,” he tells The Race.
“Because clearly, we have got the performance, the cars got the performance, we saw that with two poles, two fastest laps, two podiums and the win we should have had in Rome, I think that was quite clear.
“Also, without the safety car shenanigans in the first race in Riyadh, I think Rene would have been fighting for the victory.”
As it stands, there is still a driver in an Audi leading the championship. Customer team Envision Virgin Racing’s Robin Frijns has been the living embodiment of Formula E’s seesaw nature when it comes to form.
The Dutchman’s race results have gone like this: 17th, 2nd, 4th, 18th, 6th, 19th, 2nd. But perhaps it is his qualifying trace which actually tells the full story of how trough and peak the season has been so far: 24th, 1st, 7th, 19th, 15th, 17th, 2nd!
That equates to an average starting position of 12th. But when you consider that BMW i Andretti’s Maximilian Guenther, who lies 16th in the standings with 40 points fewer than Frijns, has an average start position of ninth place, you get a real gist of the Formula E chaos theory that haunts team principals up and down the pitlane.
From Audi’s point of view the real frustration has been on how it has consistently qualified poorly but then been able to tear through the field to get at least some scant points hauls.
“After the first three races there was a definite possibility that Mercedes were going to run away with it” :: Allan McNish
Rast has had a deceptively strong season to date. His average starting position is only 14th yet he resides in eighth place in the standings after somehow gaining a combined 34 positions in his seven races so far.
Team-mate di Grassi is down in 19th with an average starting slot of 15th and paltry points haul of just 14. Yet he has been rapid and dynamic in coming through the field in several races, making up a remarkable 47 combined places in the races he has finished.
Rome was clearly a missed opportunity for Audi where had di Grassi’s mechanical failure while in the lead and Rast’s shunt not occurred then a huge dynamic shift in its season was on the cards.
— ABB FIA Formula E World Championship (@FIAFormulaE) April 11, 2021
Then there was the needless di Grassi and Sebastien Buemi contretemps in the second race, leaving the Audi composite repair department looking rather like the eternal city did after the Visigoth-inspired Sacking of Rome in 410AD!
“Clearly, Rome was a difficult weekend but when you qualify in the second half or last quarter of the grid then it’s always going to be tough if you’ve got some of the other main contenders at the front,” says McNish.
“Rene is 23 points off Robin in the drivers’ championship and the way that it has jumped up and down has been incredible really.
“Mercedes for example got zero points, including their customer team Venturi, in the last two races.
“Then you get [Antonio Felix] da Costa and [Jean-Eric] Vergne’s one race in Monaco and they gather in 41 points and they are right back into the hunt.”
McNish is right. The pendulums from glory to defeat are swinging brutally fast and regularly this season. Ask Jaguar. It accrued 74 points in the first three races, and then a mere eight points in the next three. Then nearly won in Monaco.
“All of this says to me that the championship is very, very competitive,” says McNish.
“But it’s also saying it’s very difficult to have any consistency, and in that respect, when you score big then you bounce to the top. But the next two races, you can quite easily be scoring very low numbers.”
It’s the recovery from these situations though that will make or break teams this season.
Mercedes managed it in Rome the day after its first real trough of the season, and then Jaguar did likewise in Monaco after a nightmare Valencia.
Looking at the season and trying to build a picture of it in isolation is palpably tough. Again, the Formula E chaos theory of qualifying groups, varying track evolutions in qualifying and the myriad penalties and incidents, obscures any natural hierarchies emerging.
“Very frankly, you would say that after the first three races there was a definite possibility that Mercedes were going to run away with it,” says McNish.
“They were fantastic in race one in Valencia too but then for whatever reason it all slipped away a bit.”
More worryingly for Mercedes, Monaco not only brought zeroes right across the board but this time it just wasn’t competitive from start to finish and it had a host of technical issues to boot. Those fluctuations for what was looking like the champion-elect team will be comforting to everyone else.
And so, for McNish, is the success for Audi’s customer team Envision Virgin Racing. He says this should be a source of pride rather than any awkwardness.
“I’ve told our guys after Monaco that there’s got to be a clear satisfaction that there is an Audi leading the championship,” he says.
“Yes, OK, we were a little bit disappointed with our solitary point there but there were clear reasons for that
“But what I said was ‘at the same time, don’t forget that one of the cars you guys developed was actually on the podium and is also leading the championship with Frijns’.”
Should Frijns not get sucked into a similar hell-pit of misfortune as he did in the 2018-19 season when he similarly led the points but then became other people’s crash-magnet, then Audi could be in the curious position of leaving Formula E with a title by another name.
That of course can be spun nicely, and as McNish attests would still be viewed as a technical knockout victory.
But it wouldn’t quite be the same as the unanimous victory which Audi craves to round off its electric single-seater era in the way it departed the World Endurance Championship in 2016.
On that occasion in Bahrain, di Grassi, who along with team-mates Oliver Jarvis and Loic Duval won, told me he was “sad that Audi and most of us are leaving”.
“I’ve come to love it [sportscars] very much. I’ll miss these cars and the adrenaline of the endurance races,” he said.
Few would bet against di Grassi racing for Audi at Le Mans again in 2023.
But in the meantime he, Rast and Audi are on a mission to continue its trend of signing off with success. It just needs several almighty counter-offensives this summer to do so in FE.