Like a rockpool about to be overflowed by a returning tide, Jake Dennis’ career now finds itself able to ride a wave building momentum in 2021 after securing a BMW i Andretti Formula E seat replacing Alexander Sims.
First though, Dennis must navigate inevitable whirlpools of apprehension in his opening Formula E races.
Although by-passed via various cameos at Le Mans and in GT3 racing, it’s wise to recall that Dennis’ single-seater career was speckled with moments of immense potential.
As well as titles in the InterSteps and Formula Renault Eurocup Nothern European Cup, Dennis impressed in European Formula 3 trailing Felix Rosenqvist and Antonio Giovinazzi in the 2015 season, while beating Charles Leclerc, Lance Stroll and George Russell.
Initially, the big chance never came to pass as he was queued behind Oliver Rowland in the Racing Steps Foundation order. But now he has quarried another chance to show his mettle.
One of the most important aspects in evaluating a driver’s career is not the peaks. It’s the fightback, and the results when another chance arises again. Dennis has this chance, and he has the fight. The question is now, can he turn the chance into results and product.
Should he manage it, then he will create motion for a potentially long career with a major manufacturer. It’s a notion that three months ago would have read as complete fiction.
If Dennis needs any reassurance on how it can all work out for him, then all he need do is look across the garage at the pre-season test later this month. There he will find Maximilian Guenther – who was eighth in that 2015 F3 season – who himself has tackled similar waves and come out of the wash surfing artfully.
But how did Jake Dennis snare a seat on the Formula E grid when few even had him on their radar? And how was that converted into a plum drive with a team which is the joint second (with Envision Virgin) most successful team, in terms of wins, over the last two seasons?
Especially considering BMW was expected to cherry-pick one of its DTM starlets to take the drive – many of whom raced against Dennis in the championship last year.
There is no shady political reason behind this decision. No conspiracy theories. Not a whiff of subjectivity. In fact, the processes and tests, according to team principal Roger Griffiths had complete “objectivity” and led to Dennis’s name “come out on top after a rigorous evaluation”.
“We’ve had some pretty good benchmarks, either as Andretti or as BMW, that we’ve got good data on, including the current champion (Antonio Felix da Costa),” Griffiths tells The Race.
“We took a bit of a risk with Max (Guenther), but he’s proven to be a superstar, and we believe we’ve found something similar in Jake.”
A data-driven decision then – after testing Dennis for the first time at Varano in July and he has impressed them further since. But it will be one which is ultimately appraised by Dennis’s comparisons to team-mate Guenther over the course of a full season, whether that is a conventionally run one or not.
It’s hard to imagine Griffiths and his colleagues also not having one eye on Alexander Sims’ data as well as Guenther’s and da Costa’s.
Not only a great Formula E driver, Sims operates as a kind of uber development driver, or as Griffiths attests “almost as a full-blown development engineer behind the wheel”.
With Sims gone to Mahindra though, BMW could be exposed on an experience level. Intriguingly, the three consistently outstanding rookies of the last two seasons have been Pascal Wehrlein, Nyck de Vries and Rowland (below).
The interest here is that two of those three had team-mates (in Jerome d’Ambrosio and Sebastien Buemi) that had bags of experience, whereas De Vries’ stablemate Stoffel Vandoorne had a ‘pilot season’ under his belt with Merc’s reconnaissance squad HWA Racelab in 2018-19.
BMW looked at all this but more crucially it defined the basics too. How does the driver adapt to the energy management aspect? How quickly can a driver adapt to switching between different power levels? How do they cope with different grip configurations?
Typically a driver that has had experience in multiple different formulae has a very good understanding of these anyway. Crucially for Dennis in these contexts, he has spent a lot of time on the Red Bull simulators in a role working for the F1 team.
Of course, the energy management aspect is there in Formula 1 too. Not to the same degree as Formula E but at least Dennis is used to high-performance complex racing cars. Therefore a lot of boxes were already ticked for BMW.
Yes, it helped too that several of the engineers on the BMW i Andretti team knew of Dennis’ plucky underdog season in DTM last year with the R Motorsport Aston Martin squad. Although ultimately on a hiding to nothing back then due to the car’s lack of competitiveness against Mercedes and BMW, Dennis’ data, commitment and work ethic were noted, even by rival teams, very favourably.
The happy coincidences aligned as well. Such as team manager Campbell Hobson knowing Dennis well from his 2016 GP3 campaign with Arden Motorsport when he out-scored the likes of Nyck de Vries and IndyCar ladder-climber Alex Palou on his way to fourth in the standings.
Commercial necessity too was definitely a factor. With salaries now having peaked in Formula E and with second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc, cheaper options for some teams had to be looked at.
The small pool of experienced Formula E drivers was becoming more and more expensive and there is a feeling in the paddock that some of those have been, or perhaps are being, overpaid.
Equally and rather unsurprisingly, those that believe in the need for a premium to be paid to those with experience and results beneath them tend to have explicit vested interests.
A known quantity does have attractive constituent parts in terms of skill-sets in Formula E but the question from a specific team’s point of view is always ‘will they fit in to our specific environment’?
It’s a question Griffiths and the BMW i Andretti team looked at very carefully.
“We have a very good team environment, but we didn’t want to bring somebody in that would derail that, just for the sake of having ‘a name’ in there,” says Griffiths.
“He [Dennis] worked really well with our performance group and his work ethic was strong, he was also very keen to understand more about how the car worked and what he needed to do to match Max’s performance.
“He repaid us with strong lap times. So, at that point, it was down to putting together what is the right contract.”
A bold decision, but one based on analysis was taken. Jake Dennis is a fully-fledged factory Formula E driver.
It caught many off-guard but perhaps the signing highlights that there is a case that if established Formula E drivers continue to be the only true candidates considered for drives then the overall talent pool will start to stagnate. Griffiths holds credence to this notion.
“We have the rookie test and I think it’s really good for Formula E as a championship to bring people in from outside of the current talent pool, if you like,” he says.
“We don’t have a natural driver ladder system for Formula E. You’re basically taking drivers through championships that would normally be a feeder series into Formula 1, and for whatever reasons, maybe those drivers are not making it.
Griffiths and the BMW i Andretti say they took an honest assessment of what is needed to be a successful Formula E driver, because “it’s very different from achieving success as racing driver to being a successful Formula E driver.”
“All of the indications have that when we were ranking drivers, their ability to what is a unique platform, he was outscoring some of the other options that we had.”
That will bristle with some of BMW’s contracted drivers but from the teams’ perspective it was a ruthless necessity, and one which the team and Dennis simply have to make work.