Formula E’s inaugural champion Nelson Piquet Jr and former Audi driver Daniel Abt are being considered for a potential return to the series in August’s Berlin races that will make up the remainder of the 2019/20 season.
The NIO333 team will replace Ma Qing Hua in the #33 car for the three double-header events at the Tempelhof Airfield and that both Piquet and Abt’s representatives have held recent talks with the team.
“Unfortunately, I am not going to Berlin this year, having raced there during the 2015-2016 season,” said Ma.
“It is quite difficult to travel and race abroad at present, as this would expose us to more Covid-19 risks.
“The team and I had in depth discussions about this, and considering the current situation of the pandemic, this decision was made to ensure the best possible preparation for the team. I look forward to coming back and racing in the Season 7 World Championship.”
Piquet, who will celebrate his 35th birthday next month, is on the short-list of drivers who are being looked at for replacing Ma, as is Abt who was dismissed from Audi after the controversial esports race – ironically held at Tempelhof – in May.
Abt invited professional sim racer Lorenz Hoerzing to secretly replace him in the official Formula E Race at Home Challenge event as part of what was explained as an elaborate joke, and was consequently dismissed by Audi.
The Race understands that Abt is being seriously considered as a potential new team-mate for Oliver Turvey at NIO333 for his home events in August and a deal could be finalised in the next week.
A change of driver within the NIO333 team has been discussed since the last E-Prix in Marrakesh.
Ma now looks likely to return to touring cars and race for the Lynk & Co team in the WTCR World Touring Car Cup later this year.
A seat at the team is available after Andy Priaulx recently departed. Xueliang Yang, vice president of parent company Geely, was immediately quoted in Chinese media stating that he is “actively discussing opportunities with Ma”.
It is believed that the logistics of travelling to Berlin from China may be a factor in the changes too. Some team personnel are also set to miss the event for similar reasons.
Piquet raced for the team in its previous incarnations of China Racing, NEXTEV TCR, NEXTEV and NIO between 2014 and 2017, taking the first title at Battersea Park in June 2015.
After moving to Jaguar in 2017 the Brazilian endured a difficult start to the 2018/19 season. He left the team and was replaced by Alex Lynn for the second half of the campaign.
Another driver believed to be under some consideration for Ma’s seat is Tom Dillmann, who raced throughout NIO’s disastrous 2018/19 campaign.
However, all three drivers’ prospects of the seat could be compromised by current travel regulations for travelling into the UK. Official government advice states that persons travelling to the UK should ‘not leave the place you’re staying for the first 14 days you’re in the UK’.
This could impact on simulator preparation for drivers with NIO333 using a facility in Oxfordshire.
Why a NIO333 change would be great ‘box office’
His Formula E career was long thought of as over but the prospect of Nelson Piquet Jr returning to the grid for the Berlin races is sure to be a major story if a deal gets over the line in the coming weeks.
Although an agreement is yet to be completed and his chances still remain unclear, the first Formula E champion rejoining the field would be a big story for Formula E and add a sizeable fizz of box office to its season finale.
There is no hiding the fact that NIO333 is the least competitive proposition on the grid at the moment, but then again Piquet was in precisely the same position during the 2015/16 season when he and Turvey struggled with a recalcitrant and heavy dual-MGU package.
Piquet still has allies at NIO333 such as (former technical director at the Piquet Sports F3 and GP2 team) Roberto Costa and current team principal Christian Silk.
Why Abt is also being linked to the vacant NIO333 seat is clear and obvious.
The 2018 Berlin E-Prix winner has a superb track record at the airfield circuit, having also scored three further top six finishes including a runner-up position in 2016.
Racing a NIO333 and expecting anything approaching his recent results in Berlin would be a massive ask but after a recent test in the UK the team is positive it can revisit the brief flash of form in which Turvey qualified a remarkable fifth in Santiago back in January.
An Abt return would also be newsworthy and sure to trigger more drama after the events around the Race at Home shenanigans.
Either way, Formula E should be the winner if either of these two intriguing characters makes an unexpected return to the cockpit.