The 2021 season will be a pivotal one for the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship as it fights back from a heavily disrupted and disfigured 12 month period where its position in the motorsport landscape has come under increasing scrutiny.
The Race outlined last month the mix of technical, political and sporting machinations which will form the next period in Formula E’s growing history, starting next year with the advent of Gen3 racing.
But there are also several teams, drivers and venues that face particular moments of future defining truth as the season readies for going green in Riyadh on Friday.
It may be leaving Formula E this summer but Audi has a knack of signing off from motorsport programmes with success.
It did so, as a factory effort, with the Audi R8 in 2002 at Le Mans and once again 13 years later when it bowed out of the World Endurance Championship in Bahrain with victory.
One of its drivers that day, Lucas di Grassi, believes Audi’s Formula E project is more than capable for following this trend but doesn’t put too much emphasis on this weekend’s first two races.
“It doesn’t really matter how well you start your season, we can see for example, that [Antonio Felix] da Costa last year didn’t score any points in the first two races and then won the championship quite easy,” di Grassi tells The Race.
“We’ve tested quite intensively, so I think we are prepared and I feel pretty good.”
Pressure isn’t the right word to use here to signify Audi’s objectives in 2021. It’s not even pride but more like a heightened sense of justification that it can revisit its 2018/19 high point of a teams’ title.
The key measure of Audi’s 2021 won’t just be whether it can leave on a results high, but how it will responsibly pass on the baton of its slot on the grid.
Another big question will be whether it has the tools at its disposal this season. It likely has the drivers in di Grassi and new permanent team-mate Rene Rast, but a lot will be determined by the start it has to the season. Perhaps more than for any other team, that will map out if it will continue the trend of strong performances in valedictory campaigns.
Porsche enjoys deflecting and resisting pressure almost much as its title sponsor TAG Heuer was so fond of stating it down the years. Yet the fact remains that Porsche has to show it can win races in 2021 after a promising debut campaign last time around.
It has invested in Formula E as a way of evidencing its nimbleness from a future technical and automotive sales point of view. Its Formula E programme is commercially driven with the evidence coming via its array of team partners as it strives to become a leader in sporting EV sales pitches.
Therefore, the pressure is unlike its sportscar programmes where it has a known heritage to fall back on. While endurance racing is tough, from a pure competitive element Formula E is another step again when it comes to variety and quality of opposition on the grid. That’s when the pressure gets greater.
Porsche has good continuity in its team. Even its driver line-up is not really new in the sense that Pascal Wehrlein’s first test with the team came a few days after the Berlin finale six months ago.
Wehrlein will be expected to be on it from the very start. Despite what Porsche will lead you to believe, he’s not a team rookie at all and in reality won’t be cut any slack inside or outside Porsche.
After a podium and a pole last season Porsche’s next logical goal is a win. But more than that it needs to finish in the top three of the championship to ensure a genuine title tilt for 2022 is still firmly within its sights.
Jaguar’s ‘Big Cat’ occasionally frightened the Techeetahs last season. And at present the chances of Jaguar continuing into the Gen3 era look more favourable than not.
Yet with the context of its habit of underachieving final scores since Formula E brought in its Gen2 car in 2018, Jaguar’s 2021 season looks rather crucial.
This is not just because one of Formula E’s most consistent performers, Sam Bird, has joined the operation, but more that Jaguar appears and feels ready for a crack at the title.
In a holistic sense it’s all there. Team, technical prowess, budget, star drivers and a winning method that has been proven, sporadically at least, over the last two seasons.
The Bird shaped piece is seen by many as the final one to complete the puzzle, but motorsport, and especially Formula E, just isn’t that simple.
There’s also a change in the technical make-up. Jaguar’s moved away from using the German based Compact Dynamics GmbH company, which also formerly worked with Audi, and brought its powertrain capability in-house again.
Should Jaguar not improve beyond its midfield placing in the teams’ standings this season it would raise serious questions about why that trend of failing to maximise its potential is continuing.
An air of some renaissance has been felt around the Chinese owned, British based team since the end of the 2019/20 season last summer.
At last a direction built around a realistic objective was formed via its new ownership and a clutch of more down to earth racers in the team that dealt in reality rather than cosmic buzzwords and pretentiousness that would’ve made Derek Zoolander blush.
Whether NIO333’s Oliver Turvey and Tom Blomqvist return a good points haul is probably beyond the real point this year.
That is because the team’s future is likely to become something of a hot topic in the coming months as its commitment to Gen3 – or lack of it – may raise questions over who or what will be in charge of this entry in the longer-term future.
In terms of wearing his heart on his sleeve, Vergne is essentially Formula E’s Jean Alesi (except he wins a lot more).
While from a human point of view that’s certainly no bad thing, for reacting in tight situations that demand cool heads it’s less than optimal.
Vergne may take some offence at that description after showing so much composure in his second title season in 2018/19, especially at Monaco and Bern.
However, when da Costa finally clicked with the team that Vergne helped build, the cool demeanour came to the boil like a throbbing thermal geyser.
Quite why a driver of Vergne’s class and experience allowed things to get to him so much isn’t clear. But a refinement in DS Techeetah’s engineering back-up around him is expected to help, particularly with communication during races this season.
Should that be the case then Vergne will be a cast iron title contender. If it doesn’t, expect more volatility – which could have a knock-on effect for his future, irrespective of him already having a place in Peugeot’s new Le Mans line-up.
It’s a big season for Mortara, who despite flashes of promise has never revisited the race winning form of his debut weekend in 2017 – when he so nearly won at Hong Kong – and then the actual race win in 2019 when he capitalised on a post-race penalty for Bird.
You’d argue that more often than not the Italian-Swiss has not been directly at fault for big scores disappearing through his grasp.
But the facts remain that last season he and the Venturi team had one of the best powertrains on the grid, yet they barely registered anything more than solid top six peripheral points scores.
Everyone knows that Mortara is viciously fast but a natural racer’s instinct sometimes appears to get caught up in fraught emotion. Whether this is a legacy of his character or just frustration at individual situations is not clear, but it has definitely cost him results before.
This will be ‘Mr Macau’s’ fourth season in Formula E and probably the last in which he’ll get cut any slack for others’ shortcomings if his peaky form continues. Most hope it doesn’t, as he is one of life’s genuinely nice guys and few in the paddock are more popular.
Lucas di Grassi
The 2016/17 champion told The Race this week that he is already in discussions with teams about his future in the category after Audi’s exit.
The winner of the very first E-Prix in 2014 believes he still has a lot to give but won’t do it unless he gets a competitive employer.
Di Grassi will know that in Rast he now has a team-mate who has the capability to upstage him in the last season of Audi’s programme. Should this happen then di Grassi’s future may be taken out of his own hands somewhat.
Therefore, one of Formula E’s most consistent performers will have to dig deep this season and restart the winning habit after 2019/20 became the first FE campaign in which he failed to take a victory.
The Riyadh venue has laid a foundation in the Kingdom for the last three years but could relinquish its status according to race promoter CBX. Its chief Carlo Boutagy told The Race recently that moving the Saudi E-Prix around the country is an option.
“Saudi is so big, has so many different, very cool and new cities that are being built – these projects like NEOM, Qiddya, the Red Sea project, even KAEC where they have the [PGA] golf tournament,” said Boutagy.
“I think Formula 1 will showcase Jeddah in a good way and we can maybe move to another city and showcase other cities [with Formula E].
“The direction in the first year was it’s a 10 year deal, we can showcase three different areas. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
This week’s races will be eye-catching thanks to the night racing element. But while Saudi is likely to start the 2021/22 season later this year, it remains to be seen how many more races will take place in the historic Ad Diriyah area of Riyadh.
Will it? Won’t it?
The long or short of the strategy for which version of the Monaco circuit Formula E races on in 2021 will be known in the next couple of weeks after seeming to have dragged on for an absolute age.
The Race revealed last month that Formula E is likely to race on a version of the F1 track that has subtle modifications made to make a supposed comparison to other categories obsolete. It will probably make the same old people make comparisons anyway. Frankly who cares? Most in Formula E don’t.
However, the bi-yearly E-Prix’s future could rest on how successful this May’s race is as a commercial venture, if fresh and paying venues appear in an expected post-pandemic boom.
It is now over two years since news of a Seoul E-Prix first became serious. The inaugural race was supposed to happen in June last year. Now with this year’s date of May 23 replaced by an event in Marrakesh, there are many who remain convinced it will never happen.
But, if the vaccination programmes help return international travel to something approaching normal there could still be the possibility that a race around the venue of the 1988 Olympic venue and Jamsil Sports Complex in either late August or early September to round out the 2020/21 season.
Last month Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle acknowledged that the Seoul race situation “will be a bit challenging” in an interview with The Race.
“But we’re still hopeful,” he added. “I won’t get a percentage on it but we still feel there’s a reasonable chance to do it.”
The Formula E community is waiting with bated breath for an update on whether the ExCeL Arena can host a double-header round in July.
The UK government recently outlined a step-by-step strategy that could mean pandemic restrictions are completely eased, if strict conditions are met, by late June.
This should boost plans to host a race at the docklands venue potentially with a limited crowd.
The London venue would be huge news for Formula E and would help replenish some of the lost momentum over the last 12 months. With the organisation being based in nearby Hammersmith, half of the teams having bases in the UK, and almost a third of the race drivers holding British race licences, the merits of a race there are clear to see.
However, it’s a big call as part of the ExCeL Arena is being used as a COVID-19 vaccination centre. The ultimate question will be for how long will the NHS facility be used at ExCeL and if the government’s projections on the vaccination strategy can be met.
Presently the NHSEI data states that an approximate date for the programme of vaccination of all UK adults being completed is ‘by July 31′.