The transformation of Mercedes' Formula E 'robot' - The Race
Formula E, WEC/Le Mans

The transformation of Mercedes’ Formula E ‘robot’

Apr 7 2021
By Sam Smith

“We’re reporting de Vries to the stewards,” read a rival team principals WhatsApp message just after the Mercedes-Benz EQ driver vanquished the field at the first Diriyah E-Prix.

“What for?” I countered, taken aback but fingers poised upon keyboard for a breaking story.

“For being a robot,” came the deadpan response.

It was an affectionate joke. One which prodded some envious fun at the Dutchman’s cool and almost deadpan reaction to his first Formula E win – one that was earned via a record-breaking display that swooped all before him as he topped every session and strolled to a comfortable victory.

Nyck de Vries Mercedes Formula E

Nyck de Vries is not a robot.

But what is he really like? And how did he get to be at such a supreme location in his career, which sees him atop of the Formula E points table and a Mercedes F1 reserve driver this year.

One of the most noticeable aspects of de Vries’ impressive modus operandi is his seemingly in-built cool temperament.

It is one which, when he’s operating from the cockpit, seems chillingly cryogenic, and perhaps this is a legacy of his time at McLaren.

Eric Boullier Nyck de Vries McLaren F1

This aura is exacerbated by his engineer Albert Lau, who famously utters communications to his driver in a style so soothing it makes a zen master sound like a death metal frontman.

But it wasn’t always like this. Like all racing drivers de Vries was and is still capable of losing it a bit, but it happens far less than it used to.

Perhaps it is a result of a more rounded appreciation of how the industry works, especially off the beaten track to F1, which was a road he was tram-lined into for over a decade.

Interestingly, one of the people who has been close to de Vries both at and away from the track in recent seasons believes that diversifying in his craft has established de Vries as a much more relaxed and, as a consequence, perhaps a more healthily focused individual.

“He was just a son of a friend when I first knew him, really from when he was born,” Racing Team Nederland WEC team manager, Mark Koense, tells The Race.

Nyck de Vries Mark Koense

“Obviously it was clear from a very young age when they went karting that he was a bit special and he went international pretty quick.

“In those days, that wasn’t really very common. So the family packed up and lived in a camper and moved around Europe for a long time but I still kept in touch and then a few years later he’s in our car and racing at Le Mans with us.”

Koense has had a wonderfully varied career. A true enthusiast, he has been one of the key proponents of Dutch racing on the international stage.

He started his career with a then dying March F1 team in 1992 when he and his lifelong friend Jan Lammers attempted to keep the once great team running with Henny Vollenberg.

Jan Lammers March Japanese GP F1

After that he worked with Vollenberg at Vortex Motorsport in F3000 before founding the Racing for Holland sportscar team and then running the Barron Ferrari team.

Always media-savvy, Koense became a familiar face on Dutch TV as a presenter of the RTL GP magazine programme and in 2016 became involved in the Racing Team Nederland squad founded by Jumbo supermarket magnate Frits van Eerd.

“When we were starting the LMP2 programme and Nyck was getting into Formula 2, things naturally came together a little bit,” recalls Koense.

“There was some room for him to do some extra races and we really wanted a quick young guy from the Netherlands because we knew that Jan’s 24th Le Mans race was going to be his last.”

De Vries not once considered racing in sportscars to be something merely on the side. He was deeply committed to it, even if he was going for the 2019 Formula 2 title, something which he eventually succeeded in achieving.

Nyck de Vries ART F2

There were several notable performances in his first WEC part-season with Giedo van der Garde and van Eerd in 2018-19. But by October 2019, at the precise time he was readying for his Formula E debut with Mercedes, de Vries was about to construct his sportscar masterpiece.

At Fuji with two of the six hours of racing to go the TDS prepared Oreca-Gibson was in a distant fourth place and a lap down on the class leader.

What emerged was one of the greatest endurance double stints of recent times as he tracked down Anthony Davidson’s JOTA entry to take the win by an astonishing 25-second margin.

Nyck de Vries Giedo van der Garde

It was a performance that attracted the attention of Toyota and in particular that of Toyota Motorsport’s John Steeghs, a fellow Dutchman.

“Nyck’s run that day was really epic and as soon as the race was over, I was kind of, like, sure that we were going to lose him,” admits Koense.

“At least one Dutch guy at Toyota, my old friend John Steeghs, certainly noticed and it was no surprise at all that he [de Vries] was in an LMP1 car a month or so later at the Bahrain test.”

Another manufacturer opportunity had opened up and de Vries is now official test and reserve driver for the Toyota team as it looks for a fourth Le Mans crown and a fourth WEC title.

Nyck de Vries Toyota WEC

All this has helped de Vries to become immersed in a settle environment but it’s perhaps outside of the cockpit where the bedrock of his character has blossomed to nurture a more comfortable existence.

It is something that Koense has noted, too.

“In 2019 he had this real contrasting existence of ultra-pressure in going for the F2 title and then doing some races with us,” says Koense.

“I don’t want to sound like we are party animals or anything because we are not. But at the same time we enjoy our racing and we like to get on and have a laugh while we are working.

“It’s just a different way of spending your time really because if you are travelling to new countries and spending weeks at a time with a group of people you have to get along.

“If you can do that with some good times and some joy then all the better. It was nice to see Nyck enjoying that too. I’d like to think that perhaps that made him a more complete individual as well.”

Nyck de Vries Mercedes Formula E

The famed family atmosphere of the Racing for Nederland wasn’t the making of de Vries. But it certainly played a part far in him maturing into adding to a potency that Mercedes-Benz EQ is utilising now and Toyota Gazoo Racing probably will in the future.

Just expect the wins to become less robotic in celebration but perhaps more dazzling in their frequency.

De Vries and Koense WEC pictures courtesy of Clement Martin

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