Missed opportunity sob-stories were two a penny in the Formula E paddock last Sunday night at Tempelhof airfield.
The obvious ones – Mitch Evans, Jake Dennis, Edoardo Mortara and arguably Robin Frijns too – were tough to stomach for those drivers and their teams after the painful way those championship shots were snatched away just as all seemed poised for success.
But one was less spectacular in its deflation but just as galling when the full picture of the season was considered.
It was the story of Stoffel Vandoorne’s curious campaign which, had two tiny decisions and circumstances allowed, would likely have resulted in the first Formula E world title going to the other side of the Mercedes EQ garage rather than Nyck de Vries’.
That isn’t to diminish de Vries’ title, which on the whole was exceptionally well deserved.
It’s just that had the odd star or two been slightly more aligned then Vandoorne would have at least been a genuine challenger come Sunday afternoon.
HUGE HUGE DRAMA at the start of the race as race-leaders Stoffel Vandoorne and Andre Lotterer collided 😳
— ABB FIA Formula E World Championship (@FIAFormulaE) April 10, 2021
The first incident came back in April amid the brutalist architecture of Mussolini era Rome. But the brutal aspect of Vandoorne’s race that day was in his decision to close the door in a half-hearted fashion on a marauding Andre Lotterer.
Vandoorne had earlier waltzed to pole and was clearly the man to beat. There was real need to defend at all at that stage of the race just minutes in. The delay from that incident left him mid-pack and vulnerable to race-ending trouble later on.
There were other occasions outside his control, notably at Valencia when ‘fat-finger-gate’ scuppered him. That was when a member of the Mercedes EQ staff inputed the wrong numbers for a technical passport and Vandoorne saw his pole position become 24th on the grid. He still finished the mad race that followed in third, but that meant victory would’ve been even more likely had he started where he should have.
“The Rome race, arguably Valencia too could have maybe been a victory as well, the one in the rain, and especially in London,” Vandoorne told The Race.
“When you’re 30 points behind it’s a tough ask to overcome that.”
The most crucial element of the ‘that’ was a distracted Oliver Rowland creaming into the Mercedes in London and effectively ending a run to a likely win and thus any meaningful title challenge.
LIVE timing here 👉 https://t.co/ba1DSigEtk
— ABB FIA Formula E World Championship (@FIAFormulaE) July 25, 2021
“I don’t think the championship position reflects the performance that we’ve had through the season,” summarised Vandoorne, who ended the year ninth in the standings but just 17 points off champion de Vries.
“I think we’ve been, whether it’s myself or Nyck, the reference at a lot of races.
“For myself I’ve had four pole positions, three official ones, because the one in Valencia was taken away.
“We’ve been some of the quickest cars in the races.”
This is true but then there were also ‘the lost races’ such as Monaco and New York City which just simply passed Mercedes by and where it was fairly anonymous.
Crucially though in a season when every point was precious, de Vries managed to get the small ones as well as the big ones more often than Vandoorne.
“I think there’s just been, at least from my side, a lot of occasions where I was extremely unlucky to miss out on the big points, let’s say,” Vandoorne says.
“For sure we made some mistakes as well and I’ve not always optimised everything in qualifying, but everyone has had a bad share and I think what really hurt me was to miss out on the big ones.”
Had those big ones come in Rome and London we could have been looking at a Vandoorne cakewalk.
But can the ‘lost races’ counterbalance that when seeing the campaign through hindsight? The answer of course is no, but for sure Vandoorne will indulge himself even for just a minute, even if the irrationality of it soon kicks in. It would only be natural.
“We’ve shown great pace, so from a pure pace point of view, I feel like I’ve made another step forward,” he says.
“I’ve been able to show myself well quite regularly during the weekends, whether it’s race or qualifying, and that’s something we have to carry forward into next season.
“We need to be proud of that.
“I think after all the bad luck, we deserve to leave here as teams’ champions.”
There was genuine affection for de Vries’ achievement from Vandoorne, who will go wheel-to-wheel against him in the LMP2 battle at Le Mans this weekend.
It will also act as a learning spur for Vandoorne too. That isn’t meant to sound patronising for a driver who will enter his fourth Formula E season next year. More that Vandoorne is precisely the kind of performer who just never stops learning anyway.
There is a case to argue that a single win and two third places, allied to two pole positions, only deserved a ninth place in the championship standings. This may be true in any normal season but we know that 2021 will go down as anything but that.
But statistics are only part of the story. On pace and performance Vandoorne should have been right there at the top of the charts this season yet he wasn’t, but there is a feeling of inevitability that he will start Mercedes’ final season in 2022 as one of the hot favourites to right a few of the wrongs that came his way in 2021.