Which Formula E title contenders' hopes are realistic? - The Race
Formula E

Which Formula E title contenders’ hopes are realistic?

Aug 13 2021
By Matt Beer

Has there ever been a championship decider like it in a full-season international motorsport calendar?

A frankly ludicrous 18 drivers – 75% of the starting grid – begin this weekend’s Formula E finale in Berlin still in with a mathematical chance of being the series’ first ever world champion.

How the points stand

Formula E uses the Formula 1 style 25-18-15-etc top 10 scoring system along with five bonus points at each race – three for taking pole position, one for being fastest in the group stages of qualifying and one for setting fastest race lap of the top 10 finishers.

That means 60 points are on the table across the Berlin double-header, and right now there are 51 points covering from Nyck de Vries on top of the pile to Alexander Sims in 18th.

A season of mad turnarounds

The group qualifying format in which the field is split into four batches of six based on points standings, with the championship leaders running first, has helped keep title fights close since it was adopted.

This year it’s done so to an insane degree.

That’s largely because the competition has become so close. Eight of the 12 teams have won this year. All have deserved to on their day. It’s mad that Nissan and Porsche still haven’t won. Even Dragon has made it onto the podium (though it’s more normally found at the back with NIO333).

With much tighter margins between cars in terms of both outright performance and energy efficiency, it’s far less easy than it used to be for the points leaders to carve through the pack on race day. If you’re starting at the back, you’re often stuck there.

The consequence of that is a series of wild points swings. The championship lead has changed hands on every single race weekend. Most recently, it’s been doing so to an almost surreal degree.

Over the Puebla double-header, Edoardo Mortara came from 30 points behind in 11th place to take the championship lead.

Formula E Puebla E Prix 2021

In a single race in New York, Sam Bird went from 13th in the championship, 20 points adrift, to the lead.

In London, it was de Vries’ turn, from 22 points down in 10th into the lead.

Based on that trend, drivers who are in qualifying group 2 or 3 for the Berlin opener and within 20-30 points of de Vries are ideally placed – and there are about half a dozen of them.

You can argue about whether this all holds up as a meritocracy, as I did last month. But despite that scepticism, I’ve got to confess the end result is a huge amount of excitement about how this will all unfold.

The Berlin curveball

The usual expectations might be completely out of the window at Tempelhof, an abrasive circuit unlike anything else Formula E encounters all year. And one that’s going to have its layout reversed mid-weekend.

Last year Antonio Felix da Costa turned up for the six-race Berlin streak with a far-from-comfortable 11-point lead, but basically sealed the title by smashing the field from group one qualifying at the opener – with track conditions proving no disadvantage whatsoever as he took a commanding pole and win.

That trend didn’t totally hold up as the Berlin week progressed, and when/whether/how effectively the track was swept clean between sessions ended up having a big influence – something teams are anxious doesn’t happen this weekend.

But with the uncertainty around track cleaning, the reversal of the layout, the mixed lessons from 2020 and general mystery around exactly how the surface will evolve, qualifying might not follow the usual ‘group 1 bad, groups 2-4 good’ narrative.

All of which makes predicting the championship fight outcome foolhardy to the point of almost impossible.

But we’re going to try anyway – and in a homage to the Formula E qualifying system, we’re splitting our ranking of the 18 drivers’ chances into four groups.

GROUP 1: IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN

Alexander Sims (Mahindra) – 18th, -51 points
Andre Lotterer (Porsche) – 17th, -50 points
Maximilian Guenther (BMW) – 15th, -33 points

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Sims’s year has featured both great driving and miserable luck, but he’s also spent the entire season in qualifying groups 2 and 3 with an average grid position of just 11th to show for it. That’s not the form you need for a 50+ points swing.

For all Lotterer’s talent, his season has been mistake after mistake and he’s a touch fortunate that his past reputation plus Porsche’s preference for continuity is keeping him in that seat.

Guenther’s a 2021 race winner and entirely capable of winning again this weekend, as he did in Berlin last August. But he’s also spent far too much of the season hitting walls or rivals.

GROUP 2: DARK HORSES

Oliver Rowland (Nissan) – 16th, -36 points
Lucas di Grassi (Audi) – 14th, -33 points
Jean-Eric Vergne (DS Techeetah) – 12th, -27 points
Edoardo Mortara (Venturi) – 9th, -21 points
Nick Cassidy (Envision) – 7th, -19 points

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Though Rowland is behind Guenther in the points, he has been super-fast this year and has ridiculously little to show for it. If it clicks for him this weekend and he avoids the incidents and misfortunes that have blighted his whole season (some self-inflicted), he’s a realistic title long shot still – provided the group 1 handicap is strong.

Past champions di Grassi and Vergne both have victories to their names this season but 2021 has not been the greatest campaign for either of them. They’re too tenacious to rule out, though.

While Mortara’s peaks have been superb, and getting back out of group 1 will do him a favour, the troughs between the highs of Diriyah race one and Puebla don’t inspire confidence – despite his status as a group 2 qualifier with a 21-point deficit being precisely the situation that others have vaulted into the lead from lately.

The fact Cassidy hasn’t yet won in Formula E makes it hard to be confident he can be a shock rookie champion – especially as his highs have come from days when he’s qualified in group 3 or 4.

GROUP 3: IN WITH A REAL SHOT

Stoffel Vandoorne (Mercedes) – 13th, -32 points
Pascal Wehrlein (Porsche) – 11th, -24 points
Rene Rast (Audi) – 10th, -23 points
Mitch Evans (Jaguar) – 8th, -20 points
Alex Lynn (Mahindra) – 6th, -17 points
Jake Dennis (BMW) – 4th, -14 points
Sam Bird (Jaguar) – 3rd, -14 points

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A mixed bag in this group! Four of them rely on the theory that the usual pattern will be maintained and the place to be at the start of the weekend is in group 2 or 3 with a 20-30 point deficit.

Vandoorne, Wehrlein, Rast and Evans are all both in that position and have shown the pace this season to pull this sort of turnaround off, even though Vandoorne’s the only one of them who’s actually won in 2021 (though morally speaking, Wehrlein has too).

Evans is a question mark because Jaguar’s title challenge fell apart so painfully in Berlin last season. It needs to have got on top of the issues that wrecked its week here a year ago.

Team-mate Bird has been brilliantly quick and in a straight fight would be a favourite, but the combination of Jaguar’s 2020 Berlin woes, being in group 1 and having a grid penalty for hitting Norman Nato in London all count against him.

Lynn and Dennis need the track evolution tale to be different this weekend to have a chance. If it’s the usual case of group 1 equalling pain, they become longer shots. If there’s a hint of a bit being different, Lynn’s supreme qualifying pace and Dennis’s momentum in a brilliant rookie season bode well.

GROUP 4: THE FAVOURITES

Antonio Felix da Costa (DS Techeetah) – 5th, -15 points
Robin Frijns (Envision Virgin) – 2nd, -6 points
Nyck de Vries (Mercedes) – championship leader

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Yes, they’re all group 1 qualifiers. So part of the theory here is very much that Berlin might go counter to usual expectations as it did last summer.

And the other half of the theory is that these three have been so good this season, they only need a slight leg-up from friendly track conditions to make a difference.

Da Costa was so peerless in Berlin last season, and has raced so well this year, that a 15-point deficit won’t faze him in the slightest. After all, the story of Formula E for the past three seasons has been ‘everyone wins a race, it’s wide open, and then a DS Techeetah driver snatches the title again’.

Though de Vries has Frijns right on his tail, he does have a little bit more of a points cushion over those further behind than has been the case for other championship leaders swiftly toppled earlier in the year. Plus when it’s had a clear run, the Mercedes package has been the clear pacesetter for much of the year. De Vries was crushingly dominant in the Diriyah opener way back in February.

If Frijns is champion, he’ll probably claim the crown without a race win, which is always an awkward position for a championship. Yet he would absolutely deserve it for a campaign full of ferocious racecraft.

An average qualifying of 17th – thanks to being in group 1 for basically the entire season – yet he’s finished in the points in seven of the 11 races. When others get stuck in the pack, Frijns is always making progress – and when qualifying conditions are more equal (see Monaco), he’s right at the front.

That makes him better prepared for every eventuality than any of his 17 rivals going into this weekend of wild unknowns.

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