Just Electric

What we learned from Riyadh

After delays and calendar changes, the first round of Season 7 of the ABB Formula E championship got underway in Saudi Arabia this weekend. Nyck de Vries and Sam Bird claimed a victory each under the flood lights at Diriyah in Formula E’s very first night race(s).

Despite new faces on the grid and a new race weekend format, there was plenty of typical Formula E shenanigans to enjoy, including multiple post-race penalties, exciting races, and a few dramatic crashes.

But what have we learned about what to expect from the rest of the season?

Mercedes are competing to win.

It’s hard to believe this year is only Mercedes’ second season in Formula E. The team does have some connections with HWA Racelab, who competed in Season 5, but last year was the German manufacturer’s first real taste of FE.

It’s fair to say Mercedes got to grips with the championship relatively quickly. Stoffel Vandoorne finished second in the championship and earned the team’s first win in FE in Berlin. Nyck de Vries made it a 1-2 that race and finished 11th overall.

Despite more than six months having passed since that 1-2, Mercedes have managed to keep up that positive momentum (a task the squad is somewhat used to in another single seater championship) and hit the ground running in Diriyah.

With de Vries topping every session on Thursday and Friday, it would be easy to compare the dominant performance to Mercedes’ Formula 1 domination. While it was very impressive, Mercedes are no where near the level of domination they are enjoying in F1, with other manufacturers not too far behind.

Mercedes were hit with a dramatic handicap ahead of race 2. Customer team Venturi’s Edoardo Mortara experienced a heavy crash at the end of FP3 which was linked to powertrain software. All four Mercedes powered cars had to sit out qualifying and start from the back of the grid. Mortara would not start due to the damage sustained. But this didn’t appear to dampen Vandoorne and de Vries too much as they came through to 13th and 9th respectively.

If anything, de Vries’ race two performance was as impressive as race 1, as he now lies top of the championship order and will find himself in qualifying group one in Rome. Starting towards the back of the field is almost guaranteed. Having proof that drive through the pack is possible has got to be a confidence boost.

It’s worth mentioning Venturi also look strong after that opening round. Despite missing race two, Mortara lies fourth in the overall standings after finishing second in race 1.

Sam Bird does not need time to adapt

Up until the end of last season, Sam Bird was one of only four drivers to compete with the same team in every season since Season 1. He claimed victories with Virgin Racing in all six championships and was always there or there abouts in the championship fight. A shake-up of this dream-team was not expected.

But at the end of Season 6, Bird confirmed he would be switching to Jaguar Racing, joining Mitch Evans for the 2020-21 season.

Evans has been with Jaguar since the team joined the championship, and has almost always been the undisputed lead driver at the team. Bird would be the first driver to match Evans’ level of talent at Jaguar – possibly with the exception of Nelson Piquet Jnr. But having been in one place for so long, would this move put Bird at a disadvantage compared to his new team-mate?

If so, Bird has not shown this on track.

The Jaguar duo would be towards the front of the field in both races. Race one would give Evans a podium finish, while Bird was wiped out of the race while fighting Alex Lynn for sixth.

Race two was also a strong race for both Jaguar drivers, but it would be Bird who took all the glory. Even without the now iconic “eyes forward” message from his old engineer at Virgin, Bird had no problems moving through the order. Having qualified third, he put in some impressive race craft and good use of Attack Mode to take the victory.

Evans abandoned his own race late on after contact with Lynn sent the Mahindra driver airborne. The damage didn’t seem to be race ending for Evans, but he stopped into the runoff to check on his competitor.

Both Jaguar drivers will no doubt be towards the front of the field throughout the season, but the fact Bird has managed to solidify his position at the team so early will no doubt work in his favour.

NIO have made a huge improvement

To say NIO 333 didn’t have a great Season 6 would be an understatement. For the first time in Formula E history, a team ended the year without any points. This wasn’t from lack of trying, and Oliver Turvey came close on a number of occasions, but it was never quite enough to get into the top 10.

NIO appears to have completely turned that around for Season 7.

The squad made significant changes to the operational and technical teams over the winter break. Diriyah was also the debut of the team’s all new powertrain, which appears to be a significant improvement on last season.

It’s not only the equipment that was expected to be better than last year. For the first time in years, Turvey started the season with a driver that can match him in terms of talent in the form of Tom Blomqvist. Having someone to compare notes with can only be a useful asset to Turvey and the team as a whole.

Tom Blomqvist (GBR) NIO 333, NIO 333 001

Right from the off, NIO surprised everyone. In race one, neither Turvey nor Blomqvist were at the front of the order, but they were competitive. Turvey picked up NIO’s first point in over a year with a P10. To prove this wasn’t a fluke, both Turvey and Blomqvist made it through to the Super Pole session on Saturday.

Turvey finished an impressive sixth and, while penalties dropped Blomqvist down the order, he still showed the potential was there for NIO to take double points finishes this year.

Dragon too, deserves a mention for their bounce back after a difficult Season 6. Last year, the team only scored two points after a single ninth-place finish for Brendon Hartley. Nico Muller and Sergio Sette Camara impressed in both qualifying and the races, and lie 11th and ninth in the championship standings respectively; the team already on 20 more points than they scored last season without the introduction of their now powertrain.

Attack Mode rule changes may need a rethink

The introduction of Attack Mode in Season 5 gave Formula E an important strategic element which had been missing since the mid-race car swap was abandoned. Since then, it’s gone through a few rule tweaks as it’s refined.

At the start of Season 6, FE announced Attack Mode could not be activated during a Full Course Yellow or Safety Car period. It was a change widely welcomed by the drivers, but it did have some unforeseen consequences.

Many drivers found themselves hit with penalties at the end of Race 2 for failing to activate Attack Mode twice. These drivers had aimed to use the extra power late in the race, but the safety car brought out by Alex Lynn’s crash meant they were unable to do so. There’s unlikely to be a simple solution to this problem. Allowing drivers to skip a second Attack Mode activation for whatever reason could itself have unforeseen consequences, but the penalties were criticised by many fans and it may be time for a rethink.

There will be more drama at Techeetah

Formula E has widely escaped team-mate rivalries in its first five seasons. While there have been team-mate pairings that have been evenly matched, there has never really been any fireworks on or off track. Then Antonio Felix Da Costa joined Techeetah.

Da Costa and Jean-Eric Vergne are both incredibly talented, competitive drivers. The fact they have three titles between them only goes to prove that. And, with both fighting for the title last year, fans enjoyed some tough battles on track and some interesting looks off track.

It wasn’t the most drastic of team-mate battles ever seen in motorsport – they still refer to one another by name – and for the most part they appear to get along, but it’s clear neither driver was going to be happy sitting back and being their team-mate’s number two.

Circumstances don’t appear to have changed much after the break, as da Costa and Vergne came close to crashing as they battled for position in race two. Vergne would win the intra-team fight, only to be demoted due to a penalty and da Costa earn Techeetah’s first podium of 2021. No doubt this will continue as Da Costa tries to defend his title and Vergne attempts to reestablish himself as the clear number one at the team.

There’s more to come from Techeetah

Techeetah are already fighting for podium finishes, but there will undoubtedly be more to come from the team later in the season.

Techeetah are one of three teams who opted to delay introducing a new powertrain until the Rome E-Prix. Running last year’s powertrain in Saudi Arabia could have been a significant risk, but the FE20 was more than able to hold its own against the upgraded cars from the rest of the field.

There’s no way to be sure Techeetah’s new powertrain will be a significant step up from last season’s but we can be sure we haven’t truly seen what Techeetah are capable of yet, and we won’t have a clear picture of how the team – or Nissan or Dragon – stand competed to the rest of the Season 7 machinery until Rome.

 

Bethonie Waring

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