Formula E Season Preview: Can Buemi and Renault defend their titles?

© Getty Images
2 Comments

HONG KONG – Three months on from Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi’s tense championship showdown in London, Formula E returns this weekend for the start of its third season.

The all-electric series has gone from strength-to-strength over the past couple of years, welcoming on board a number of the biggest names from the motorsport and automotive worlds.

Buemi clinched the second Formula E title by two points last time out in London, but he nor his renault e.dams team will have rested on their laurels over the off-season.

With pre-season testing completed at Donington Park and excessive private running also undertaken by all the teams, the stage is set for another thrilling season of racing.

2016-2017 FIA FORMULA E SEASON PREVIEW

Drivers and Teams

DS Virgin Racing
2. Sam Bird
37. Jose Maria Lopez (R)

NextEV NIO
3. Nelson Piquet Jr.
88. Oliver Turvey

Venturi
4. Stephane Sarrazin
5. Maro Engel (R)

Faraday Future Dragon Racing
6. Loic Duval
7. Jerome d’Ambrosio

Renault e.dams
8. Nicolas Prost
9. Sebastien Buemi

ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport
11. Lucas di Grassi
66. Daniel Abt

Mahindra Racing
19. Felix Rosenqvist (R)
23. Nick Heidfeld

Panasonic Jaguar Racing
20. Mitch Evans (R)
47. Adam Carroll (R)

Techeetah
25. Jean-Eric Vergne
33. Ma Qinghua

MS Amlin Andretti
27. Robin Frijns
28. Antonio Felix da Costa

The grid for season three gets a small shake-up with the arrival of five new drivers and some tweaks in the owernship and management of teams, as well as one big-name newcomer.

Of the incoming drivers, Jose Maria Lopez is perhaps the best-known following his hat-trick of WTCC titles with Citroen from 2014 to 2016. The Argentine replaces Jean-Eric Vergne – having nearly stepped in for him in Buenos Aires earlier this year – via the connection between Citroen and its sub-brand, DS.

Vergne in turn moves to the new Techeetah team, whch replaces Team Aguri. The Aguri operation had been running on a shoestring budget through season two, but now has a bright long-term future thanks to investment from China. Armed with Renault powertrains that are identical to the one used by e.dams, Vergne could be a dark horse with Techeetah.

Dragon Racing continues with both Loic Duval and Jerome d’Ambrosio for season three, with the team now enjoying a tie-up with EV development company Faraday Future. The same ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to drivers has been taken by Renault and ABT, both of whom retain their successful partnerships from season two. MS Amlin Andretti parted company with Simona de Silvestro after London, bringing in Antonio Felix da Costa by virtue of its new partnership with BMW.

NextEV has cut ties with Team China Racing (previously the ‘TCR’ in its name) for season three as part of a sizeable restructuring of the operation overseen by CEO Martin Leach. The fresh investment being made in the team is evident by the presence of a Formula 1-style race truck in testing and a new two-tier garage in Hong Kong, the first of its kind in the series.

At Mahindra, recent Indy Lights racer Felix Rosenqvist replaces Bruno Senna, the Swede having cut his teeth in F3 for the past five years and driven a wide variety of cars. DTM and GT racer Maro Engel also enters the series with Venturi in place of Mike Conway.

The biggest new name on the Formula E grid for season three is Jaguar. The British manufacturer returns to top-line international motorsport 12 years after its ill-fated F1 project ended with a renewed sense of optimism. Its first all-electric car, the I-Type, will be driven by Adam Carroll and Mitch Evans, both of whom may be series rookies but boast a wealth of experience and potential.

Calendar

1. Hong Kong – October 9
2. Marrakesh – November 12
3. Buenos Aires – February 18
4. Mexico City – April 1
5. Monaco – May 13
6. Paris – May 20
7. Berlin – June 10
8. Brussels – July 1
9. New York – July 15
10. New York – July 16
11. Montreal – July 29
12. Montreal – July 30

The calendar for season three acts as quite the diversion from season two. Gone are rounds in Beijing, Putrajaya, Punta del Este, Long Beach and London, while Hong Kong, Marrakesh, Brussels, Montreal and New York are set to debut, with Monaco also returning following a season’s break.

While the calendar does now venture to some important markets – most notably New York and Montreal – the omissions are somewhat glaring. After Hong Kong, the next most easterly race on the calendar is Berlin, while the loss of London following a long-running tussle with local officials is also a great shame.

Series CEO Alejandro Agag has always stressed that the season three calendar is one of ‘transition’. Between Marrakesh in November and Mexico City in April, there is just a single ePrix – any momentum in the early part of the season will be hard to sustain as a result.

Alas, from season four, we should have a more winter-centric calendar that packs additional races into the period when other series are on their break.

Team-By-Team Previews

Renault e.dams
As the defending champion team and with last year’s title-winning driver, expectations are high at Renault e.dams. Buemi and Prost have forged a potent partnership through the first two seasons of Formula E, and will be gunning for another big year. Maintaining the powertrain advantage over the rest of the field may prove difficult, given the expectation that the field will converge.

ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport
The challenge for ABT this year will be trying to overcome Renault before Audi steps up its work involvement from season four. Lucas di Grassi could feasibly have two Formula E titles to his name by now, yet he sitll seeks that elusive championship. Daniel Abt has been an adept number two, but will want to step out of that shadow this year.

DS Virgin Racing
Losing Jean-Eric Vergne may have been a blow to DSVR, but the arrival of Jose Maria Lopez is hardly a step down. Sam Bird has led its charge through season one and two, taking three race wins and wiping the floor with his teammates in the process. The switch from a twin-motor powertrain to a single-motor should boost the team’s chances as well.

Faraday Future Dragon Racing
Dragon has enjoyed two fairly similar seasons in Formula E thus far, both featuring one strong half and one weak one. If it can find some consistency, the driver pairing of d’Ambrosio and Duval is certainly capable of fighting for a title. The arrival of Faraday Future should also offer a boost to the operation (not just spice up its livery).

Mahindra Racing
Formula E fan-favorites Mahindra enjoyed a number of breakthrough results through season two, scoring its first podiums and taking the fight to many of its bigger rivals. Now the focus for Mahindra will be stepping up a gear and battling at the sharp end of the field on a more regular basis. The arrival of Rosenqvist is a huge coup for the team given his prowess in F3 and – notably for Formula E – street tracks.

Venturi
The arrival of German manufacturing giant ZF bodes well for Venturi in the future, but it may be a bit early in the relationship to see any significant progress for season three. Maro Engel’s acclimatization to single-seaters after spending so long in GTs and tin-tops will be worth tracking, while Stephane Sarrazin has been one of Formula E’s unsung heroes through its first two seasons.

MS Amlin Andretti
After hobbling through season two with a season one-spec powertrain, Andretti now has its in-house design working properly and geared up for the new campaign. The new technical partnership with BMW is also significant, teaming together two notable racing organizations. Robin Frijns and Antonio Felix da Costa will combine to form what is arguably the most exciting driver line-up on the grid.

Techeetah
Survival may have been the focus for Team Aguri through season two, but revival is now the name of the game at Techeetah. With significant backing secured and a flashy launch taking place in Hong Kong on Thursday, the team is gunning to spring a surprise. Renault powertrain in hand and JEV behind the wheel, keep an eye on them.

NextEV NIO
Like Techeetah, the focus for NextEV in season three is recovering from a difficult second campaign. Season one drivers’ champion Nelson Piquet Jr. returns alongside Oliver Turvey, the pair both capable of some excellent displays on occasion. With the processes completely overhauled – even down to the exercise each team member is completing – the team will want to return to the podium this year.

Jaguar Racing
Jaguar’s much-anticipated return to motorsport starts this weekend in Hong Kong, and expectations are high. Carroll and Evans both arrive with bags of experience and pace, while the operation is slickly-run even at such an early stage. Time will tell just how far Jaguar can get up the field this year – bearing in mind it is starting two years behind the other teams – but regardless of how it fares on-track, its arrival is significant for the series.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
0 Comments

As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Formula E team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – McLaren Racing

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”