Thursday, July 29, 2021

2021 Premature Formula E Season Review

August is going to be a busy month. Between IndyCar's three-race stretch before the stretch run, the end of NASCAR's regular season, MotoGP returning and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there is almost too many motorsports events crammed in the final full month of summer. 

There is not going to be enough time for a Formula E review immediately after the season finale, but with 13 of 15 races in the books and the final two being at the Berlin doubleheader, we are going to review the season now. With over 86% of the races complete, the season is pretty set. Two races will change a lot this year because 18 drivers are still mathematically alive for the champion and ten of 12 teams are still alive for the Teams' championship, but the truth is we know how everyone's season has been. We know who has been good and who has been bad. We know who has been surprisingly good and we know who has been disappointing. 

We will go through each entrant via the Teams' Championship standings after the London round. 

Envision Virgin Racing - 165 points
Robin Frijns: #4 Audi e-Tron FE07 (2nd - 89 points)
What was expect this season: "For all the promise Frijns has shown, his championship finishes in four seasons are 12th, 13th, fourth and 12th. He has won only two races and four of his seven podium finishes came in 2018-19 season. With Sam Bird gone, Frijns has to lead Virgin, but his streakiness will cost him. He can sneak into the top ten of the championship, but I don't see getting any higher than eighth."

How wrong was it: Pretty wrong seeing as Frijns is second in the championship with two races to go. There is a chance he could fall to eighth, as he is 14 points clear of that spot. The Dutchman has not won this season, but he has two runner-up finishes, five top five finishes and seven points finishes, as he is six points off the championship lead entering the final round. This hasn't been a stellar year for him, but it has been good enough.

Nick Cassidy: #37 Audi e-Tron FE07 (7th - 76 points)
What was expect this season: "Cassidy has already admitted Formula E will force him to drive differently with more energy management and he isn't focused on results too much. It sounds like he is using this year to learn before attempting a better challenge in year two. He was 13th at the Valencia pre-season test. Virgin is a consistent team. I think he will score points and challenge for a podium finish in at least one race, but I think he will be second in this team and Virgin could be set for its worst finish in the teams' championship."

How wrong was it: Cassidy has stood on the podium twice and he has four top five finishes. He is second in the Virgin squad, but the British team is leading the Teams' Championship and it will likely not have its worst Teams' Championship result. The team has not won a race this season though. It has left it late and the finale is as good a time as any for this operation to pull out a win.

Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team - 158 points
Nyck de Vries: #17 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02 (1st - 95 points)
What was expect this season: "While Vandoorne was 18th, de Vries was 21st in testing. De Vries was streaky in 2019-20. It was top five or bust for him. He has to improve on that consistency. If he does, he will be up there with his teammate and perhaps Mercedes could make a push for a teams' championship. I am weary of that though, especially if Mercedes does not improve from its testing form. "

How wrong was it: De Vries leads the championship and Mercedes is second in the Teams' fight. De Vries was the first with multiple victories this season, taking the Saudi Arabia season opener and the first Valencia round. He does enter Berlin off the back of a pair of runner-up finishes in London, which earned him the championship lead entering the final, but he has been streaky. He has his four podium finishes but his only other points finishes were a pair of ninths. 

Stoffel Vandoorne: #5 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02 (13th - 63 points)
What was expect this season: "Vandoorne was one of the most improved drivers of the 2019-20 season. Testing was a little underwhelming considering 2019-20 went. Vandoorne was 18th and the top Mercedes. I expect him to be in the top ten again and fighting for the top five. He should probably win another race or two."

How wrong was it: Vandoorne is 17 points outside the top five with two races to go. It is not impossible, but it is unlikely. He did win the second Rome race and was third in the first Valencia race, but he has only three other points finishes, with his next best result being seventh.

Jaguar Racing - 156 points
Sam Bird: #10 Jaguar I-Type 5 (3rd - 81 points)
What was expect this season: "Bird might be the best Formula E driver not to win a championship, but too often does he start strong and then fade. He has won one of the first four races of a season in five of six seasons. However, in 2014-15, he won the second race and his only other podium finish was his victory in the season finale. He won the fourth race the year after that and didn't finish in the top five again. He won the third race in 2018-19 and didn't get on the podium again. He won the season opener last year and had one other podium finish. Jaguar produces respectable cars but has yet to have that breakthrough. I don't think it will happen this year."

How wrong was it: Sam Bird won the second race of the season and he was runner-up in the third race of the season. His only other top five finish was his victory in Brooklyn. Three podium finishes is a good total, but this has not been a spectacular season for Bird. He does find himself with a great shot at the championship, but Brooklyn is the only time he has scored points in both races of a doubleheader, and that other result was ninth. Bird will need his best weekend of the season if he were to win the championship.

Mitch Evans: #20 Jaguar I-Type 5 (8th - 75 points)
What was expect this season: "Evans was fifth in testing while Bird was 23rd. Evans has won a race each of the last two seasons and he has been in the top ten of the championship in the last three seasons. I expect more of the same. He will win a race, perhaps two and get on the podium three or four times, but he will be just off that championship level."

How wrong was it: Evans has four podium finishes, but they were all third-place results. I would say Evans has just been off that championship level. He could still win it, but I do not expect it. Eighth might be a little misconceiving of his season as he has finished in the points seven times and the only other driver with at least four podium results is the championship leader.

DS Techeetah - 148 points
António Félix da Costa: #13 DS E-TENSE FE20/DS E-TENSE FE21 (5th - 80 points)
What was expect this season: "More of the same. Techeetah will be at the front and da Costa will put up an honorable title defense. He was fourth in testing. He should win two or three races. Though the six Berlin races were held on three different configurations, I am curious about how Techeetah will run in different environments. Da Costa was in good form before Germany and this was after the team had a slow start. I don't think he will have a slow start again. If he doesn't win the championship, he will be in the top five."

How wrong was it: Da Costa clings to fifth with a victory at Monaco and a pair of thirds being his only top five results this season. He has not scored in both races of a doubleheader this season and he has three retirements with a disqualification for energy usage in the infamous first Valencia race. 

Jean-Éric Vergne: #25 DS E-TENSE FE20/DS E-TENSE FE21 (12th - 68 points)
What was expect this season: "Vergne will be there, as he has been in his four previous seasons with Techeetah. He will win a few races and pole positions. The two Techeetah drivers complement each other but are each other's biggest rivals. They will take points off of each other. They both should be in the top five of the championship, but they both could fall short of the championship because one doesn't have a clear upper hand."

How wrong was it: Vergne won the third race of the season in Rome but he does not have a pole position. He was runner-up in the first Brooklyn race and he has the same number of points finishes as his teammate da Costa, yet the Portuguese driver is 12 points and seven positions clear of the Frenchman. I wouldn't say the two have been taking points off of one another. Only once this season has both Teecheetah drivers finished in the points and that was Monaco.

BMW i Andretti Motorsport - 143 points
Jake Dennis: #27 BMW IFE.21 (4th - 81 points)
What was expect this season: "Dennis was 11th in testing and I am going to set the bar low because BMW's results have been scattered. The team wins one week and then doesn't score points in the next three or four races. The final championship finishes end up being average for BMW and that is where I expect Dennis to be. I think he will be outside the top ten in the championship."

How wrong was it: In a season where I lowered the bar for BMW, it has its best shot at a title. Dennis has two victories, but is fourth because Bird owns the tiebreaker as Bird's next best finish is second to Dennis' fifth. While some drivers have not had great doubleheaders, Dennis has scored in both Valencia races, both Puebla races and both London races. A good opening race in Berlin could springboard him to something greater in race two.

Maximilian Günther: #28 BMW IFE.21 (15th - 62 points)
What was expect this season: "As has become accustom for Formula E testing, BMW led the way back in December in Valencia, however, despite all of BMW's preseason success, the results have fallen relatively flat once the season starts. The team won three races last year, two at the hands of Günther, but the team failed to score points on 14 of 22 occasions, including going scoreless in the final three races. I don't rate Günther highly and though he could win another race in 2021, I don't think he can string together the results to be a serious title contender."

How wrong was it: Günther has not been a serious title contender, but he did take a surprise victory in the first Brooklyn race after Cassidy faded in the late stages. Günther has scored points in seven races but outside of his victory he has only two other top five finishes.

Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler Formula E Team - 134 points
René Rast: #33 Audi e-Tron FE07 (10th - 72 points)
What was expect this season: "Rast showed promise in his Berlin stint last season and I think he is the teammate di Grassi lacked his entire Formula E career. I think both Audi drivers should be in the top ten of the championship. I don't think Audi is as slow as testing suggested. It might not be the best team, but it will produce. Rast is still re-adjusting to single-seater racing. He has not competed regularly in a single-seater since 2004 in Formula BMW ADAC. I think he will overcome that and be competitive, but I don't expect him to be a regular race winner."

How wrong was it: Rast has not won at all this season, but he was runner-up in the first Puebla race, has four top five finishes and finished in the points eight times. It has been good year, but not a great one for Audi.

Lucas di Grassi: #11 Audi e-Tron FE07 (14th - 62 points)
What was expect this season: "Last year was a down year and testing results were dismal. Di Grassi was the slowest in Valencia, albeit 0.761 seconds off the top time. The Audis were 20th and 24th though. Di Grassi will figure it out, but I am not sure he can make another championship push. He scored a lot of points last year, but rarely was one of the top drivers on track. It would not be a surprise if he won a race and had a few podium finishes, but for the first time in Formula E history I don't think he is a championship favorite at the start of a season."

How wrong was it: Di Grassi scored a victory in the first Puebla race and he was third in the first Brooklyn race, but those are his only top five finishes this year. He has eight points-scoring results, like his teammate, but he has finished eighth or worse in three of those.

Mahindra Racing - 122 points
Alex Lynn: #94 Mahindra M7Electro (6th - 78 points)
What was expect this season: "I can't figure out Lynn. Once, he was a strong Formula One hopeful, then he was a sports car stud. He won the 12 Hours of Sebring with Wayne Taylor Racing and was in the Aston Martin factory program, but he is not as desired as I thought he would be. His Formula E results have never been great and he has driven for some good teams in Virgin and Jaguar. However, he ended 2020 on the right path. He scored points in three consecutive races. I think he could top Sims in the Mahindra battle, but he will likely finish in the same range as Sims, somewhere between 13th and 18th."

How wrong was it: Lynn is seven positions ahead of that predicted preseason range. A maiden Formula E victory paired with a third in London lifted him from 17th to sixth in the championship. He does have nine points-scoring results this year, and he was third in the second Valencia race. This is weird where I don't think 17th was a true representation of Lynn's year, but sixth feels a little better than it has been. 

Alexander Sims: #29 Mahindra M7Electro (18th - 44 points)
What was expect this season: "For all the pace Sims showed at BMW, the results are rather lackluster. He moves to Mahindra, a team coming off its worst championship finish and the two cars were 15th and 16th in testing with Sims leading. I don't see a big turnaround coming. Sims should score some points and he might have a top five finish. Sims scored the same number of points on his own as Mahindra did as a team last year. The team could see an uptick in points and gain a spot in the teams' championship, but I expect Sims to be between 13th and 18th in the championship." 

How wrong was it: Sims was one spot ahead of Lynn before the London round. Now there are 12 spots between them. While 17th might have been too harsh on Lynn, 18th sounds right for Sims. He has had two good races, second in the second Rome race and fourth in the second Puebla race. He hasn't been a factor this season and he has only finished in the points in two other races.

TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team - 116 points
Pascal Wehrlein: #99 Porsche 99X Electric (11th - 71 points)
What was expect this season: "Last year, Lotterer scored 71 of Porsche's 78 points. Wehrlein was sixth in testing and I think we will see a greater balance between the two Porsche drivers. Each driver could win a race, but I am more concerned about Wehrlein than Lotterer. Wehrlein walked away from Mahindra in the middle of last year after decent results and a solid first season. He should be close to equal to his teammate, but I will give the slight edge to Lotterer."

How wrong was it: Wehrlein has scored the same exact number of points as Lotterer did last year, and there are still two races remaining in 2021, and Wehrlein is ahead of Lotterer. Neither driver has won, although Wehrlein was first across the line in the first Puebla race, but disqualified due to a technical infringement. He has five top five finishes with his best result being third. I would say he has led the Porsche camp.

André Lotterer: #36 Porsche 99X Electric (17th - 45 points)
What was expect this season: "Lotterer is uncertain about Porsche's second season seeing improvements because of how tight the Formula E is, but he should see an uptick in results. I think Porsche can win a race or two this season and I think Lotterer could get one. I am not sure the consistency can be there for a championship, but he should be at least eighth in the championship again."

How wrong was it: Lotterer's uncertainty accurately foreshadowed Porsche's season. He was second in the second Valencia race, but he has three other points finishes this year. He is 30 points away from eighth. He is likely going to finish behind his teammate.

ROKiT Venturi Racing - 91 points
Edoardo Mortara: #48 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02 (9th - 74 points)
What was expect this season: "In three Formula E seasons, Mortara has finished 13th, 14th and 14th in the championship. I expect him to be 13th or 14th in the championship. He could see a slight improvement and get to tenth or 11th, but Venturi has never been a regular fighter at the front of the field. He could score points in half the races."

How wrong was it: Mortara heads to the finale ninth in the championship, which is in the range of a slight improvement, but he is only 11 points ahead of 13th and 12 points ahead of 14th and 15th. One tough weekend and he could fall right where we expected him. He did win the second Puebla race, was third in the first race of that weekend and he opened the season with a runner-up result. He has scored points in six of 13 races, slightly below a .500 batting average, but his highs were higher than expected and more frequent than I imagined. 

Norman Nato: #71 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02 (21st - 17 points)
What was expect this season: "Nato was tenth in testing, two spots ahead of his teammate, but Venturi's inconsistency worries me. It will have the Mercedes-Benz powertrain for the second consecutive season, but that doesn't mean the team will be fighting for victories. I think Nato is in the same boat Mortara, trying to get tenth in the championship."

How wrong was it: Nato scored in two races, a fifth in the second Valencia race and a seventh in the second Brooklyn race. He is 55 points away from tenth. He is not going to sweep the Berlin weekend and get into the top ten. Cracking the top twenty would be surprising.

Nissan e.dams - 79 points
Oliver Rowland: #22 Nissan IM02 (16th - 59 points)
What was expect this season: "The biggest problem for Rowland is his teammate because when you are paired with one of the best drivers in Formula E history it is going to be tough to stand out. Rowland started on the right foot in testing, ending up seventh while Sébastien Buemi was 14th. Buemi has had a teammate beat him in the championship. I don't expect that to change, but I think 2021 will be a lot like last season and Rowland will not be far off Buemi."

How wrong was it: Rowland leads the way but Nissan has been abysmal this year. One podium finish between its two drivers. Rowland has at least been respectable. He was third from pole position in the second Puebla race and he has finished in the points six times. Nissan has had its share of technical issues, leading to three disqualifications this year, more than any other driver. Those costed him 19 points and those 19 points would have him seventh in the championship. I would say Nissan has beat itself. 

Sébastien Buemi: #23 Nissan IM02 (20th - 20 points)
What was expect this season: "Buemi is there every season. He will be there again in 2021. I think he will get off the snide and win two or three races. I think he will be a championship threat and push the Techeetah drivers."

How wrong was it: Buemi wasn't close this year, though he was disqualified twice, but those only costed him 12 points. Those 12 points would only put him 19th in the championship. Buemi has three points finishes. His best finish was fifth. Nissan continues to slide and one of Formula E's first great drivers continues to go down with it. 

Dragon/Penske Autosport - 47 points
Nico Müller: #6 Penske EV-4/EV-5 (19th - 30 points)
What was expect this season: "Dragon/Penske Autosport was the surprise of testing with its two cars ending up second and third, with Müller taking third. It is only testing and like any series we have seen fast cars disappear when the season begins and concerns about a driver's pace disappear once that driver starts succeeding in season. I am skeptical, mostly because Dragon/Penske's championship results have gotten worse in each Formula E and it still hasn't hit rock-bottom. It does have more room above it than below. Müller has a season under his belt and I think he will score points, but not be a serious contender for a top ten championship position."

How wrong was it: Dragon/Penske must have had a finger on the scales in testing. Müller was second in the first Valencia race and ended up on 30 points, but he bolted to focus on his Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters season. 

Sérgio Sette Câmara: #7 Penske EV-4/EV-5 (22nd - 16 points)
What was expect this season: "Câmara could be the surprise of the season. Based on his Formula Two results and him winning pole position on his Super Formula debut after spending the first half of the year away from the team shows something is there. We have seen one-off winners in Formula E early in a season and then that team kind of craters. Câmara could see early glory and then struggle for results elsewhere but steal a spot eighth to tenth in the championship. I think he will lead this team in points scored."

How wrong was it: Things looked good when Câmara finished fourth in the second race in Saudi Arabia. He would not score again until he was eighth in the second London race. He has only retired from one race, but Câmara was outside the top fifteen in seven of 13 races this year. 

Joel Eriksson: #6 Penske EV-5 (25th - 1 point)
What was expect this season: Eriksson was a midseason replacement for Müller and Eriksson has been the only midseason driver change this year, which is unusual considering Formula E's history.

How wrong was it: Eriksson has run the final four rounds, eight races in total, and his only point was tenth in the second London race. Dragon/Penske has increased its points total from two in 2019-20 to 47 in 2021, but it is still 11th in the championship and is one of those teams eliminated from the Teams' championship before the finale. 

NIO 333 FE Team - 18 points 
Oliver Turvey: #8 NIO 333 001 (23rd - 13 points)
What was expect this season: "It has to get better for Turvey and NIO. The good news is he was ninth in testing. However, there was a big gap between him and his teammate. Turvey and NIO should get a few points, but I am talking five or six points. NIO can only go up but a marginal improvement still will not be earth-shattering in the Formula E world."

How wrong was it: Turvey opened 2021 with nine points at the Saudi Arabia doubleheader after going scoreless in 2019-20. He has since only scored four points, an eighth in the second Valencia race. I would say 13 is a few points and NIO made the marginal, but far from earth-shattering, improvement we expected. 

Tom Blomqvist: #88 NIO 333 001 (24th - 5 points)
What was expect this season: "Blomqvist was 20th in testing, 11 spots off his teammate. Blomqvist has had a disjointed Formula E career. He got a crack with Andretti in 2017-18 before BMW's full commitment to the series and then he didn't race in the series for two years. It has been seven years since he regularly competed in a single-seater. Turvey is more likely to score points than Blomqvist and I would be surprised if Blomqvist finished in the points once or twice this season."

How wrong was it: Blomqvist scored points in both Rome races, a tenth and an eighth, and hasn't scored again. This prediction was pretty accurate, but we still got two races to go, not that expect much to change. 

How are 18 drivers still alive for the championship?
Qualifying! And it isn't even qualifying but the qualifying groups. 

The championship standings determine the qualifying groups, but the top six take to the track first with the next six of the championship following and so on through the four-group first round. With the leaders in the championship going out first, they face the worst track conditions and face a long shot advancing to the Super Pole round for pole position. 

Meanwhile, the bottom of the championship gets favorable track conditions during qualifying, increasing the likelihood the bottom of the championship qualify further up the starting grid and ahead of the drivers who went out early in the session. Suddenly, the top drivers are in the middle of the pack and have to fight just to get into the points. 

With a Formula E race only being 45 minutes, with no real pit stops, no tire strategy, few instances of safety car periods and races predominantly held on tighter street circuits, parity is bound to happen. The bottom of the championship gets lifted up and the top drivers get pushed down. 

Consider that only four drivers average a top ten starting position this season and three of those are outside the top ten in the championship (Wehrlein at 7.0, Rowland at 8.2 and Buemi at 9.8). Only Lynn averaging a 7.5 starting position is in the top ten. Meanwhile, 14 drivers average between a 10.8 and 14.0. Four of the top five in the championship average 12.8 or worse. 

With average starting positions leveled out, so are average finishing positions. Only two drivers average a top ten finish, Frijns at 9.6 and Mortara at 9.8. De Vries leads the championship but averages an 11.8. A dozen drivers have an average finish between 10.5 and 12.5. Bird is the only top ten championship driver with an average finish worse than 12.5 and he is at 13.2. Günther is tied for the sixth-best average finish and he is tied for the fifth-best average starting position and yet he is 15th in the championship. 

The difference between the best average finish and the worst average finish (Eriksson) is 6.6. When it comes to starting position, the difference between Wehrlein at the top and Eriksson on the bottom is 11.3, but Eriksson is the only driver whose average starting position is more than ten positions behind Wehrlein's. 

It might not be a case of we don't truly know who is the best in Formula E, but rather we might not actually know how great the best are. I think the top five in the championship are the top five drivers, but I don't necessarily believe tenth is within 23 points of first or 18th should still be alive for the championship with two races to go. 

While the qualifying format keeps it tight, I wish we get to see the best get a chance to pull away and show how great they are. Maybe Virgin is the best team, but with a more favorable qualifying format it would have a few victories this season instead of heading into the finale winless and as the clubhouse leader. 

Overall Thoughts
Championship parity aside, this has been a stellar Formula E season. I think the second-generation car lends to good racing and the 45-minute race keeps it close and prevents the intensity from ever dropping. I think we have seen three or four of the best Formula E races all-time this season. 

It is a young series and there haven't been that many races, but the second Saudi Arabia race was outstanding. The opening race from Rome was fantastic. For as flawed as the first Valencia race was, it was an extraordinary set of circumstances and a race that you will not be able to forget. Formula E needs those wacky races from time to time, every series does. It showed a fault in the regulations, but it at least led to something memorable and not completely embarrassing. 

I think Monaco was the best race the series has ever had and what makes Monaco even more spectacular is the top six starters finished exactly where they started and the box score does not come close to telling an accurate story. The first race around the full Monaco course was sensational. It could have been underwhelming, and yet we got the liveliest race of the year, one filled with passing and most notably with six lead changes, including one on the final lap into the harbor chicane. 

While Formula E doesn't have pit stops, attack mode is effectively a pit stop. Twice a race a driver has to purposing run wide in a corner, take a longer radius in a corner and expose themselves to losing ground. Sometimes, a driver does it and keeps the position. Other times a driver loses spots, but have the power advantage and like a car emerging from a pit lane on fresh tires, can immediately get a spot back. And then there are times when a driver loses a spot and cannot get it back. There are the attack mode laps where the car fails to activate it and a driver has to try again, akin to a botched pit stop or a speeding penalty. 

It adds a wrinkle without being completely loony. It is not traditional to purposely make a driver run wide, but it is a simple thing to do that can make a race livelier. 

We look to the 2021 finale and see another change on the horizon for Formula E. Next year will see the introduction of the third-generation car. There should be more power, and we are expecting flash-charging to possibly introduce pit stops into the races. However, we will see Audi and BMW exit the championship and no new teams are entering in the first season of the new regulations. 

Formula E is approaching a full decade of competition, but the landscape is only becoming more complicated. All-electric vehicles are becoming more popular, but there are still plenty of hang ups preventing them from becoming the pre-dominant vehicle on roadways. Manufactures are committed to electrification, but infrastructure for charging stations remains a hurdle. Formula E is the forbearer for all-electric motorsports, but that alone will not be enough for it to become the top series in the eyes of manufactures, drivers, sponsors and spectators. 

In the clustered 21st century, Formula E has done remarkable. Many thought it wouldn't get through the first two seasons. It will start its eighth in 2022. But it hasn't become a global sensation. It is still a fringe series compared to Formula One. It lacks a signature event like the Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans. Drivers are not dreaming of racing in Formula E. It is an alternate option when the primary ones run out. 

But it continues to be a functioning series. There are plenty of drivers interested and happy with the pay. It still feels like a series that is a little distant to the masses. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, but we have yet to see a place embrace Formula E and make a race weekend an event. It might require more time for those to develop, but we need to start seeing these races become a part of the fabric of the cities it visits. 

With the third-generation car coming, this should be the time Formula E moves away from being a fad with a constant rotation of events and establish a core of a dozen global cities where it can continue to build upon.