After a five-month hiatus in competition as a result of the COVID-19 Coronavirus global pandemic, the ABB FIA Formula E Championship returns to action and over the next two weeks the fully-electric racing series will attempt the unthinkable and complete the unimaginable – run half a season of racing in just nine days…
The series – which will gain FIA World Championship status in 2021 – will take up residency in Berlin and more specifically, the old Tempelhof Airport, where three double-header events and a total of six rounds will be held in close physical proximity to one another.
So, with 180 points available to drivers and 288 on offer to teams, there is everything is still to play for and by competing amidst a pandemic, the ‘unprecedented’ status of 2020 will overflow into the sport as the paddock participates in what will be the most intense season finale in the history of motorsport.
Lying third in the 2019/20 Drivers’ Championship fight, and only 21 points shy of leader Antonio Felix da Costa, is BMW i Andretti Motorsport’s Alexander Sims and he heads into the Berlin showdown as a key title contender. Holding an impressive record thus far, which includes a historic run of three consecutive pole positions and victory in Diriyah, the Briton is a favorite for the Season 6 crown.
Taking the time out of his preparations for the six-race showdown, the 32-year-old Londoner caught up with Motorsport Monday to discuss the challenge that lies ahead and how this high-speed, high-stakes scenario has created a multitude of unknowns… Including a potential shift in the unpredictability of Formula E’s group qualifying as track evolution comes into play.
“We’re not going to know about some challenges until we get into it, but I think certainly, we’re going to have a few situations that are a bit different,” said Sims when asked about the upcoming schedule. “[Given the circuit configurations] there could be a situation where the track evolution starts to plateau and so the group qualifying format that we have at the moment might not start to have a big impact.
“The track might not be rubbering in because it might have been rubbered in from the day before. We should have had that in Diriyah earlier this season but it was at such a low grip level to start with that actually, it didn’t change but I seem to remember that last season in New York, the track evolution wasn’t quite as extreme on the second day. Thinking about what [the track] might be like on the third or fourth or fifth day… It’s likely to even itself out.”
Should this track evolution, or rather the lack of any evolution, transpire, then it is clear that the Group 1 runners – composed of the top six in the Drivers’ Championship, and traditionally at a qualifying disadvantage by going out first – would be the main benefactors, given the reduced margin of improvement over the course of each session as the finale advances. And with Formula E maintaining its usual format of completing practice, qualifying and each race in one single day alongside the compact schedule, Sims also highlighted a key challenge for team personnel as the conclusion of the 2019/20 campaign waits in the wings.
“I guess that a lot of races in a short period of time will be very challenging for all of the team personnel,” he continued. “We’re going to be having pretty late races each day such as 6 or 7 o’clock in the evening. Then working from that day’s race to prepare for the next day’s is going to be tough for everybody, especially if you have a bad race or if there is a lot to learn from.
“You just need to react and learn very quickly. Put the disappointments or the good times from the previous day behind you and get on with the next day because it’s going to be pretty relentless and you can’t be keeping your emotions from the day before into the next day.
“From the fundamentals of driving the car – practice sessions, qualifying sessions, races – it’s going to be much the same but there will be a lot of external factors that will impact it. Not having as many people at the track that we’re used to, having virtual meetings with engineers who are back at base… It’s going to be new. All of those systems are going to need to work faultlessly from the word ‘go’ and no one has really had to use them before at a race weekend. It’s going to be really, really interesting.”
With Formula E only unveiling the three circuit configurations of the Berlin E-Prix just over two weeks before the start of the finale, preparations – that are crucial prior to an event – have been heavily impacted and hampered, leaving teams and drivers with a further list of unknowns in a situation that is already difficult enough.
“[It is] a pretty new situation for everyone because in Formula E’s history, everyone has pretty much known the track configuration that we’re going to drive on in advance of the race and have been able to prepare properly. To see how everyone reacts to a new situation will be pretty interesting and exciting.
“I think it’s possibly going to be difficult enough on its own without having substantial track changes to throw into the mix because of the little practice time we’ve got to get on top of the new track, work out your energy management, prepare for qualifying, set up the car… Certainly, it will be very tough.”
Holding six very real Formula E races in the narrow window of just nine days will inevitably result in big points swings in both the Drivers’ and Teams’ Championships and settling into a rhythm early on could prove to be vital in Berlin. For Sims, however, the concept of momentum will not make a difference and the British racer emphasised the importance of staying calm throughout the finale, with the cool control of emotion potentially acting as a make or break factor to a driver’s title aspirations.
“I would imagine that the so-called momentum probably doesn’t make that much difference in reality,” explained Sims. “From the outside, if someone gets on a good run, it’s probably easy or totally understandable to say that the momentum is with them and that they can keep it going. But I think, in reality, everyone in Formula E is at the absolute top of their game and knowing that you’ve done well the previous day… Just that knowledge isn’t going to help you drive faster the following day.
“It’ll be about the fact that the process you’ve got worked the day before so you’ve just got to try and re-create the same thing again and not let any emotion get into it. If you have a good Day 1, everyone who didn’t have such a good Day 1 will be making changes and trying to improve to have a better Day 2 so you can’t take your performance for granted.
“[There will be] huge points swings and a vast array of different emotions throughout the six race days. Trying to minimise the mistakes as usual but even more so in Berlin, as we go through the race week I think everyone is going to be getting a step closer and closer to a more refined race and it’s going to be even more important to just keep working damn hard and get to that situation where you can control everything that you can control as soon as possible.”
And trailing Sims by only two points in the Drivers’ Standings, team-mate Maximilian Guenther’s form has ensured that BMW i Andretti Motorsport enters the season finale in a strong position. With a combined 90 points, the German-American outfit trails DS Techeetah by only eight points and holds the opportunity to not only beat rivals Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Audi, but also take the Teams’ Championship crown for the first time at home.
“[Berlin] is huge from BMW’s point of view. I can’t talk on behalf of the team but from my point of view, BMW is a totally international brand but they’re very German at heart – that’s where all of their headquarters and bases are,” added Sims. “It’s where BMW Motorsport is based and so with a lot of German ties in the team – and some English and American because of Andretti – it’s a big deal to go to Berlin and have BMW’s home race as such.
“But again, there are two sides to me. One side is yes, I totally appreciate how big it is for BMW in the sense that it’s their home race, but on the flip side, it’s just another race. If we ended up having another six races in France, South Korea, Thailand, or England, it would still be six races with the same points on offer. Once we’re there and get into our daily jobs, it has no impact whatsoever that we’re in Berlin – we’re going for the championship.”
Formula E’s six-race finale will take place on August 5/6, 8/9, and 12/13 where all 24 drivers and 12 teams in the field all stand the chance of taking the championship…
This feature originally appeared in issue 378 of Motorsport Monday, your free weekly digital motorsport magazine!