Formula E season finale preview: Eight into one...

Eight different winners in the first eight races underpinned this season’s unpredictable electric recipe and with just one weekend of competition remaining, a total of eight drivers still stand a mathematical chance of taking the 2019 FIA Formula E Drivers’ Championship…

Game On! Eight into One!

After hype and high expectations, the first season of Formula E’s second generation is close to coming to a close. The season has been far from disappointing, with the series’ new approach to racing resulting in the championship’s most unpredictable campaign to date while rain in Paris ensured that we would no longer have wait for that maiden wet race. 

Returning to the coastal Red Hook neighbourhood of Brooklyn for the New York City E-Prix - the city’s third consecutive season on the Formula E calendar - it is game on in the FIA’s all-electric single-seater series which, as always, will go down to the wire. At 2.373km-long, intertwined with 14 complex corners and lined with concrete barriers, the Brooklyn circuit is one of the most difficult venues on the 2018/19 calendar having served up unpredictable racing in the past, all against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan. 

Of the eight drivers, it is DS Techeetah’s Jean-Eric Vergne who has the obvious advantage heading to the Big Apple while Lucas di Grassi, Mitch Evans, Andre Lotterer, Antonio Felix da Costa, Robin Frijns, Sébastien Buemi, and Daniel Abt are all in hot pursuit. 

Drivers in contention…

8. Daniel Abt (Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler)

Sitting in eighth in the Drivers’ Championship having collected 75 points over the course of Formula E’s 11 races this season, Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler’s Daniel Abt stands the smallest chance of taking the title in Season 5. With 58 points still available to collect and with the 26-year-old 55 points behind Vergne, to say that the German driver’s chances of taking the title are slim is an understatement. To come out on top in Season 5, Abt needs a miracle - the likes of which that Formula E has never seen. 

First off, it would be vital for Abt to outscore Vergne in the first race of the weekend on Saturday, needing to be within 28 points of the Frenchman heading into the final E-Prix of the season. To close this gap, qualifying is the first hurdle for Abt, with it being vital for the Audi driver to claim pole position - something that he hasn’t achieved since the 2018 Berlin E-Prix. If Abt did take pole, nothing less than a win will do while Vergne will have to finish outside of the top 10. 

While Abt is an extreme contender in the championship fight, the New York City E-Prix tells another story for the German racer - that of a man under pressure. At present, Abt does not hold a contract to race in Formula E next season as he continues to wait for Audi to knock at his door for a second consecutive season while reserve driver Nico Mueller is understood to be under consideration. The phrase ‘make or break’ takes true meaning in Abt’s case for New York, with the driver needing to impress Audi to keep his drive. If he fails, he may well be out of Formula E altogether given some recent comments from the driver about his future in motorsport… 

7. Sébastien Buemi (Nissan e.dams)

As one of the greats of Formula E, Sébastien Buemi’s performances in recent seasons haven’t proven his true ability behind the wheel. For the first time since Season 3, the Swiss racer finds himself in championship contention - something that he has to thank for his recent upturn in form after taking back-to-back podiums in Berlin and at home in Bern, slotting an irrelevant but impressive 24 Hours of Le Mans victory in between. 

Only one point ahead of Daniel Abt in the Drivers’ Championship, Buemi’s Season 5 title chances are almost at the same extreme as the aforementioned German. Contrasting Abt, the former champion of the series would not have to come out on top in qualifying although achieving such a feat is more than doable for the recently crowned FIA World Endurance champion with Nissan e.dams taking five pole positions this season. 

It is in the 45-minute + 1 lap E-Prix where things may unravel for Buemi, given the inefficiency of his Nissan IM01 when in race specification. Winning on Saturday is again an absolute must for the Swiss driver if he is to stand a chance of taking the championship. If he missed out on pole, the fastest lap would also be required while Vergne would again need to finish outside of the top 10. As opposed to being in championship mode heading into Formula E’s final weekend of Season 5, it will be Buemi’s aim to put an end to his current winless streak which stands at 25 races. With the FIA banning the use of twin MGUs for Season 6, Nissan e.dams will face a considerable knock-back for next season, being forced to switch to a single MGU at the last minute. New York might mark the team’s best chances of taking victory in what could be a very long time… 

6. Robin Frijns (Envision Virgin Racing)

A shunt up the rear in Bern was a pivotal moment in Robin Frijns’ comeback season in Formula E after the Dutch racer missed Season 4 after failing to secure a drive. With the 2018/19 campaign marking the driver’s third season in Formula E, it is also his best to date by far, taking podiums in Marrakesh and Hong Kong while claiming his maiden victory in the rain and hail of Paris. Sitting in sixth in the Drivers’ Championship, Frijns is still an outsider for the title, his season’s efforts spoiled by Jerome d’Ambrosio who caused his Swiss retirement. Unlike Abt and Buemi, Frijns is closer to Vergne at the top, 49 points adrift. Given the availability of 58 points, to take the fight to the Frenchman, Frijns must claw back 21 points before Sunday’s finale. For this to happen, a podium finish is a necessity. While victory would allow Frijns’ title fight to continue, second place would also be enough, as long as the driver claims pole position. 

Following his retirement in Bern, however, Motorsport Week caught up with Frijns post-race and the Envision Virgin Racing driver was far from buoyant about his championship hopes: “I didn’t see it coming,” he said, referencing the late-braking Mahindra M5Electro of d’Ambrosio. “I had a good start. Everybody in front of me was being cautious and so was I and then suddenly I got a huge hit from behind. I’ll just try to have some fun in New York and I’ll try to see the chequered flag because I haven’t seen it for too long now.”

Having his contract recently renewed by Envision Virgin Racing which will see him race for the British team alongside Sam Bird next season, if Frijns’ championship hopes fall apart in New York, the 27-year-old will again have another chance, beginning from the end of this year.

5. Antonio Felix da Costa (BMW i Andretti Motorsport)

After leaving pre-season testing at the Ricardo Tormo Circuit in Valencia with the fastest time, Antonio Felix da Costa was the top pick in the run up to Season 5. When the Portuguese racer took pole position and victory at the inaugural Ad Diriyah E-Prix, it appeared that he was the man to beat. Coming to blows with his team-mate Alexander Sims in Marrakesh prevented BMW from taking back-to-back victories and since then, da Costa’s season hasn’t been quite the same. Retiring from the race in Marrakesh, another retirement followed in Santiago although second place in Mexico City and third in Sanya again restored hopes. A disqualification from sixth place in Monaco, however, again compounded da Costa’s hopes while a non-scoring finish in Bern severely reduced the former Red Bull junior’s title hopes.

With 82 points, da Costa alongside a number of drivers sits in No Man’s Land - a precarious position that no driver wants to be in. Da Costa is 48 points adrift of Vergne, however, with one win this season, could afford to match the Frenchman on points if he was able to win both races in New York, given the rollback rule. More simply, to get within range of Vergne to win with a points advantage, da Costa would have to outscore the DS Techeetah driver by 20 points in Race 1. This could be done if aa Costa wins and Vergne finishes in eighth or lower or if the Portuguese pilot starts from pole position and finishes in second while Vergne finishes ninth or lower.

Given the uphill battle that da Costa faces, the season that essentially made the driver in Formula E could end with him no longer being it title contention - something that would be unfair given a number of impressive driving performances throughout the 2018/19 campaign.

4. Andre Lotterer (DS Techeetah)

Fourth place in Bern after retiring in Berlin marked renewed hopes for Andre Lotterer in Season 5, with the German driver and triple Le Mans winner shooting into championship contention, 32 points behind team-mate Vergne. But a post-race time penalty of 22-seconds in Bern, however, when it was found that the driver ignored pit exit lights during the race restart in the Swiss capital, saw Lotterer slip down to 15th in the final race classification, losing the 12 points that he registered. From a dream scenario, Lotterer’s title hopes are seemingly in tatters as he trails Vergne by 44 points - a less than ideal scenario heading into Formula E’s final weekend of competition.

With this 44 point gap, Lotterer is also winless this season and indeed, in Formula E despite two seasons of impressive driving. Like many other drivers in contention for the 2018/19 crown, Lotterer again must close the gap to Vergne and must be within 28 points of his team-mate heading into the final race of the season. This can be done in a number of ways and would require Lotterer to outscore Vergne by 15 points in Race 1. This can be done if Lotterer finishes in third place and takes the fastest lap of the E-Prix, if he finishes in second or if he wins, with Vergne needing to finish outside of the top 10, ninth or below, or fourth or below in each respective scenario. 

Given Lotterer’s form this season, a podium finish for the DS Techeetah driver is more than doable in New York, however, with Vergne’s clear pace in Formula E’s Gen2 era, the reigning champion would have to have an uncharacteristically challenging race in the Big Apple for Lotterer to stand a true chance. 

3. Mitch Evans (Panasonic Jaguar Racing)

Perhaps the surprise of the season, Mitch Evans’ Formula E career was kick-started in Season 5, the Kiwi securing a breakthrough race win at the Rome E-Prix for both himself and Jaguar while also registering another podium finish in Bern, coming close to vanquishing Vergne on what has arguably been the most challenging track of the season. By achieving a podium in Bern, Evans has already achieved the unexpected by moving into third in the Drivers’ Standings with only one weekend remaining until Season 5 is over. As the only driver this season to finish every race so far this season, Evans has also recorded more points-scoring finishes than any other driver, taking the chequered flag inside the top 10 on nine in 11 occasions this season. 

Sitting on 87 points, Evans is in a similar position to Andre Lotterer in the championship, however, is one point closer to Vergne than the German, although this is still a 43 point gap. Despite holding one win this season and while winning both races in New York would see Evas draw level to Vergne this season on the win list, a greater number of podium finishes would still hand Vergne the title in the event of the pair ending up level on points. Therefore’ Evans must outscore the Frenchman, meaning that he must be within 28 points of the reigning champion heading into Race 2. 

In order to narrow this gap, in Race 1 Evans cannot afford to finish lower than third while if the Kiwi does finish in on the podium, Vergne cannot finish inside the top 10. Evans could also afford to finish in fourth, as long he also took pole position for the E-Prix. Regardless of the result in the championship, Jaguar Racing will leave Season 5 with supreme confidence for the impending 2019/20 season after only arriving in Formula E in Season 3. After the season that both Evans and the British marque have had, the progress of both parties will be encouraging for Season 6. 

2. Lucas di Grassi (Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler)

Lucas di Grassi is Vergne’s nearest challenger and is, therefore, the driver who stands the best chance of beating the Frenchman. While di Grassi’s start to Season 5 was slightly slower than he would have hoped, especially after ending the 2017/18 season in such strong form, some of the driving that the Brazilian has performed this season is arguably the some of best of his career, with memorable races in Berlin and Mexico City being particularly noteworthy. 

As it stands, di Grassi is the only other driver in Formula E alongside Vergne this season to have won more than one race. A poor result in Bern means that the Season 3 champion trails Vergne by 32 points while 58 points are still on offer. To remain in championship contention heading into Race 2, di Grassi must be within 29 points of his championship rival, meaning that he must outscore Vergne by at least three points.

Heading to New York, di Grassi is more than aware that he faces an uphill battle, however, given his unlikely title in Season 3 in a straight fight against Sébastien Buemi, remains buoyant about his chances and is confident that both himself and Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler will be closely matched to Vergne and DS Techeetah: “Of course, we have 58 points on the table. It’s 32 in front. I won the championship that I won from [Sebastien] Buemi and I was 23 behind and I won with 11 in front. If the delta to Buemi is the same as to the last three races that I have to JEV I still win the championship. It has been done once, let’s say that it’s a much more difficult position, but the pressure is on him [Vergne] to do the job in New York. If he does a mistake or the team does a mistake I will be there. I will be there in the points. We will be there.”

1. Jean-Eric Vergne (DS Techeetah)

Jean-Eric Vergne is the man to beat but is also the driver who has everything to lose in New York. Sitting at the top of the Drivers’ Championship, Vergne has been stellar this season, with the Frenchman’s performances of late demonstrating why he is Formula E’s reigning champion. At present, Vergne has had more wins than any other driver this season after taking his third in Bern while earlier in the campaign, the Frenchman surprisingly equalled his worst run of form in Formula E to date after missing out on the top 10 in three consecutive races.

From one binary opposite to another, Vergne can make Formula E history in New York, standing the chance to become the all-electric single-seater series’ first double champion. To do this, Vergne’s job in the Big Apple is arguably simpler than that of his rivals, although it will be vital for the Frenchman to maintain his current momentum. With a 32 point advantage over Lucas di Grassi, all Vergne has to do is make sure that the former champion does not close the gap to 29 points going into Race 2. If Vergne simply beats di Grassi in the first race of the weekend, in most scenarios the championship will very likely be over.

“Anything can happen and especially in Formula E. It’s very hard,” said Vergne when looking ahead to the Season 5 finale. “As long as mathematically you cannot win the championship it’s still open. Lucas [di Grassi] is a very good driver, has a very fast car so the pressure is always on.”