The 2019/20 FIA Formula E championship arrives in Marrakech, Morocco this Saturday for the fifth round of its sixth season. Having weathered scepticism throughout its life, Formula E has begun to truly emerge as one of the most reliably exciting and dramatically storied series in world motor racing.
With it also being one of the few top-line racing series currently available to watch on free-to-air television in the United Kingdom, anyone with a desire to get into motorsport could do significantly worse than to open the iPlayer this weekend and give it a go.
Today, here are eight key points that you need to know ahead of the lights going green this weekend.
If you’re looking for dominance in Formula E, Sébastien Buemi is your man. Since his gormlessly premature dismissal from the Toro Rosso Formula 1 team at the end of 2011, the Swiss has become one of the world’s leading racing drivers. Buemi now has two World Endurance Championship titles, two wins at Le Mans and a Formula E championship to his name.
He tops many of the key metrics in the history of the electric formula: most race victories (13), most pole positions (14), most consecutive wins (3) and most wins from pole (6). Buemi also holds the record for the most race wins in a season with 6, although this mark is something of an outlier: he established in in the 2016/17 season, which was won by Lucas Di Grassi.
Buemi dominated much of that campaign, following on from where he had left off from his championship-winning campaign in 2015/16, leading the standings by 32 points from Di Grassi as the series left its 8th of 12 rounds. However, Buemi was unavoidably detained by his World Endurance Championship commitments and spent the weekend of the New York ePrix racing instead at the Nürburgring for Toyota. The season’s momentum shifted in the Brazilian’s favour and Buemi hasn’t been quite the same force in Formula E since, with just a single race victory between then and now.
Mind you, Buemi remains the only driver in the history of the series to have taken the hat-trick of win, pole position and fastest lap in the same race: the 2015 Beijing ePrix.
2. SOMETHING FOR OLD AND YOUNG
As befits the most futuristic series in global motorsport, Formula E has proved to be something of a young man’s game. The oldest driver to start an ePrix is Jacques Villeneuve, aged 44 years and 238 days at the time of the 2015 race in Putrajaya, Malaysia. The only other forty-somethings to have really made a mark are Jarno Trulli, who started the 2015 Berlin ePrix from pole position at the grand old age of 40 years 314 days, and Stéphane Sarrazin, who scored points in Montréal 2017 aged 42 years 270 days.
The oldest driver to win an ePrix to date is the positively fresh-faced Nico Prost, 34 years and 319 days to the good when he won in London in 2016. This is a mark which is continually under threat, with a number of series stalwarts now ticking over from their mid-thirties to the late-thirties. Should Lucas Di Grassi win again this season – or should André Lotterer finally break his duck – they will set a new standard.
Which leaves the rest for the spring chickens. We’ve already seen one record broken in the 2019/20 season already: Max Günther’s win in Santiago aged 22 years and 200 days made him the youngest victor in Formula E history, beating the mark established by the driver he passed on the final lap to secure his triumph, Antónío Félix da Costa.
Günther is the youngest active Formula E driver in a field with an average age of a shade over 30 years, so his record looks safe for the time being. He is not, however, the youngest driver to have made their presence felt in the series. Current Formula 1 driver Pierre Gasly (sitting in for the absent Sébastien Buemi in New York 2017) is the youngest driver to have scored points in the series, aged 21 years and 160 days. Formula E’s youngest ever driver to date is Matthew Brabham, grandson of Jack, just 20 years and 270 days old when he started the Punta del Este ePrix in 2014.
3. ELDER STATESMAN
He isn’t the oldest driver in the series – both André Lotterer and Felipe Massa have him beaten on that front – but there is no denying the fact that 2016/17 champion Lucas Di Grassi is the most senior Formula E driver.
Di Grassi, who drove a single season of Formula 1 for Virgin Racing in 2010, was Formula E’s 4th ever employee and he has been one of the series’ most notable spokesmen since its inception in 2014. Fittingly enough, he also won the first ever ePrix in Beijing, although he was helped by race leaders Nick Heidfeld and Nico Prost taking each other out on the final lap.
Di Grassi is, as one might expect, one of the canniest operators in the sport. He’ll frequently ghost his way through from nowhere on the grid to finish high up the order. As such, he leads the all-time standings for championship points (751), points-per-starts (12.11) and podium finishes (31). He is one of three drivers who have started every Formula E race (62 up to the 2020 Mexico City ePrix), along with his Audi teammate Daniel Abt and Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird.
Belgium’s Jérôme d’Ambrosio was, up until the beginning of the 2019/20 season, the fourth member of this group. However, due to technical difficulties his Mahindra was unable to take the start of the opening round of the season in Saudi Arabia, which must have pissed him off royally.
4. TEAM TUSSLES
Like Formula 1, Formula E also has a championship each season for the leading team in the series. So far, the dominant forces have been Nissan eDAMS – previously known as Renault eDAMS – and Audi Sport ABT-Schæffler.
Both have been in the sport from the very start and the competition between the two is fierce. After the 2020 Mexico City ePrix, eDAMS retook the lead in terms of all-time championship points from Audi, now leading 1136 to 1135. eDAMS – the electronic offshoot of the enormously established and successful DAMS team – also have more Formula E wins (16) and pole positions (20) to their credit than anyone else… not to mention that they won the first three Formula E team championship titles.
Audi, all time leader for podiums (41) and fastest laps (14) won the title for the first time in 2017/18, but last season’s victors were the upstarts, DS Techeetah. In fact, the Techeetah team have been around in Formula E since the beginning, too. Initially known as Amlin Aguri, it wasn’t until they became Techeetah in 2017 that they really started motoring, racking up eight wins, two drivers’ and one team championship in the last two seasons.
Leading the standings in the 2019/20 season so far are BMW iAndretti, by 14 points from Jaguar, who won the last race. Both teams have shown impressive pace in both qualifying and races this season, but the general feeling is that Techeetah still have the fastest car. Once the reigning champions are able to get a handle on their qualifying performances and don’t have to overtake so many rivals during the race, they could well prove extremely tough to beat.
This season also saw Porsche and Mercedes joining the series as fully-fledged teams. With BMW and Audi already established series race winners, the battle for dominance in the German performance car market is perhaps Formula E’s juiciest current sub-plot.
5. ELECTRIC WOMEN
Formula E has for the most part been, like so many racing series around the world, something of a sausage party. However, women drivers are no strangers to the series: of the 68 competitors who have started an ePrix, 3 have been women. Katherine Legge and Michela Cerruti were both on the grid for the first ever Formula E race, and Simona de Silvestro started 12 ePrix for the Andretti team between 2014 and 2015. Legge has gone on to be a race winner in the series’ support championship, the Jaguar i-Pace Trophy, which also currently plays host to W Series racers Abbie Eaton and Alice Powell, as well as Saudi newcomer Reema Juffali, who will contest the British Formula 4 series this season.
Powell will be joined by W Series champion Jamie Chadwick at the next ePrix in Marrakech, where both drivers will take part in the post-race rookie tests. With opportunities in Formula 1 limited for all drivers, let alone women drivers, Formula E may yet prove a vital avenue for those of us with two X-chromosomes and a desire to compete to become leading names in motorsport.
6. UNDESIRABLE RECORDS
Losing is just as important a function of competition as winning, and not everyone who competes in Formula E can be bathed in glory. For an object lesson, one need look only at the perennially struggling NIO 333 team. NIO began life in Formula E as China Racing and Nelsinho Piquet in fact took their car to the inaugural Formula E championship, but since then their fortunes have dwindled to the point that they spent much of the last off-season unsure of whether they would even be able to compete in 2019/20.
However, they were able to make it and this was great news for fans of statistical trivia, with their driver line-up of Oliver Turvey and Ma Qinghua both uniquely gifted in that regard. Turvey is a talented driver, who has competed in GP2 around the world and also won a Formula Renault 3.5 race supporting the Monaco Grand Prix, but he has the notable distinction of being the driver in Formula E history who has started the most ePrix – 51 – without winning. Turvey’s longevity in the series has proved an enormous boon for Nick Heidfeld, who with 44 ePrix and no wins had established the previous record.
Ma, meanwhile, has established another less-than-desirable record in series history: with 13 ePrix starts to his name, he is the Formula E driver to have started the most races without scoring a point. Frankly, this looks unlikely to change based on the first four events of the season, but strange things do happen in motor racing and Ma could yet make the weight of history more burdensome on Neel Jani (6 races, no points) or fellow Chinese driver Ho Pin-Tung (3 races).
Britain’s Sam Bird is the most successful Formula E driver in the series’ history without a title to his name. He has started all 62 ePrix, each one for the Virgin team, winning 9 of them. However, 3rd plce in the overall standings in 2017/18 remains his best season to date.
Bird is a classic plucky British racing driver, always fast and competitive but not always in the right place at the right time. He was 3rd in the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 series, just behind his current Virgin teammate Robin Frijns and the late Jules Bianchi. The following year, he finished as the runner up in the Formula 1 support series GP2 to Swiss driver Fabio Leimer. Leimer has barely made a mark on motorsport since: he ran two ePrix as Bird’s teammate in 2015 and subsequently retired from competition.
Last season, Bird began in a tearing hurry, looking like it could have been his year. However, after he lost the win in Hong Kong, penalised for last-lap contact that punctured André Lotterer’s tyre, his campaign fell to pieces. Bird failed to score a point for the next four races and eventually could do no better than 9th overall. Had his win in Hong Kong stood, he would have left that meeting with an 18 point championship lead.
Bird began this season impressively, too, a superbly measured drive in the opening race in Ad-Diriyah saw him work his way forward from 5th on the grid to win. However, from the first 4 races, Bird has finished just twice and is currently just 6th in the standings: arguably a meagre return for a driver who has been competitive at every meeting.
That’s the crux of the appeal of Sam Bird: regardless of the circuit, the conditions or his place in qualifying, he will always be there or thereabouts in the thick of the race for the major places. He’s fast over one lap, an aggressive and assertive racer and a smart, experienced tactician. All he needs is a run of races without problems and a little luck.
You can’t talk about Formula E without also talking about Jean-Éric Vergne, who in 2019 became the series’ first ever multiple champion.
Like Sébastien Buemi, JEV was cast asunder by the Red Bull program after 58 races for Toro Rosso in Formula 1 between 2011 and 2014. Vergne had done nothing particularly wrong, but Red Bull had Carlos Sainz Jr and Max Verstappen on their books and weren’t in the mood to wait. JEV, out of a drive, took the opportunity to try Formula E more or less immediately that he received his cards.
Making his debut at the 3rd ever ePrix for the Andretti team, he promptly took pole position for his first race. A full season with Virgin followed in Season 2, but it wasn’t until he joined forces with the Techeetah team for 2016/17 that he really came alive. Vergne won the final race of Season 3, having already finished 2nd on four occasions. In 2017/18, JEV scored points in every race – winning four – to secure his first Formula E championship, a record 54 points clear of second-place man Lucas Di Grassi.
2018/19 was rather less straightforward, Vergne making a slow start flecked with uncharacteristic mistakes, not least spinning at the first corner trying to take the lead in Marrakech. After 5 rounds, JEV trailed the series leader Sam Bird by 26 points. However, he comfortably won the 6th round in Sanya, China and added a further two victories in the second half of the campaign to secure the title by 17 points from Sébastien Buemi.
Vergne has made another slow start in 2019/20, with two retirements from the opening 4 races, he is only 11th in the standings, trailing championship leader Mitch Evans by 31 points. His Techeetah car continually demonstrates outstanding race pace, though, so it would be rank foolishness to write off JEV’s chances at this stage.
His biggest obstacle could well prove to be his bullish new teammate António Félix da Costa, who is in fine form. The ongoing relationship between Vergne and da Costa is the most exciting story that has emerged from Season 6 so far, no doubt to the considerable chagrin of four major German car manufacturers.