Robin Frijns is an underachiever-results-deceiver in Formula E. He knows it, we all know it, and in 2024 he’s going to do something about it.
That’s the feeling being sent out by the laidback but prodigiously talented Dutchman as he gets ready to joyously wave goodbye to a nightmare 2023 in a few weeks’ time.
“I've finished second so many times,” Frijns sighed to The Race recently.
“It annoys me a bit for sure, I was most of the time in a top-five finishing position, lots of podiums [Frijns has 11 in Formula E] but only two victories. I definitely want to crank up that number next year.”
But to achieve that, he's taking a step back. Not in competitiveness terms - he's leaving the Abt Cupra team that finished last in the 2023 FE championship to (re)join teams' champion Envision.
Yet given how firmly the Frijns/Envision relationship seemed to have run its course when they parted in 2022 after four seasons together, this seemed a very unlikely reunion when it was first mooted.
So why is it happening? Especially when Frijns also had an offer from the Andretti team that took Jake Dennis to the drivers' title?
WHAT 2024 HOLDS FOR FRIJNS
As the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, Frijns will be welcoming in 2024 with justified relish. He will be back in a competitive Formula E seat and part of BMW’s return to the World Endurance Championship with the M Hybrid V8 hypercar.
Getting there wasn’t easy, though. Frijns had to future-proof several intricate chess moves earlier this year. He also had to upset the applecart at his 2023 team Abt Cupra, and while that hurt because he considers that team as something of a family, the finite period that he has at the top of his game started to dawn on him as he turned 32 in August.
What Frijns had to navigate was a tense strategy over his own contracts. Not only had he to get the approval of Abt Cupra to relinquish his deal for 2024 but he also had to weigh up who to go with instead.
He talked to several teams, but it ultimately boiled down to Andretti and Envision. Both were in the position to give him race and potential title winning machinery for 2024. But only one of them could give him freedom to actively and effectively compete in two world championships.
It was green for go from Envision in that respect. However, what not many realised was that BMW had told Frijns that he could do a double programme but not with another manufacturer.
While Andretti is a similarly structured organisation to fellow giantkilling FE customer team Envision, it has a very plain approach to any of its drivers wanting a dual programme. Part of this is just entrenched in its philosophy. Michael Andretti is pro drivers competing in other categories but when it boils down to clashes it’s his way or the highway.
That meant with the likelihood of a clash between the Berlin Formula E and Spa WEC races in May, Frijns was always more likely to go with what he knew and reacquaint with Sylvain Filippi’s mob because times when BMW must take precedence will be easier to manage.
But there was also another preamble to Frijns’ complex position and this one stretched all the way back to the end of 2022.
“I was about to sign with BMW and they said you can do what you want but you cannot be with a manufacturer in Formula E or in any [other] championship you want to do,” Frijns confirmed.
“So fine, I chose Abt. Then just before the first race Cupra came on board. Cupra is kind of a manufacturer [via VW and its SEAT branch], it’s not a full flat-out manufacturer but it is a brand.
“That created a bit of tension because Cupra wanted me to be an ambassador and I said, 'I’m sorry I can’t as I’m a BMW driver at the end of the day so I cannot present the Cupra car and then the next weekend I’m driving a BMW, it’s just not how it works'.”
LEAVING A TEAM HE LOVES
What accelerated Frijns' moves was the poor competitiveness of the Mahindra package Abt runs. He loved the Abt team.
“I’m 100% convinced the actual team, Abt, is a great team to be in," he underlined. "I loved the people, I know what they’re capable of, but if you have a bad car you can’t do anything.”
When it became clear around late June that Envision's 2023 title-chaser Nick Cassidy was off to Jaguar, Frijns saw a way in and did the deal shortly after to re-engage with the team where he won the 2019 Paris and New York City E-Prixs.
The reunion caught many by surprise and perhaps it did both Frijns and Envision a little bit as well. They parted on not especially good terms in August 2022.
In Seoul that year Frijns was dejected and clearly needed something new. The deal with Abt Cupra was done and he was pleased.
It says much for Frijns’ competitive spirit that he is able to forget the slightly sour end to his first phase at Envision and not hold any grudges.
“They have proved that they were very competitive won the team championship,” he said.
“I had good times with them. I felt like I missed the championship twice in season 5 [2018-19] and season 7 .
“I saw that they were very competitive with Jaguar and they beat the Jags team on pure pace, especially in London, which I know they are capable of because the same thing happened with [previous Envision supplier] Audi [in Gen2] in a way.
“I’m happy to be back here. The team is obviously in a very good place now, everybody is much happier than when I left.”
This is true. Envision seemed much more cohesive last season, making very few mistakes.
But what is there to be said for the mantra of ‘never going back’? Doing so seldom works in sport. But perhaps this time Frijns has got his timing right. His new, old, new boss Sylvain Filippi thinks so.
“He's exactly the same guy, he hasn't changed at all much,” Filippi tells The Race.
“The only thing that's new is the car for him. But he's done Gen3 so it’s not like he knows nothing. Seb [Buemi] came to a new team and a brand-new car. [Frijns] has driven the car, so he knows what it feels like.
“He just has to learn on our specific software but he's awesome. I'm currently very excited and there is no reason why he shouldn't be right there constantly, and we should be having fun with him.
“Robin needs to have fun driving this car at the sharp end and stick it on pole and win race in and race out.”
That’s the assumption of what could happen because when Frijns has got decent machinery he’s always right there.
But a word of warning. It could well be that in 2024 he faces his most difficult challenge in his team-mate Buemi.
Buemi’s an operator and Frijns knows it. The two have known each other for a long time but have never been in the same orbit. Once or twice there have been flare-ups, notably Buemi’s pecking of Frijns at Montreal in 2017. You get the feeling though that both have matured considerably in the last six years.
The Race described the pair as the odd couple of Formula E as team-mates go. But Filippi doesn’t necessarily see that being a problematic factor.
“They are different but that said Seb with us in the garage is the calmest and most chilled guy, super pragmatic, he doesn't create any drama," said the man who'll be in charge of them.
“Robin is just Robin. Frankly. I have zero worries about our two.
“What we need to achieve is that our duo is the best and most consistent on the grid, versus Mitch [Evans] and Nick [at Jaguar], JEV [Jean-Eric Vergne] and [Stoffel] Vandoorne [at DS Penske], etc.
"We've got all the tools and with Robin in that car I have no doubt he is going to be super good.”