What is the ERT Formula E team?
A plucky underdog, creating the occasional spike of heroic achievement against the odds?
Or a rambling, resource poor, mediocrity merchant just happy to be on the grid?
As part of getting to anything approaching an answer you have to trace back through the team’s ancestry.
It was built upon the fairy-dust of an unlikely first season title thanks to the Team China Racing entity and Nelson Piquet Jr.
Then it got flabby and docile when NIO invested heavily and a good chunk of that investment was squandered around the season four (2017/18) to season six mark (2019-20).
In the next stage, the team was taken over by a complex and dizzying array of interlinked organisations that ranged from Brilliance in Excellence and Gusto Engineering, all under the umbrella of Lisheng Sports but under the team name of NIO 333 - although NIO itself went to sponsor status before being phased out entirely. As naming complications went it made the Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri/credit card thing seem straightforward.
It is therefore tempting to try to give the team the benefit of the doubt because it has had such a fractured history.
But that goodwill won’t last for long. The big question now is what is the next phase for the team, which became Electric Racing Technologies last autumn.
In stability terms it is far from strong at the moment, but that could actually be said for several teams in the championship. ERT clearly needs proper investment to move on, and perhaps even survive beyond the Gen3 era, but its team principal Alex Hui states firmly that “we’re fully committed to the championship”.
The facts remain though that few big corporate names are being attracted to partnering with Formula E teams right now, especially ones that activate as companies such as Panasonic, Vestas, Heineken, Boss, Mumm and Vodafone once did.
So how is ERT going to get the necessary investment to seal its future and climb up the grid?
The answer might be via Formula E heading back to mainland China for the first time in five years - a decision many think will be crucial - as it races at Formula 1’s Chinese Grand Prix venue Shanghai this season.
“Racing in a major city like Shanghai is really positive, so I’ve got more people talking about Formula E in my country now,” Hui tells The Race.
“We’re talking to a lot of potential new partners. Once the racing starts again, the momentum will kick up and things will just get warmer.
“We’ve got the top free to air channel [CCTV] broadcasting in the Asian TV market, and that’s also going to boost the exposure of the championship massively.
“We’re fully confident in the championship, we believe in the future of Formula E.
“China is the biggest EV market in terms of brands, number of car sales, and cars being produced via a massive supply chain. So I think it’s the right timing.”
That of course goes against the fact that NIO itself - a Chinese automobile manufacturer - has vacated Formula E. But brighter signs are there if you look close enough. In Mexico City, the huge BYD multinational conglomerate was activating in the Formula E paddock and will do so again in Sao Paulo next month.
Geely is also known to keep in touch with what is going on in Formula E, so Hui’s contacts in his home nation should be best placed to get fresh investment and partnership for what is by far the smallest team in the championship right now.
“The next focus is securing our next long-term partners,” says Hui.
“But I’m very confident that there’ll be one along very soon.
“This year, with the return to China, this is the real proper season after COVID. Momentum will keep picking up.
“You’re always open for any opportunities and it’s about what is the right opportunity.
“It doesn’t really matter if it is an investor or a sponsor. You need to strategically bring things forwards and we are open to any partnership but it just needs to bring synergy of the business and of the team.”
Hui missed the Mexico City opener as he was meeting with potential investors, so clearly it is a matter of immediate focus that he can gain some interest in what has been built in the last few years.
A plush base at Silverstone and identifying two of the most flamboyantly gifted young drivers around – Sergio Sette Camara and Dan Ticktum - testifies to strong ambition.
But ahead of the team right now is clearly a hard slog. It had a disappointing start to the 2024 campaign at Mexico City with accidents and a catastrophic powertrain incident for Sette Camara that clearly spooked the Brazilian.
Diriyah showed what can be achieved when the conditions allow. Sette Camara qualified fourth and even had a cheeky nibble at Mitch Evans for second at the first corner. He then took a fighting ninth.
While that might sound modest, for ERT it was akin to a podium at least. When you consider that Jaguar and Porsche have eight cars between them on the grid, it might even be construed as a relative win for a brand in ERT’s position.
But ERT is not a group of dreamers. They know that most of the time in 2024 they will be, at best, on the periphery of the top 10. Sette Camara and Ticktum believe they should be fighting for wins at this stage of their careers after several seasons between them in Formula E, so will their motivation hold true?
“I think these performances can be repeated at other rounds, yes,” Sette Camara told The Race in Diriyah.
“I hope to not be surprised the same way negatively as I was surprised positively here. Maybe it’s a one off but I don’t think so.
“We’ll see how it plays out, but I think there'll be other chances, absolutely. Hopefully Brazil, my home race will be good, even though that’s nowhere near as good a track for us as here in Riyadh.
“The swap from Rome for Misano might not be so great, this type of [permanent circuits] are not good for us. London, maybe Tokyo. Unfortunately, I can only think of two but hopefully there’s more.”
“I think everyone understands where we are,” adds Hui.
“Honestly we’ll just focus on doing the best job we can.
“Everyone knows we don’t have a different package than last season so we’re not suddenly going to be much faster.
“Last year we had a close fight with Mahindra. I think this year we will still have a close fight too, so we’ve just got to do our job the best and polish our operation, get ourselves prepared for next season when we have a better car.”
Whether ERT can achieve that remains unknown of course, but part and parcel of making whatever it has for 2025 work will be added confidence that it can at least get out of survival mode and into a more prosperous position.