until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

Five big keys to Formula E's wild driver market

by Sam Smith
10 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Drivers’ phones are jammed, driver managers’ blood pressure is sky-high and rumours are dropping like Gen3 front wings in ‘peloton’ Formula E race.

After a late start, the Formula E driver market has gone stratospheric since May turned to June and is now ablaze, with a tonne of (sustainably sourced) fuel being added to it daily, if not hourly.

So, The Race thought it would feed it some more!

The major key

As locks to unpick, this is a real Houdini get-up!

The saga of Porsche and 2019-20 FE champion Antonio Felix da Costa's future together stretches back to last September when he was told he could not continue with a dual programme and combine FE with representing Porsche’s customer Jota in the World Endurance Championship.

That hurt da Costa more than Porsche probably understood.

The wound stayed open into the 2024 season and then, when da Costa had a difficult Diriyah E-Prix in January, where his qualifying was so abject that it surprised even himself, some senior personnel in the Porsche team began to lose faith.

While some lent a friendly arm to place around his shoulder, others were wielding metaphorical knives. It seemed an odd way to manage one of your key assets.

When The Race revealed in March that Porsche had tested Abt driver Nico Mueller in the middle of the ongoing season, the vibes were bad. Very bad. Relationships that were frayed started to fracture a bit. Da Costa was on his way out of Porsche, this seemed clear. 

Then, from Tokyo at the end of March onwards he went on a superb spree of big points hauls. Had his contentious disqualification at Misano not stood he would have won three races from seven. Title form. He was now contributing to the fight against Jaguar and finally, the claws were showing.

Those lost 25 points wouldn’t have made his slim title chances any more realistic as it turned out. But the point was made. And the ‘DAC is back’ cliche rang out again loud and clear through the paddock.

How has this changed things? What it means is that Porsche wants to keep him for a third season, which he is believed to be under contract for.

The problem is that the damage done now needs diplomacy, something which Porsche appears to be not that subtle at. 

It could go either way. On one hand, da Costa knows that Porsche will provide him with a winning car. On the other hand, every driver needs the love and attention of their team, especially at senior levels.

Complicating things is da Costa knowing that he is missing out on some golden years of global sportscar racing. This is what really hurts him. With his old gang Jota expected to be announcing something sizable shortly for 2025, da Costa could be an integral part of it should the stars align.

That could spell bad news for Porsche. As it would mean he could leave and do a dual programme with another entity in Formula E that would tolerate it more. But this may be a limited choice with the expected calendar clash between the WEC and Formula E in July 2025.

At this stage, all we know is that da Costa’s manager, Tiago Monteiro, is currently a very busy man.

Vandoorne on the move

It just hasn’t worked out for 2022 FE champion Stoffel Vandoorne at DS Penske, which baffles many. So, it feels nailed on that his overalls won’t be black and gold in 2025.

This was a big money, and a big expectation, move. At present all they both have to show for it, after almost two seasons, is a single third place (in Monaco at the end of April) and a couple of poles. Highlights wise that’s not enough for both parties, who are used to wins and titles.

From Vandoorne’s standpoint it has been tough. That's primarily because he went from one top-notch manufacturer (Mercedes) into another (DS) that was going through an array of changes.

The demise of Techeetah, the integration to its replacement Penske, the shuffling of senior staff such as Leo Thomas, the departures of Thomas Chevaucher and Nigel Beresford among others. Additionally, the DS E-TENSE FE23 is at best the third-best package on the grid, and with Porsche and Jaguar customer teams factored in that means ninth and 10th in the natural hierarchy.

Vandoorne has also had a change in engineer from last season to this, albeit involving two excellent ones in David Ladouce (past) and Kyle Wilson-Clarke (present). This year he was expected to at least improve on last season. Technically he has accrued 11 more points up to this more but there has also been a similar range of confusion and frustration to 2023.

More was expected from the 2022 champion, who has proved that in the right team and the right car he is nailed-on for success, understanding the technical and strategic nuances of Formula E perfectly in his Mercedes years to be consistently one of the very best on the grid.

But as it stands Vandoorne has got more or less half of the points of team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne. And their on-track relationship has flared up this season with some complicated and ineffective strategies appearing to obstruct Vergne.

These came to a head at Monaco and Shanghai, leaving a feeling of unease at the team and a sense from the outside that Vandoorne will be heading for the exit door this summer.

Should that transpire then he will have offers and is likely to be talking to the several teams. Complicating things further is his programme with fellow Stellantis brand Peugeot in the WEC. A fair amount needs to be sorted by a driver who largely represents himself in business dealings but the hot tip at present is that he could be in green next season.

Envision looks at this stage to be a natural home and The Race can reveal recent talks have taken place. Vandoorne could also cut down on his carbon footprint too as he can stay at some lovely Northamptonshire Travelodges with Envision and his F1 reserve deal employer Aston Martin being just half a mile apart!

Who might depart Envision to make way for him is not known but Sebastien Buemi may finally be coming to the end of his decade-long Formula E journey and instead concentrating on his WEC commitments with Toyota and his F1 simulator work with Red Bull.

Robin Frijns is in familiar territory as he has to negotiate the tricky precipice of Formula E and WEC dual programmes with his BMW commitments in the latter. At the same time, he also needs some big results in the final two FE events this season after a lacklustre campaign so far.

Hughes on rivals’ radars?

McLaren driver Jake Hughes’ explosive pace in recent times and a polished run to second at Shanghai came at a very good juncture for him in the marketplace. 

Anyone doubting Hughes’ calibre as a driver needs to absorb these stats and facts. Since his first Formula E race, just 17 months ago, Hughes has claimed four poles and a podium in a car and a team that have been, at best, fitful in their all-round performances.

He also outscored the more experienced Rene Rast at McLaren last year and has so far outqualified his equally proficient new team-mate Sam Bird 7-2.

But overall Hughes’ qualifying pole record is, percentage-wise (14.2%), the best ever in Formula E history bar former Mahindra driver Felix Rosenqvist.

McLaren went missing in the second half of 2023, and has again - Bird’s Sao Paulo win heroics apart - in the first half of the present season. But Hughes and his side of the garage never lost faith.

At Misano, he reminded everyone of his class with a brilliant pole, probably the best of the season so far. That was backed up by an equally silky fourth FE career pole last time out at Shanghai, a race that also yielded that best-ever result with second behind da Costa.

His stock therefore is high and just at the right time. He recently turned 30 and has entered that phase where he has to maximise his earnings and brand. Could he now be looking for a bigger and better manufacturer deal?

It would make sense, particularly at McLaren supplier Nissan - which he partly knows having competed with its car for the last two campaigns.

With Sacha Fenestraz’s seat under pressure after an underwhelming season so far, it doesn’t take too much imagination to think that an all-British Nissan line-up next season might have legs if Hughes is brought in alongside Oliver Rowland.

But the word from within Nissan now is that it is likely to give Fenestraz another season and that it could be an unchanged line-up for the first time in four years - something it probably needs heading into an updated Gen3 rules set.

That might all be enough for Hughes to stick with McLaren should he get an improved deal there to extend his otherwise genuinely close and occasionally fruitful relationship with the team.

Another Formula E and WEC clash

Lord have mercy! Another date clash!

It seems likely that the planned Berlin double-header next July will be on the same weekend as a WEC round, probably Interlagos, although the WEC’s calendar will not be known officially until this Friday.

With ill-feelings still tangible in the paddock after the Berlin/Spa clash, some teams are known to have discounted the possibility of entertaining dual-programmed drivers next season. They’ll be locking down on priority now.

From a driver’s standpoint it’s difficult to juggle the two, unless it is with a manufacturer in the WEC and a customer team in Formula E.

This is because if two manufacturer gigs are held at the same time, the breadth and weight of the relentless testing (20 days for manufacturers), simulator days and array of media and corporate commitments, exerts a massive amount of time and pressure on them. It is just about doable.

Ask Vergne (double Stellantis) and Buemi (once of both Nissan and Toyota) and they will tell you they earn every penny of their big bucks, and it’s true.

So, the ideal set-up is a hypercar manufacturer deal in the WEC and a customer deal in FE. Yet, there are only very few viable teams for the likes of Mueller, da Costa and Vandoorne to achieve a practical and possible two-headed programme in 2025.

Envision had to find a totally fresh driver line-up for Berlin as both Frijns and Buemi had to prioritise the WEC, and it’s unlikely to want to get bitten like that again. So probably only Maserati and Abt may give wiggle room for their drivers to do WEC as well.

The upshot of more teams specifying FE exclusivity is likely be a wholesale…

…Envision clear out?

Envision has endured a rotten 2024.

Two podiums, one each for Buemi and Frijns, an average of four points per race, so far is just not good enough for the reigning teams’ champion, which enjoys one of the two best technical packages on the grid as a Jaguar customer.

One thing that seems certain this year is that the close collaboration of last season is not quite as devoted between manufacturer and team as it was in the first exploratory Gen3 season. And that is across the board.

It is a fact that Porsche, Jaguar, DS and Nissan are all comfortably ahead of their customer teams this year. Only Abt is outscoring its manufacturer supplier (Mahindra) this time around.

This is certainly hurting Envision. But that's not the main reason for its form.

That is a combination of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in races and getting lost on a variety of set-up and strategy set pieces. There have also been errors and wrong choices in battle from its drivers.

All of that contributes to a miserable return and one that the team’s senior management are addressing.

From a driver standpoint, Envision currently has two proven winners in Buemi and Frijns, so there is still a chance they could be kept.

Yet, the overriding feeling is that at least one change will be made and that it may come under the general banner of not being able to afford another WEC/FE clash where two races are missed.

Buemi and Frijns are tied into Toyota and BMW respectively for the next WEC season and those manufacturers' priorities are sacrosanct. That will ultimately come into play for the negotiations and where Envision chiefs Sylvain Filippi and Franz Jung’s eyes dart around the driver market in the next few weeks.

Their direction currently appears to be towards Vandoorne - whose WEC employer Peugeot is more relaxed about dropping down to two drivers for six-hour races, meaning Vandoorne could still have wriggle room for a dual programme even when his FE team isn't part of the Stellantis family.

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