The third series of Formula E’s own Drive to Survive-style docuseries, Unplugged, is being released over the next week as the world championship gears up for the start of its 10th season later this month.
The behind-the-scenes footage from last season is another improvement on the previous two series with episodes broken into tantalising subject portmanteaus, from focusing on rookie drivers to the tense title decider in London.
What this series does well is giving additional insights into the protagonists away from the fulcrum of activity that is the Formula E paddock. Sam Bird, Dan Ticktum, Lucas di Grassi, Jake Dennis and Sacha Fenestraz among others are not so much profiled but given a canvas to present their real selves.
Some of these work better than others but there are several new pieces of information that come out, and some intriguing story arcs that were previously known about but not backed up by the nuances and opinions that often give them a life of their own.
If there is one small criticism it’s that you sometimes feel that the protagonists are too often aware they are being filmed, particularly in the case of the savvy Nick Cassidy, who makes his feelings about the camera’s presence crystal clear amid the hot house of the London finale.
But that has to be viewed as part of the territory and in general it doesn’t feel as though it breaks up any of the drama that unfolds (but which is inevitably missed as it happens in real time).
On the whole, producer/director Lloyd Purnell and producer Matt Stevens and their modest team have delivered an excellent journal of a dramatic season that has such a multitude of storylines.
It’s a must-watch - and all 10 episodes will be available free on YouTube - ahead of the upcoming season and features expert input from regular TV pundits Saunders Carmichael-Brown, Oliver Askew, Dario Franchitti, Nicki Shields, Radzi Chinyanganya, Daniel Abt, as well as The Race’s own Sam Smith.
Here's what we found to be the biggest takeaways:
Behind the scenes of Dennis's regroup
During his mid-season slump between Diriyah and the second Berlin race, eventual champion Jake Dennis scored no points in four races and looked like he might be revisiting old territory with a ‘should have been’ year.
The opening episode of Unplugged takes a deep dive into Dennis’s championship campaign and how he fought through the mid-season trough. From the start of the season, it was clear Andretti - now paired with Porsche rather than BMW - was going to be in the mix and, initially along with Pascal Wehrlein, Dennis made sure he was the leading Porsche contender.
“He’s asking intelligent questions and he’s thinking about how the race can unfold,” is Andretti team principal Roger Griffiths' assessment of his star turn.
“He’s listening to what the engineering group is saying but then he’s saying, ‘Well, I’m the guy driving the car. This is how I see it unfolding’.”
It’s fascinating to see how the team and Dennis bind together to rediscover their collective mojo and break the cycle to get the campaign back on track.
Although not focused on in this episode, there is a juxtaposition of Dennis’s relationship with team-mate Andre Lotterer which off-track is famously amicable and relaxed but on track is diluted by the simple fact they are racing in different postcodes.
ABT's unbreakable spirit
Abt - now partnered with Cupra - returned to Formula E at the beginning of 2023 and things could scarcely have started worse.
By the end of the first racing lap of the season, one the team realised even then would be a long one, one of its drivers was on a fast track to a local hospital for a five-hour operation on his shattered hand.
Robin Frijns’s account of that incident isn’t for the squeamish as the episode details his fightback from what could easily have been a career-limiting injury. The scenes in which Frijns is going through rehab with physio Jimmy Wouters make you clench your teeth as his broken hand is manipulated to enhance the recovery.
‘I can’t do miracles,” says Wouters, as Frijns angles for making a quick comeback.
“But painkillers can do miracles right?” is Frijns's tragi-comic riposte.
That apart, in the episode focusing on the two German squads Abt Cupra and Porsche, the differences between the two are more than apparent. While Porsche hit the ground running in the opening races of the season, Abt just hit the ground.
But what comes across is the latter team’s indefatigable spirit. It’s an attitude that gets it through the darkest months of its return and sets it up for brighter times ahead, ironically with a high likelihood of running with Porsche power in 2025.
Ticktum is no Paranoid Android
Formula E, like so many other race series at world championship level, is not just about being the quickest driver on the grid. You’ve also got to be marketable.
The third episode focuses on the 2023 rookies and how they secured their drives. But halfway through, the dynamic shifts to focus more on the characters they are, rather than their talents.
“I will put my hands up and say I don’t help myself,” Dan Ticktum remarks as he’s brought into the spotlight for this particular segment.
The inclusion of Ticktum in the rookies episode is to highlight the power of being a fast rookie - as Ticktum was in 2022 - but also the pitfalls of not being what Ticktum describes as a “PR robot”.
“Ticktum is in there again, huh?” Michael Andretti is seen remarking to Roger Griffiths at Monaco.
Griffiths’ reply is pointed: “Yeah, you would never put him in front of a sponsor though.”
It’s a fascinating exchange where the politics of racing, the desire for manufacturers to use Formula E as a marketing tool to sell road cars, almost becomes more important than winning races.
“Should I be the driver that’s got a personality and is interesting?” ruminates Ticktum. “Because obviously at the moment they just seem to be churning out PR, media robots, which I can be, if I had to.
“I do feel like if I was given a chance in a more competitive car, I could quite easily replicate what Jake’s [Dennis] did this season.”
Few doubt that about the former Red Bull and Williams junior - a two-time Macau Grand Prix winner. But getting the chance to do so has, sadly in some part, been an all too familiar story for Daniel Charles Anthony Ticktum.
Di Grassi's legacy (and his debt to Senna)
“It’s easy to be a parent but it’s very hard to be a good parent all the time. Nobody teaches you, there is no life course on being a good father.”
That’s Lucas di Grassi telling some home truths as he is out with his son, Leo, who is thrashing around the streets of Monaco in a toy kart. In a series of insightful, private exchanges ‘Mr Formula E’ - as Ticktum calls di Grassi - is thoughtful and, as always, very erudite in his interviews.
What comes across most is the breadth of work he has done outside of the cockpit for Formula E. The promotional work even before it existed is particularly noticeable.
But it is the visceral celebration in Mexico City when he claimed a miraculous podium, and then the vilification of his own mistake in qualifying on home turf in Sao Paulo, that make you realise he’s still got a lot to give from a competitive point of view.
Also revelatory is his hero-worshipping of countryman Ayrton Senna.
A chance encounter on a beach in 1993 had the then nine-year-old di Grassi following Senna on a bicycle just to be in the same orbit as his hero.
When a few months later Senna’s life came to an end at Imola, di Grassi was emotionally moved enough to make a life-altering decision and pursue his karting and subsequent motor racing career with added seriousness.
“If I can motivate people 0.1% of what this guy did, it is something already worth chasing,” di Grassi says.
It’s a moving moment and one that encapsulates both di Grassi’s cerebral but also emotional attachment to the sport.
Bird went to hell and back
“The harder I tried, the worse it got.”
Sam Bird has always been ultra-honest, but his assessment of his penultimate season with Jaguar in 2022 is almost the perfect launchpad for an unflinching episode dedicated to one of Formula E’s most successful racers.
His trials and triumphs have become more vivid in the last few seasons but no one can take away the fact that along with Buemi, Vergne and di Grassi, he’d been one of the most consistent performers.
All that changed though in 2022 as he struggled for competitiveness and although the episode doesn’t get to the bottom of why that happened, Bird does give some good insights into what makes him tick as he attempts to now get back on the victory horse with McLaren in 2024.
But arguably the best insight into Bird's state of mind last summer comes after he'd taken team-mate Mitch Evans out, for the second time in 2023, in Jakarta.
“He just leaves no margin,” Evans tells Jaguar's then technical director, Phil Charles, in a piece of footage that lays bare the frustration of more points lost at Bird’s hands.
After chronicling the momentous ups (strong podiums in Sao Paulo and Berlin) to the depressing lows (those intra-team Hyderabad and Jakarta clashes), Bird’s rollercoaster 2023 is ultimately epitaphed by former boss James Barclay.
“Sam’s a world-class racing driver,” says Barclay. “The reality is though that you have to beat your team-mate and if you are not doing that on a consistent basis, as a group we have to maximise our championship potential.”
From Bird’s perspective, the belief is still solid.
“I want to win this championship, and I genuinely believe I can still do that,” is the parting comment from one of Formula E’s most dogged competitors.
The extent of Andretti's title tension
The Race revealed last July that Michael Andretti red-lined himself in the heat of the Dennis title battle in the first London E-Prix, so much so that he confronted Porsche board member Michael Steiner and Porsche motorsport boss Thomas Laudenbach in the adjacent Porsche pit during the first race.
But what we didn’t see was the incident itself. What relief, then, that the Unplugged cameras did get the moment as it’s an absolute joy to behold.
After a rasping "What the f***?" from Andretti as Pascal Wehrlein crowds out title favourite Dennis, the team owner is seen discussing the situation with Laudenbach - before perhaps realising the cameras are on and looking a little sheepish.
It’s perhaps the best behind-the-scenes part of the series and one that perfectly captures the emotion and tension of the finale.
That, combined with an appreciation of both Dennis and teams’ title winner Envision Racing, makes this episode a heart-pumper to the end, especially as Cassidy and Envision boss Sylvain Filippi give real-time and post-event appreciation of their frustration and achievement respectively.