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Formula E

How Jaguar has enticed Bird away from Envision Virgin

by Sam Smith
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Sam Bird has had his first test in Jaguar’s development car as he prepares for his first Formula E campaign with the manufacturer in 2021.

Bird joined team-mate Mitch Evans testing at Abingdon Airfield on Tuesday with running continuing today at the team’s favoured private test facility, using the car which will become the Jaguar I-TYPE 5 when it completes its homologation shortly.

The Jaguar entry will be entered solely as Jaguar Racing Formula E Team for the first time in its existence as its partnership with former title sponsor Panasonic ended at the end of the previous campaign.

DR1VA, the British fashion brand has been announced as a new team partner in addition to a renewal of technology company GKN Automotive’s deal.

Earlier this year Sam Smith gave his take on how Jaguar managed to entice one of the last drivers who’d never moved teams in Formula E to jump ship:

Sam Bird

It was presumed to be one of the most solid marriages in Formula E. A relationship seemingly unbreakable through thick and through thin.

Sam Bird and the Envision Virgin Racing squad, in its three official guises, has gone together like carbon and fibre since late 2013.

So it goes without saying the perceived wisdom was that Bird stood irreversibly ensconced in the team, at least for next season. Too dyed in purple and silver to consider a change.

But motorsport opens possibilities almost by the week, particularly at this time of the year. And so it proved that one presented itself to Bird, who will be confirmed as a Jaguar driver in the coming days.

But make no bones about it, Bird will leave Envision Virgin with a heavy heart. He is a sportsman who oozes empathy and class. He will, next month, leave a team that loves him as much as he loves it, and he does so on excellent terms.

The genesis of Bird and Jaguar dates back to the summer of 2016, when he was an initial target for a nascent Jaguar Formula E team still in the early stages of formation.

Dialogue and conversations took place almost annually thereafter, but it was around the start of the present calendar year that Bird and his new management team put their collective heads together to form his next move.

There were options, but Jaguar was the most attractive to Bird. As a youngster he was taken to Le Mans by his father, who regaled him of Jaguar’s remarkable achievements a few years before they visited La Sarthe.

The signs that Bird could be involved in the Formula E musical chairs for next season’s seats came onto The Race’s radar in early June. Around the same time current Jaguar driver James Calado’s manager Nicolas Todt was notified that the option on his client’s services as a race driver was unlikely to be renewed.

James Calado Jaguar Formula E 2020

Bird’s good friend and Ferrari GT stablemate Calado was in fact signed by Jaguar last summer partly because he generally had parity on pace with Bird when they raced in the same AF Corse Ferrari World Endurance Championship team between 2016 and 2019. As a reference, Jaguar took note of this, analysed the data and acted.

Whispers about Bird became fully formed rumour at the end of May, by which time a deal was being formulated and was then very quickly executed last month. But the nub of it, whether indirect or not, included an unlikely trigger.

When Pascal Wehrlein mysteriously departed Mahindra, in early June, it paved the way for an opportunity to be thrust upon Nick Cassidy, who was lined up to replace the Porsche-bound German.

A plan for Cassidy to race alongside Jerome d’Ambrosio in Berlin was believed to be within hours of being agreed and sealed. But when the opportunity of a seat at Envision Virgin became available due to Bird’s decision to take up his destiny-converting switch to Jaguar, stars became aligned.

Bird has entered a second and more savvy epoch in his professional career. But will it prove a panacea or fad?

In a moment of rarity in this sport, most came out of it a winner. Mahindra emerged, by proxy, in a decent position, as it secured the services of Alex Lynn, a driver rated highly by many in the paddock as a future E-Prix winner.

In Cassidy, Envision Virgin Racing gets a Formula E rookie arriving with every bit of, and perhaps even more, expectation than recent star newbies Stoffel Vandoorne and Nyck de Vries.

For his part Bird had been strongly courted before the move was completed last week but he’d always stayed steadfast in the Virgin crease. That was the case back in the summers of 2016 and 2017 when he held serious negotiations with Jaguar but chose to stay.

Sam Bird Virgin Formula E 2020

On the first occasion, Jaguar was in a difficult position because joining Formula E for the championship’s third season meant that experienced drivers were already signed up to their teams for coming campaigns. Effectively out of synch with the paddock from a contractual standpoint, Jaguar had to nurture its own star driver, and it did. His name is Mitch Evans.

Recently Bird has changed. Not just his physical regime and build but also his business outlook as well.

Now he is part of the GP Sports Management stable headed by the renowned former manager of both Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost – Julian Jakobi.

Working together with son Alexander, and former A1 GP team boss Katie Clements, Jakobi’s company accounts for the representation of six drivers on the Formula E grid.

Now with guidance and advice that means he will do what is right for him in the present and the future, the 33-year-old enters his peak years with a well-deserved fresh opportunity.

To understand the importance of this you have to recognise that because of suspect career guidance he was given over approximately the last decade he was simply not always in control of his own vocation.

So Bird has entered a second and more savvy epoch in his professional career. But will it prove a panacea or fad?

Jaguar is riding upon a technical high and as a result, a race winning crest at the moment. There is pressurised ambition to win a title in the next two seasons, and Bird’s addition makes these credentials a compelling proposition.

The evidence as to why it makes such a good move for Bird, and perhaps why it could not, makes for tantalising scrutiny.

Sam Bird Virgin Formula E 2020

Firstly, Bird is attractive to Jaguar because being onboard means he should mount a long-squandered opportunity to challenge for the Formula E teams’ title, which next season will be a pukka world title.

For varying reasons it was not able to achieve this with Nelson Piquet Jr, nor at present with Calado. In the last one and a half seasons Jaguar has scored 182 points in total. Evans has single-handedly contributed 161 of those.

With Bird in harness, Jaguar is as guaranteed as it can be to improve the above equation massively. Bird has averaged 108 points per season from the first to his last full campaign, which ended last July.

The other three FE grandee drivers Lucas di Grassi, Sebastien Buemi and Jean-Eric Vergne stack up as follows on average points respectively; 143, 140 and 115. No one else comes close.

Bird has worked with Mercedes F1 and a factory Ferrari GT operation, so he will know how to handle these sometimes ruthless and politically complex internal machinations

Bird has allies too on the technical side, including his former race engineer at Virgin, Patrick Coorey, with whom he took several victories in the first three Formula E seasons. Although Coorey is now largely in a design office role, it always helps to have friendly faces and buddies to hit the ground running.

But there are risks that could have adverse consequences for Bird too.

The biggest one is Evans, a man now so in-tune with both his machinery and how to run tactically efficient energy-critical races that he is rightly seen as one of the strong favourites to challenge for the title in the upcoming August mini-season.

Hypothetically, you can’t help but wonder what the feeling could be like should Bird walk through the door at Jaguar’s Grove base next month to see a title-winning trophy already in the cabinet.

For Jaguar, there are surely only gains here though, because Evans has never truly been tested, consistently at least, from the other side of the garage.

Sam Bird Virgin Formula E 2020

He has made the team his own over the last four years. Not that Evans needs it, but the extra motivation of Bird coming to the team should bring out even more success.

There is sure to be a shock too for Bird in moving from a relatively small, but incredibly efficient and pound-for-pound hyper-successful operation, like Envision Virgin to a manufacturer such as Jaguar.

This is where an intensive management structure almost forensically moulds and executes future strategies. But Bird has worked with Mercedes F1 and a factory Ferrari GT operation, so he will know how to handle these sometimes ruthless and politically complex internal machinations.

So, how will the most seismic driver/team switch in Formula E’s short history play out?

That need not bother us right now. On every level, there is something to enjoy and relish here, so the big winner for now is us. Let’s bask in knowing what is to come.

Simply observing whether Bird can claim the crown he so ravenously craves is going to be a fascinating prospect.

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