until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

The Formula E rookie with an especially steep learning curve

by Sam Smith, Alice Holloway
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Sacha Fenestraz’s frying pan-to-fire Formula E debut in Seoul last August might just be the perfect hard-knock experience to prepare him to embark on his first full season in 2023.

The Franco-Argentine made a favourable impression on his ultra-late call-up to replace Antonio Giovinazzi at the final race in South Korea last August, and he will enter his first with Nissan next month with a similar level of anticipation and jeopardy.

But the signs are encouraging already for the Japanese manufacturer and Fenestraz as he has equipped himself for a season that he is already managing in terms of realistic expectations.

That’s because despite the Gen3 cars being new to everyone, the combined experience of the tracks and the brutal nature of racing on city streets is completely new to him, at least in an electric-powered car.

But study him closer and you will see that Fenestraz’s record in the junior formula is actually illustrious when it comes to walls and pavements.

Wins in Pau in Formula 4 and in European F3 as well as back-to-back wins in successive years at Monaco in Formula Renault Eurocup stand-out among Fenestraz’s CV as well as his podium in only his second Macau Grand Prix appearance.

That street race prowess is one of the attributes that alerted Jaguar in 2019, where he spent simulator and track time with the Big Cat from that time until the end of the 2022 season.

In turn, Nissan knew it wanted to invest in him straight away. That was partly because some of the engineering and operational team there knew him from the junior scene.

Seoul Eprix

Being paired with the quick and genial Norman Nato for the start of the new Gen3 rules set is perfect timing for a driver who has learned an inordinate amount through his Formula E reserve role, and also three seasons in Japan where he peaked with a 2019 Japanese F3 title and a runners-up position in the 2022 Super Formula standings.

But that doesn’t mean Fenestraz feels he will taste rookie success in 2023. That is usually highly unlikely in a championship known for spitting rookies out as much as it welcomes and lures them in.

“You start from zero, everyone starts with a new car, a new era of Formula E, let’s sum it up like that,” Fenestraz tells The Race at the launch of Nissan’s Gen3 era in Madrid.

“It’s all fresh for everyone, so for me to be going into a new championship in that exact moment is good, I’d say, it’s better than if Gen2 had continued.

“Jumping into that would have been very tough because everyone had been driving that car for many years, so now it kind of resets everything for everyone.”

“I have no expectations at the moment because we did very little testing, we did testing not with other cars and it was mainly alone. We never managed to compare with anybody so, realistically in terms of targets, I haven’t got any.

“Maybe after Valencia we’ll have a little bit of an idea, but as my personal target, let’s say, it is just staying on track, trying to finish every session and building up my season.”

Seoul Eprix

Building up to performances is something he’s good at. Witness Seoul.

That was when he was prised away from Jaguar reserve duties to fill in for the disappointing Giovinazzi, whose time in Formula E came to a suitably damp squib conclusion with a hand injury.

But one man’s disappointment created an opportunity for another.

“That was what you call a late call,” understates Fenestraz.

‘I think it was 6:30 in the morning and I was out running. I don’t even remember because everything was happening so quick.

“Everyone had raced the day before and unfortunately I didn’t manage to do any simulator before the race because I was racing in Japan (at Fuji Speedway for Super GT).

“So, I didn’t even know the track; I’d just done the track walk. In terms of preparation, I did zero and it was really tricky, but for me the target was just to stay on track really.”

“In a way it was nice to drive without any expectations, you just go there and drive and try your best.”

Seoul Eprix

In the race itself, Fenestraz achieved what was asked of him. He didn’t throw it at the wall and he finished in 16th although his race was affected somewhat by the safety car and a 12th might have been achievable without it.

“For me, it was a good experience because I knew I was racing this season, so this was a perfect opportunity for me to just have an idea of what a Formula E race is really like.

“I learned much more than I thought I would learn in one race, so that was a good opportunity for me.”

Fenestraz started testing the Nissan Gen3 car only in September at Varano. It’s not been an easy process for Nissan as, like the five other manufacturers, it has had its fair share of stoppages and reliability issues both within its own package and the spec-supplied battery, which has curtailed some running.

When Gen3 test driver Benoit Treluyer mentioned to The Race in the early stages of testing a year ago that some similarities to the power of a Super Formula car existed there were some raised eyebrows. But Fenestraz is in the ideal position to sift through that claim.

“I think it’s very different obviously, he said.”

“It depends what you talk about. If you talk about pure speed, straight line speed, I would ‘yes it’s similar because it’s very fast’. If you talk about pure lap time performance, technical stuff, it’s quite different.

Seoul Eprix

“It’s a car that’s heavier, it’s a car that has as much power I would say, in terms of horsepower, maybe a little bit less, but it’s fast.

“The big difference is the downforce. It’s a car that has very little downforce because it’s not meant to have a lot of and go fast through the corners.

“They’re focusing on a different area in Formula E, and in terms of tyres, it’s very different too

“For me, jumping into this and having the full focus on Formula E, I just arrive with a fully open mind not expecting anything to be similar to Super GT or Super Formula because nothing is close to Formula E really.”

That open mind won’t initially be receptive to a dual campaign in 2023, which means he is intently focused on making his Formula E chance with Nissan work.

Not that he hasn’t had offers. Possibilities still existed in Japan and he would also have been an attractive proposition in WEC or DTM. But he’s determined to crack Formula E.

“Racing in a world championship, in such a high-level championship is going to be very challenging for me,” he says.

“Look at the level it is at, we see (Nyck) de Vries jumping into Formula 1 now, we see a lot of ex-Formula 1 drivers who are high up here and now world champion many times

“It is going to be much more intense, the focus and the work will be very important on my side and that’s the reason I want to just focus on Formula E right now and not do any other things.

“Adding other things will mean I won’t be able to concentrate 100% on this and right now I just want to focus on Formula E.”

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