Formula E

The logic behind McLaren’s first Formula E driver signing

by Sam Smith
4 min read

The Mercedes EQ Formula E team identified Rene Rast as its desired target long before its official metamorphosis into the McLaren Formula E team next month, with senior team members pinpointing the former Audi driver as a future driving force for the nascent team in the first two seasons of Gen3.

The reason why this happened can be traced right back to 2016 when Rast made what appeared then to be a one-off cameo appearance for the floundering Team Aguri operation.

That was when the team principal Mark Preston confided to friend and former team partner Peter McCool, now with the freshly named NEOM McLaren entity, that he had unearthed a special talent that instantly understood Formula E.

This was accentuated by an analysis that Mercedes carried out on its opposition during the 2021 season, where Rast emerged as one of the leading performers.

He has long since had a reputation as a tenacious operator who galvanises technical teams and can extract the finer margins needed in Formula E. His experience and technical acumen are viewed in Formula E as a powerful commodity at the advent of a new rules set.

Now, he has become the first driver to join the new McLaren-flavoured, Nissan-powered team that will take over the previous Mercedes EQ-licensed entry.

As revealed by The Race in May, Rast will spearhead the new entity which will be run by the vast majority of the double title-winning former Mercedes team.

The German will have a dual programme in 2023 after being confirmed on Monday as part of the factory BMW LMDh project that will take part in IMSA races in 2023 before expanding in 2024 to include the World Endurance Championship schedule.

Rast made a surprise Formula E debut back in 2016 when he raced in the Berlin E-Prix for Team Aguri, replacing a DTM-clashing Antonio Felix da Costa. He then deputised for a fired Daniel Abt in the summer of 2020 when he impressed by claiming a fourth and third place for the works Audi squad at Tempelhof.

That resulted in him being offered a full-time contract for the 2021 season where he continued to feature sporadically at the front of the field, taking a second place in Puebla and being one of the strongest qualifiers in the field.

At the time of his confirmation for the Audi Formula E seat, then team principal, Allan McNish told The Race that “you can look at data and you can also go with your instincts, and data certainly does tell something but it doesn’t tell the full story”.

“We could clearly see potential in terms of speed [from Rast], but which wasn’t necessarily unlocked until later on in Berlin,” added McNish.

After Audi announced its withdrawal from Formula E in December 2020, Rast knew that it would be a one-off full season but he didn’t let that odd decision affect his campaign.

Not only did he continue to race for Audi-affiliated squads in 2022 in the DTM and in the WEC, where he has raced with the WRT squad and took victory in the 6 Hours of Spa, but he also stayed loyal to Audi despite its erratic motorsport programme policy over the last few years.

Rast is likely to be reunited with WRT with the LMDh project in 2023 as the Belgian team has recently been confirmed as the factory BMW operation for the programme.

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Rast was targeted by McLaren from an early stage this year.

The German has several high-profile admirers at the team who plotted its preferred course of action when it became clear earlier this year that both Mercedes-contracted drivers, Stoffel Vandoorne and Nyck de Vries, would be on the move.

Vandoorne put pen to paper with DS, in a deal still to be officially confirmed, in April, while de Vries was not an option for the team largely due to his fluid situation with potential F1 options and the likelihood of a race seat with Toyota in the 2023 WEC.

Rast then came out on top, along with da Costa, who Mercedes talked to closely in 2021 when there was the possibility of de Vries being spirited away to F1.

However, da Costa signed with Porsche as long ago as early March and that ensured the soon-to-be official McLaren team had to move quickly for Rast and get creative and find an adequate team-mate.

That quest is ongoing as its preferred option to partner him, Felix Rosenqvist, looks increasingly likely to stay in IndyCar for a fifth season.

This means that both Oliver Turvey and Maximilian Guenther are now in the frame for a potential move to McLaren and be the chosen drivers to complete the new team’s line-up ahead of crucial testing, which is likely to kick in at the end of September off the back of Nissan’s ongoing developmental work.

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