until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

The low-key trait that could underpin a Formula E title defence

by Sam Smith
5 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Clean Stealth. It sounds like a new Marvel superhero but actually, it’s two words that can neatly encapsulate Stoffel Vandoorne in Formula E recently.

Those two attributes can provide all he needs to defend his hard-won 2022 title combined with the consistency that became his most powerful weapon last season.

Not even a big move to a new manufacturer that has had to pivot with a fresh team partner (Dragon Penske) looks like it will hugely influence nor derail his chances of possibly joining his team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne in becoming a double electric champion.

Vandoorne is in a good position, perhaps as good as he was exactly a year ago when he began his 2022 quest with a honed and ready Mercedes EQ team. DS Penske, against some big odds, is ready, and boy did it look ready at the only public sighting of Gen3 in Valencia last month. So much so that DS and its Stellantis sister brand Maserati held a clear advantage in pace and reliability.

While the stealth is self-explanatory, finishing 15 from 16 races in the top eight and securing eight podiums including his Monaco E-Prix victory, the clean element needs further exploration. It’s Vandoorne’s hidden skill.

It’s why he was pushed by certain parties to be a potential option for Alpine last September when it was unknown if Pierre Gasly could be released from his original Alpha Tauri commitments in 2023.

His almost sonar-like instincts see less contact and therefore less jeopardy than anyone else on the grid.

The facts are there. When two of the four title protagonists’ races are analysed from last season, all three of them had contact or incidents of some description.

For Jean-Eric Vergne and Edoardo Mortara these came at New York and London. Vergne got into a territorial dispute with di Grassi’s Venturi in the Big Apple and then got clobbered this way and that at ExCeL.

Mortara got smashed up twice in London, electing to duke it out with those he had no title business with in London. It ended as badly as his title push ultimately did, with points draining away down the plug-hole.

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Vandoorne? There were a few kisses and caresses, but New York cloudburst apart the only real damage came in Mexico City at the start of the campaign, and that was triggered by a bellicose di Grassi.

“I would say, last year, I pretty much didn’t touch with anyone almost in all the races,” Vandoorne told The Race.

“Now (in Gen3) I don’t think there will be a hugely different approach.

“It’s true that the Gen2 car with the wheel covers was a very robust car and you could rub against each other and it would be fine.

“But I think with this car if you rub against each other, you might change the toe of your car, or you might bend the track rod a little bit more easily or even break the nose.”

Vandoorne is right. The new breed is quicker and lighter than its predecessor but it’s also more fragile and more inclined to break hearts and minds this season.

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Ultimately though cleaner racing will also come down to something completely out of the drivers’ hands. Distance!

The style of racing will mainly depend on the level of energy saving that teams and drivers are going to have in the races.

“If we have a similar amount of energy saving than what we had in Ge2 on some tracks, then I think the racing will be quite similar,” reckons Vandoorne.

The signs at the Valencia test indicated this could be the case, with the FIA erring on the side of caution by making the mocked-up test race a complete sprint. This adds desperation and an element of drivers knowing they have to chance their arms with risky moves. That will inevitably end up in shunts, as Vandoorne rightly points out it did through Gen2.

Tight packs of cars on narrow street circuits is a recipe for some form of carnage, it just depends to what level. Finding the sweet spot of distance, in laps remember this year, will be a crucial call by the powers that be.

The stealthy and the clean apart, Vandoorne has another significant strength but this one is derived from the team about now. He’s gone from an excellently prepared engineering and operational outfit in silver to an excellently prepared engineering and operational outfit in black and gold.

From silver to gold! Such phrases tend to stick (you’re welcome Jack Nicholls!).

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The signs look ominous for DS and Maserati’s competitors. Valencia wasn’t completely seamless for DS Penske but it was a success on several levels.

“To be honest with you, just looking at it from our garage, we’ve actually had a very smooth test,” Vandoorne says.

“We’ve never really been stuck in a garage with any problems, which has been really good.

“We’ve been able to run through a testing programme so far, which has really brought us a lot in terms of information about this car. We’re finally starting to explore a little bit of setup.

“I’s banking that information now before we start the season, and it’s positive as well, that we’re at the front, so basically every time we hit the track, we look fairly competitive.

“It’s still early days but for sure it’s better to be at the front, let’s say than already starting a little bit behind and having to catch up.”

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