until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

This notorious enigma now looks like a potential world champion

by Sam Smith
5 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

In top-level motorsport, what forms and influences you in terms of experiences, good or bad, can often transpose onto your character and professional personality for years to come.

Current Formula E points leader Pascal Wehrlein is definitely a case in point. Riding high at the moment, after a double win in Diriyah, he’s atop the standings for the first time in his four-and-a-bit-season electric career.

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You can’t read much from Wehrlein because he doesn’t give much away. People around him sometimes talk about cracking the Pascal code. If you earn his trust he might let you in a little.

Wehrlein isn’t in any driver cliques, he doesn’t have a consistent entourage of relatives or friends at races, and you won’t see him partying at official galas or after-parties.

But this isn’t a driver who’s a hermit, who shies away from standing his ground or facing confrontation head-on either. Sebastien Buemi will agree with that after their London square-up last July. Wehrlein fights his corner but he does it because he believes in himself.

That could constitute arrogance and probably because he doesn’t feel the need to explain himself all of the time, nor reveal the inner workings of his life on social media, he is unfairly stereotyped as being aloof and superior at times.

This is wrong and does him a disservice because Wehrlein is an honest driver, as well as being enigmatic too. What that means is he doesn’t try and portray things as they are not, whether that relates to specific incidents on the racetrack, or in reaction to poor results or uncompetitive races.

So, there is a neutrality in Wehrlein of sorts. One that is likely to be a kind of detachment designed to eradicate unwanted attention. It’s probably a kind of forcefield that Wehrlein has designed after previous disappointments and complications in his career – the messy move away from Mercedes, the premature cessation of his time at Mahindra, and the often bruising spell in Formula 1 with minnows Sauber and Manor.

There isn’t much fluctuation in Wehrlein’s mood at tracks, or so it seems. Part of observing the subtleties of his personality is interesting if you look closely enough.

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He’s in a happy place at the moment. About to become a father for the first time, he seems settled and happy with his partner Sibel. He announced his impending fatherhood at Porsche’s annual celebration just before Christmas and there was a genuine beam to his face.

The fact that he felt comfortable sharing that joyous news tells you how far he has come in weaving himself into the Porsche fold. He has a tight-knit engineering team that consists of Kyle-Wilson Clarke as engineer and Andreas von Berg as performance engineer.

Wehrlein’s first season in 2021 featured the same caution in every soundbite. That made many conversations classically Wehrlein-esque in their blandness. Again, the forcefield was activated.

But 2022 was different. Wehrlein was different. There seemed to be an extra spring in his step, even though the second half of the campaign was a complete catastrophe as he went from possible title challenger to barely scraping into the top 10 at season’s end.

A few years earlier that would have glitched the Wehrlein system, sent the barriers up again. So, it’s been refreshing to see that not happen. The 2023-spec Wehrlein is just the same as in 2022, engaging and relaxed.

Is that contributing to his rich vein of form in the new Gen3 era?

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Well, he was one of the first drivers to get miles under his belt last June and perhaps his style of driving and his knowledge of Porsche is giving him a headstart over new team-mate Antonio Felix da Costa.

Da Costa is an expert in letting his natural, easy-going demeanour smooth its way into teams so effortlessly but for Wehrlein it’s different. He is a more sensitive soul and likes to do things more progressively. Even some of his Porsche colleagues sensed this in his first exploration season with the team in 2021.

His first team-mate was Andre Lotterer and seldom has there been a more chalk and cheese pairing in Formula E. With a dozen years between them they had little in common, but once Wehrlein knew that Lotterer wasn’t the type of team-mate to play mind games or look at destroying him in or out of the cockpit, the relationship became warmer.

Every athlete has past ghosts and Wehrlein is no different, it’s just that he seems to be able to exorcise them much more efficiently now. That will be bad news for his rivals because when he has an advantage he rarely makes mistakes – see last month’s two Diriyah races.

Of the lost race wins in his Formula E career, none have been down to mistakes made by Wehrlein. Monaco last year was the one that hurt the most, of course, but equally the ludicrous banality of an admin error by his team that scuppered what should have been a first win at Puebla in June 2021 would have tested any driver to the maximum.

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That all seems a long time ago now. Here and now, Wehrlein has the look of a driver who is completely in charge in an environment that has realised it needs to cloak him in what he needs – an ambience of stability – and that will get the most from him.

What does it all mean for 2023?

It likely means that he at last has the chance to convert the promise, poise and potential into a title challenge at the very least. Like he did in 2015 when, on his 21st birthday weekend, he took the DTM title.

He’ll do well to top that momentous day. Yet, winning the 2023 title, after the turbulence of recent years, would you suspect mean even more to Formula E’s most intriguing character.

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