On Sunday, Formula E’s seventh series came to a close on the concrete of Templehof in Berlin. It was the sport’s first season as an official FIA world championship, which technically makes the Mercedes-EQ team and driver Nyck de Vries the first ever Formula E world champions. But the team’s celebrations may have been brief. On Wednesday, Mercedes-Benz confirmed that it will quit Formula E at the end of 2022, bringing a bittersweet end to the season.
Formula E’s low point was undoubtedly round 5, the Valencia E-Prix in Spain. This was held on a permanent racetrack—Circuit Ricardo Tormo—which was a change from Formula E’s usual MO of holding events at temporary tracks in city centers. Racing on tight street circuits with short straights definitely played to the original Formula E race car’s strengths and worked with its weaknesses. The introduction of the faster, more powerful Gen2 car in 2018 meant there was plenty of interest in seeing what these cars could do on a permanent track. But after the first of two races at Valencia in April, I’m sure many audiences had seen enough.
Between the heavy rain and a tight, temporary chicane at the end of the lap, more than a few drivers came a cropper, resulting in multiple periods behind a safety car. Formula E races are designed around energy management; without recapturing energy under regenerative braking, the car’s 56 kWh battery is insufficient to get to the finish line. Although the organizers have access to telemetry showing every car’s battery state of charge, the teams do not. This is done intentionally to make things a bit harder. This information has to be communicated to the teams by their drivers each lap.
But a lap driven behind the safety car uses much less energy than when racing flat-out. So the organizers subtract a certain amount of usable energy after each safety car period to require teams and drivers to stay on top of energy management. Here’s where the problem set in. The timing of the final restart meant there would be two laps left in the race, but many teams were expecting just one. That meant a bunch of teams and drivers had their calculations wrong, and most of the field slowed to a crawl on the final lap as cars ran out of usable energy. Just nine cars crossed the finish line.
Here’s how Jean-Éric Vergne (Formula E’s champion in seasons four and five) summed up the race afterward: “I’m not saying it’s anyone’s fault, but I think for the future, we should stick to what we do in Formula E, which is street circuits.”
If Valencia was the season’s low, then the Monaco E-Prix in early May was its peak. For the first time, Formula E used the full Formula 1 track rather than a substantially abbreviated layout used in previous visits. (Or almost the same circuit; there were two slight tweaks that are enough to make them as separate layouts if you want to be pedantic.)
F1 fans know that the annual race in the little Mediterranean principality is lauded as that series’ crown jewel event. But they’ll also know that, for at least the last 40 years, the Grand Prix itself has been as boring as it is prestigious, with almost no way for a faster car to overtake a slower one on the narrow, barrier-lined streets.
No one seems to have told Formula E, though, because it put on one of the best races to be held in Monaco in living memory. No, the lap times weren’t even close to F1 territory—that was always going to be the case considering an F1 car has more than twice the power and far more grip. But the slower Formula E cars are also nine inches (230 mm) narrower than an F1 machine, and if ever you wanted a demonstration of how the lack of aerodynamic downforce improves racing, this year’s Monaco E-Prix was it.
In total, 13 drivers were mathematically in contention for the championship at the last race in Berlin, although only four had a real shot. Very quickly, most of those title hopes evaporated. A technical fault kept Jaguar’s Mitch Evans stationary at the start, and he was violently rear-ended by Venturi’s Edoardo Mortara, taking them both out of the race just as it began.
At the restart, things looked promising for BMW Andretti’s Jake Dennis. When the race got going again, he was in seventh place, well ahead of Mercedes-EQ’s de Vries. And he stayed that way at least as far as turn 1, when his rear axle locked and his car finished its race in the barrier. All de Vries could manage was ninth place at the end, but this scored enough points to crown him champion. His teammate Stoffel Vandoorne had a better day and finished in third, which in turn earned Mercedes-EQ the team championship, ahead of Jaguar Racing and DS Techeetah. Norman Nato won the race for Venturi, while Nissan’s Oliver Rowland came in second place.
Mercedes is the third German OEM to call time on its Formula E project; both BMW and Audi bowed out following this year’s finale in Berlin. In justifying its decision to quit, Mercedes-Benz board member Marküs Schafer said that “in motorsport, Formula E has been a good driver for proving our expertise and establishing our Mercedes-EQ brand, but in future we will keep pushing technological progress—especially on the electric drive side—focusing on Formula One.”
More specifically, Schafer said that F1 offered “rich potential for technology transfer.” The implication is obvious: by contrast, the restrictive technical rules of Formula E—which are in place to keep costs an order of magnitude lower than F1—allow for much less technology development. Running out of things to learn is the same reason the other two German OEMs gave for leaving the sport, too, and there are valid concerns that the Gen 3 car (due in season 9) is similarly limited in this regard.
But I don’t want to give off an impression of doom and gloom. Audi and BMW have now left the sport, but both will continue to supply powertrains to teams for season 8. And although Mercedes is leaving, Formula E still has DS, Jaguar, Nissan, Mahindra, Nio, and Porsche in terms of manufacturers. The series appears to have learned from Valencia, and Monaco’s high was extended with the news that the event will now happen annually instead of every other year as has been the case.