The brilliantly unpredictable fifth Formula E season has the driver and team championships wide open with eight races still to go.
It’s good news for the sport’s main protagonists as its new rules, tight street circuits and tough one-day racing mean the car is no longer the star — it’s all about the driver.
“Formula E is one of the last championships where the driver counts more than the car,” Nissan e.dams racer Sebastian Buemi tells CNN.
“In Formula One it is all about the car — if you put the best driver in the worst car he wouldn’t be able to win.
“Whereas in Formula E it’s not all down to the driver but they have a big impact on the performance, more than in any other championship.”
“In Formula E it’s completely different — everyone has a shot at winning the race.”
Formula E’s organizers are continually looking for ways to improve the spectacle and in Season Five the introduction of Attack Mode and a new race format are playing their part in this rollercoaster season.
Attack Mode rewards drivers with an extra 25kw of power when they drive off the racing line and through the activation zone. With limited battery power, an extra boost of juice can make a real difference to the final places and points scored.
“I was a bit skeptical about Attack Mode but the way they’ve positioned it on the track (means) it is very difficult to go and activate it,” explains Buemi.
“So that’s created a lot of overtaking possibilities because the guy that goes to activate it loses so much time that (they) even lose a position. The gain of power is also interesting. It’s been really good so far and it helps improve the show.”
A second Season Five innovation now sees each E-Prix last for 45 minutes plus one lap — rather than a set number of laps used in other series such as F1.
The pace of the race leader dictates when the extra lap comes into play so his rivals must make sure they have enough battery power to finish the race.
“You have to know what the leader is doing,” explains Buemi. “If the leader crosses the line at 44 minutes and 58 seconds you’re going to have to do an extra lap which was not planned.
“In terms of strategy that has made it a lot more difficult compared to the first few seasons.”
Mental juggling act
Vandoorne agrees that plotting how to use and save energy in the heat of a race is a unique mental juggling act for the driver.
“In Formula E we have an amount of energy that we have to manage over the whole race distance,” the HWA Racelab driver explains.
“You always need to constantly think ahead, think towards the end of the race when you’re in the moment of heat, when all the action happens. It’s not always an easy thing to do.
“It might come back at you towards the end of the race so you’re always balancing things out.”
Adding the new rules into the mix has helped make the FIA’s electric racing series pleasingly unpredictable as it pushes the drivers to their limits.
The one-day race format means they have little time to learn the tracks and master the conditions — something that proved particularly testing in Formula E’s first wet race in Hong Kong.
The series races on tight city center circuits that, unlike purpose-built racetracks, do not allow the comfort of run-off areas, instead car-crunching barriers punish mistakes.
The cars also have less downforce than F1’s winged racing machines making it easier for the rival drivers to race nose-to-tail and change positions.
“In Formula E you can make a lot of difference,” adds Buemi, who won the Formula E title in 2016/2017.
“If you look at [the races in] Marrakesh or Saudi there are people who gained 20 positions in the race which is something you don’t see in Formula 1 — only the Mercedes can do that, no-one else.
“So the races are really unpredictable because of all this mix of things.”
The thrilling fight for the Season Five title continues on mainland China with the Sanya E-Prix on 23 March.