Formula E’s New Superstar Has Emerged
Missing the season-opener for contractual reasons and then being taken out at the start of round two isn’t a great way to start a new career chapter. But now Formula E’s latest Formula 1 convert star has emerged with a vengeance
In the scorching Santiago sun, a new star of ABB FIA Formula E emerged, although it was the searing temperatures that thwarted what could have been a famous ‘debut’ victory.
The race in the Chilean capital wasn’t Pascal Wehrlein’s official FE debut – that came two weeks before in Marrakesh. But he was taken out in the first-corner melee in Morocco, and his inaugural race drive officially lasted just 1m44.873s as he was forced to retire in the pits at the end of lap one.
Not a great start, then, but Wehrlein was able to press the reset button in Santiago. He had already shown his promise in Marrakech by qualifying seventh, ahead of Mahindra Racing teammate and eventual race winner Jerome D’Ambrosio, and felt he could have been in contention for the podium – and therefore the win – had he taken part in the full race.
So, having had to wait to make his mark, Wehrlein once again starred in qualifying. He was the quickest driver in the group phase with a scintillating and wild lap, reminiscent of Sam Bird’s effort to take pole in Marrakech. It looked fast, and it was.
A massive slide at the tricky Turn 7 right-hander and fading in the final sector cost him in superpole, where he initially finished third before being bumped up to second on the grid by Lucas di Grassi’s controversial disqualification from qualifying.
In the race, officially FE’s hottest ever, he chased polesitter Sebastien Buemi in the early stages before being passed by Bird as the Virgin Racing driver went for the strategy of using his attack modes early, before battery temperatures became absolutely critical in the closing stages.
Wehrlein did the opposite, taking attack mode for the first time only after being passed by Bird on lap 11, and then using his final activation seven laps from the end. By this point, he was using it in a bid to take the win after Buemi had crashed out and Bird was marshalling his own battery temperatures to the end.
Had Wehrlein and Mahindra taken the same strategy and not gone for the late attack when the temperature was at its highest – building to a climax with so little time remaining – things might have worked out differently. As it was, Wehrlein’s battery got too hot and he had to back off after calls from his engineer.
But second was nevertheless a fantastic result, even if it took such a fiercely competitive driver a little while to see it.
“I was close and I started a move into T12, but the team told me I should slow and manage the gap behind because we were so critical on temperatures and to finish the race,” Wehrlein said. “It’s a bit of a shame and I was a bit angry in the car…”
It was hard to imagine things going so well for Wehrlein so early in his first FE season. Not because of a lack of talent, but simply because of the circumstances of his delayed debut.
Wehrlein’s Mahindra drive was confirmed just a few hours before official pre-season testing got under way at Valencia. The announcement caught Mercedes and HWA by surprise as they were still negotiating the terms of his exit from the manufacturer’s fold – although his participation in the test was permitted.
But the two sides did not agree on “certain pre-requisites [that] would need to be fulfilled to release him”, according to HWA boss Ulrich Fritz, and he missed the season opener in Riyadh. This was due to the race taking place before his Mercedes deal expired on December 31 2018.
That meant the driver he was effectively replacing in Mahindra’s line-up, Felix Rosenqvist (although D’Ambrosio is also new to the team this year), returned for one final FE outing before heading to IndyCar for the foreseeable future.
Wehrlein said he is “not looking too far ahead” when asked in Marrakech if he’s in FE for the long-haul. But he will not have been surprised that he’s made an immediate impact in his new surroundings.
“For me it’s a new start in 2019, looking forward to new challenges, it’s a new chapter,” he said ahead of his first FE race start.
“I think I’ll adapt quickly – I’ve changed series quite often in the past three/four years. I know many cars that need many different driving styles, so I’m expecting to be on a very good level soon in Formula E as well. I still need to learn a lot about the car, the driving, about set-up, the tracks – but I’m sure I can do it.”
At Mahindra, Wehrlein has found a new home – one that’s fun-loving and has a family atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine Mercedes naming one of its cars Electro McElectroFace when it enters the championship next year. Or filming paddock personalities – including FE CEO and founder Alejandro Agag and those journalists not too embarrassed and cowardly (Motorsport.com falls into this bracket) – Bollywood dancing in the Santiago sun.
Mahindra is the team that allowed the super-talented Rosenqvist to shine from the off in FE, and it appears to be doing the same with Wehrlein. It’s great news for the team, and for FE in general, that it’s found an exciting replacement for the Swedish driver, who felt he could not turn down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with Ganassi.
“Since my first meeting with [team principal] Dilbagh [Gill] I feel really welcome and happy in the team,” Wehrlein said of his new squad when he finally joined it for a race event for the first time.
“It’s a small team but they are all really nice and pushing hard. The quality of engineering is really high and you could see that in previous years – Mahindra was always a really strong team in Formula E. I feel happy where I am now.”
Wehrlein may not offer the same easy-going, relaxed and quotable persona of Rosenqvist – not yet at least: snap judgements on drivers’ personalities are not good for them, the media or fans following any series – but FE has received another stunningly quick racer.
And judging by his exploits in Santiago, he will thrill along the same lines too – it’s worth re-watching his qualifying efforts to see how he tamed a wild car on an aggressive track with just the right amount of wrestling to not lose speed.
Every driver in any championship will say that three races into a season is too early to talk about a title challenge. And they are of course right, even if the ingrained under-promise-and-over-deliver media-training mantra has been done to death. But, despite missing the opening round and being punted out at the first corner of the next race, Wehrlein is absolutely in the championship hunt.
He is 25 points behind new leader Bird – who picked up the top spot after D’Ambrosio was hit with a post-race time penalty for full course yellow speeding in Santiago – in ninth place. And he’s there because those in front, with the exception of the consistent Mitch Evans, have all had at least one non or low-points score so far.
Consistency is the key to any title campaign – Jean Eric Vergne only finished below fifth place once in the 2017/18 season – but the unpredictable start to the Gen2 era means things are likely to be different this time around. It will be about taking the maximum on good days and minimising the bad ones.
That was what cost Mahindra and Rosenqvist last year. They had incredible highs early on in Hong Kong and Marrakech, but too often inconsistent form hurt their efforts – in addition to agonising reliability dramas while Rosenqvist led in Mexico City and Rome. Gill later explained that the team “didn’t know how to put a championship together”.
Although the success has been split across its drivers, Mahindra has been on the podium at every race so far this season. No other team has done that.
Yes, this is ‘way too early’ to be talking about titles, ‘adding pressure’ to Wehrlein and ‘pointless’ until it really matters. But it’s also naive to say he’s not in the title hunt.
Sooner or later a DS Techeetah, BMW or Audi (or, of course, current teams’ championship leader Virgin) driver may well take hold of the title battle and capitalise on the promise each has shown so far in the 2018/19 campaign. But right now, Wehrlein and Mahindra (and D’Ambrosio) have the same right to be considered contenders.
FE should take note. One of its home-grown stars has already slipped out of the door, although Rosenqvist doesn’t rule out a return one day and is staying in contact with his “brothers” at Mahindra. The electric championship should make the most of Wehrlein – and other newcomers such as Alexander Sims and Maximilian Gunther.
FE has always been about reaching a younger generation of non-traditional motorsport fans. In Wehrlein it has a driver around which it can galvanise and grow for further success.