Formula E’s early-season formbook can be read as either an ominous manifesto of gloom for non-Porsche-powered cars, or pulp fiction of one-off accomplishments.
This early phase of a whole new rulebook is one that is currently squeezing engineers like a vise, tightening all their skills together to get the most out of an entirely different ballgame.
Porsche-powered cars had a clear advantage over the course of qualifying and track time in Mexico City two weeks ago. The German manufacturer has long had an advantage at this particular circuit – the stunning 1-2-4-7 earlier this month was hinted at by taking a first pole there of 2020 and a first win next time in Formula E had stretch in 2022.
It’s as if Porsche had a trick with the altitude there, an intangible ability to flex the thin air to suit its package. Of course, the truth is much more prosaic than that.
It’s part of how it manages the vehicle dynamics of its cars and part of how operating at a tight and consistent level can pay off.
Porsche hasn’t always been able to do that at races in its three-year FE history, but Mexico City’s abrasive surface and Porsche’s preparation on how best to exploit it paid serious dividends in the Michelin days the end .
Now in the Hankook era, it clearly used some of the same forensic preparation to give itself an early advantage over the competition.
But Diriyah this weekend will be much more difficult for Porsche and Andretti. This is a completely different circuit than Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
A sculpted gem of a circuit winding around the original home of the Saudi royal family feels like it deserves royal status. In reality, it’s not so stately, more of a white-knuckled ride.
The practice sessions will be absolutely crucial. Teams and drivers are still finding their way around these Gen3 cars and likely will for most of the season. The brave benefit from this. Embedding yourself on a race day and building momentum is not an option this season.
An advantage for the teams in Diriyah is the expected better track conditions. At the previous two Diriyah E-Prix meetings, the first practice sessions began in a similar way to the speedway. That’s because a nearby dig site dumped millions of dust and debris fragments, creating a surface that’s more Pikes Peak than a Formula E track.
“There’s a lot less dust than last year because they’ve finished digging this big area a few hundred meters from us,” Carlo Boutagy, the head of Diriyah E-Prix promoter CBX, told The Race last week.
“We expect better track conditions for the teams and drivers and I’m sure this will be a very fast track with Gen3.”
How the drivers exploit the grip and find the delicate temperature windows of the Hankook tires will be a key feature.
Last time out in Mexico, several riders in the 12-minute qualifying groups struggled to get a sufficiently cooled set. This will also be an issue in Diriyah as the temperatures during qualifying will be higher than in Mexico.
Hankook actually tested a large number of different compounds and constructions before settling on the final one last year. The chemistry of the product is significantly more durable than the Michelins in Gen2, so getting the best out of the rubber is one of the key areas, which has so far caused initial headaches in some boxes.
But that in itself ties into other important parts of the Gen3 package. The new spec front drive train, supplied by US firm Atieva, is critical to how drivers set lap times. On the traction side, they need to think about the thermal preparation of that component – how it’s going to be cooled in order to brake instead of going out of corners. Corner exit traction is maximized only when the front drivetrain is thermally ready.
The drivers of these thoroughbreds are also still fine-tuning their braking technique.
You now have more wiggle room to play with braking ability, rather than having each input coupled to the front brake with a linear ratio. Now they have the ability to shape their brakes and help turn the car and help with the car’s dynamics, particularly helping with entry stability.
Tracking development during Diriyah weekend is also a permanent feature. The temperature fluctuations between qualifying and the race last year were extreme. with 18.2 °C in qualifying followed by only 12.7 °C in the race.
This kind of deviation can tell. Last year we saw defending champion Nyck de Vries take a comfortable pole position hours after winning the first race of the season. By the end of that second race he was floundering in 10th place and could do nothing but watch helplessly as his pace completely disappeared.
Conversely, Edoardo Mortara fought his way up to 12th on the grid in the first race, but then won the second relatively easily.
Honing the Gen2 packages around Diriyah was tricky enough to determine heroes and zeros – so imagine what it will be like for a completely unknown offering like a Gen3 car.
That’s why the rules of the competition will be mixed up again this weekend. The margins will again be tiny, so skill and luck will be required in equal measure.
Even unfinished stories from Mexico City feel like they need their blessing. Can DS, Maserati MSG and Jaguar get where they should be? will NIO 333 realize the clear potential of its package and eliminate costly mistakes; and can Mahindra continue his act of killing giants?
Another intriguing storyline will be seeing how the two newcomers will work. Both Jake Hughes and Sacha Fenestraz had strong Formula E debuts, but will it be a testimonial at Diriyah at a track where a simulator only offers so much compared to other, much more standardized topographies?
On the other hand, the power of raw confidence and “A devil may care” attitude on tracks like this can pay off just as much as it can bite your ass.
Manufacturers’ “dressed” replacement cars were not yet ready to be encrypted in Mexico City. But they’ll likely be needed this weekend as Formula E’s most competitive field prepares for its biggest roller coaster ride.