Felling of the Factory Giants

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Works Formula E teams were expected to head season four, but the reality proved different

Privateers don’t beat manufacturer teams in high-level motor sport. Or at least it’s a rarity. But Techeetah did just that in Formula E last season, claiming the drivers’ title with Jean-Eric Vergne. It then promptly announced that it would become a factory operation in 2018/19. It did beat ’em — and now it has joined ’em! 

The success of Techeetah, which grew out of the Aguri team that raced in the first two seasons of the FIA’s electric-vehicle championship, made it a commodity. Not only did it seal the season four title with customer Renault powertrains in New York in July, but it came within two points of claiming the championship for teams as well.

That explains why Citroën sub-brand DS has signed it up for the brave new world of Formula E in 2018/19, the watershed fifth season of the series in which the practice of drivers swapping cars mid-race will be banished to the history books. 

DS Racing has jumped from the Virgin team with which it had been partnered since the second season of Formula E in 2015/16, when powertrain development was opened up. Virgin, which is now expected to announce a deal to run customer Audi powertrains, finished in the top four of the team championship for three seasons in a row, winning five races in that time. 

“Our involvement in Formula E is an integral part of DS Automobiles’ commitment to the electrification of our model line-up,” said Xavier Mestelan Pinon, director of DS Performance. “Development of the DS E-Tense FE19 [its season-five contender] began several months ago with the objective of being in a position to challenge for the top step of the podium from the opening race of the 2018/19 campaign.

“Techeetah has demonstrated exceptional skill and knowledge in electric street-racing over the past season and we’re looking forward to combining our expertise to create a championship-winning team. I am convinced that our two entities will dovetail perfectly.”

Accepting DS’s overtures was a no-brainer for Techeetah managing director Mark Preston and the Chinese owners of team, despite its championship success with powertrains leased from Renault.

“The ante is only going to keep going up with the arrival of new manufacturers [BMW as a full factory team in season five and Porsche and Mercedes the season after],” said Preston, who helped set up Team Aguri in 2014 and did likewise with the Super Aguri Formula 1 operation ahead of the 2006 season. 

He cited the lack of pre-season testing days for customer entries — just three as opposed to the 15 allowed to teams that were developing their own powertrains — as reason enough to make the jump.  

“If you don’t have the testing days, it does limit you,” he said. “To maintain our position, we felt we needed to be with a manufacturer. There may be other manufacturers coming in the future, but this was the obvious time to make the move, because we are changing cars and the format of the races.”

 

A STRENGTH OUT OF A WEAKNESS

That lack of available pre-season testing forced Techeetah to focus on simulation to get the most out of its package. It is here that the team outperformed its rivals, including the factory-backed e.dams Renault operation. Preston reckoned that the in-house simulator, using the R-Factor Pro platform, was almost certainly the most advanced in the series last season.  

“I believe that is true, although of course I have no way of validating it,” he said. “We seemed to do a better job of energy saving and management through the races. We certainly did a better job than in season three. We had to focus more than the others on simulation and our great team of guys made it work for us.”

Preston explained that lead Renault e.dams driver Sébastien Buemi, series runner-up in season three, had always been Techeetah’s benchmark: “There were times in 2016/17 when we knew he was going to just move past us in the latter stages of a race, but in 2017/18 there were definitely times when we knew we were going to be in a position to pass him.”

 

LOTTERER PLAYS A PART

Three-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner André Lotterer didn’t win a race in his maiden Formula E season, but Preston has credited the arrival of the German – via Porsche and Audi’s World Endurance Championship programmes – as a significant factor in Techeetah’s 2017/18 title success. 

“Having someone who had worked at the highest level with Audi and Porsche on hybrid LMP1 cars helped,” he explained. “You often hear F1 teams talking about going in the wrong direction on set-up. You can find the correct path more quickly, get to the optimum faster when you have two strong drivers. We were lucky that we had two drivers pushing in the same direction and pushing each other — and sometimes they tried to push each other off!” 

That last comment is a reference to the incident in Santiago in February when Lotterer ran into the back of Vergne. The two Techeetah Spark-Renault ZE17s survived the clash to go on to record the first one-two by a team in Formula E history. 

Stability was another factor in Techeetah’s success. In season three, a trio of drivers had raced the team’s second car alongside Vergne. This time it was just Lotterer. Preston pointed out that the most successful teams in Formula E’s short history so far, e.dams and Abt/Audi Sport, ran the same two drivers through the first four seasons of the championship. 

“It was a massive factor, because in Formula E you have no time for testing,” explained Preston. “If you change your driver, that new person takes time to get up to speed and you lose momentum. That has been one of the strengths of e.dams and Abt because they have had two drivers who didn’t change from the start.”

Preston said that there were any number of factors in Techeetah’s against-the-odds success in 2017/18. He mentioned the strength of the Renault powertrain and Audi’s slow start to the championship. (Eventual runner-up Lucas di Grassi failed to get a point on the board over the first three race weekends.) 

“It’s never one thing — it is always a package,” he said. “It was the engineering, the drivers and, of course, team work — we always held our positions in pitstops.”

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