Nowhere to hide in 2022: Are Formula E and its drivers up to the challenge?

Formula E News

The 2022 Formula E season begins this weekend with the Diriyah ePrix. It's a pivotal year for the series, while rule changes should favour the most talented drivers, writes Hazel Southwell

Formula E Nio of Dan Ticktum leaves the Diriyah ePrix pits

New Formula E recruit Dan Ticktum heads out on track at Diriyah for the start of the 2022 season

Gregory Lenormand / DPPI

Qualifying and race rules have changed for this year’s Formula E season so the drivers’ fates are back in their own hands. It’s what they’ve asked for but with nowhere to hide, which of them will rise to the challenge?

Formula E’s eighth season begins this weekend in Diriyah at a weird point in the championship’s short life. The final year of its Gen2 era, when the series suddenly gained credibility, sex appeal and a throng of German manufacturers, isn’t exactly going out with a whimper but does see the youngest FIA world championship having to pause and regather itself. It’s a pivotal moment for Formula E – and a lot of its drivers.

FE has been trying (and to a large extent succeeding) for seven seasons to prove itself. A brand new championship was never going to instantly stack up to Formula 1 but also couldn’t exactly have meekly announced itself as some sort of politely unambitious alternative that wasn’t planning to make too much of itself. So from the outset, the comparison has been there.

For a while, FE had a big edge by being online and accessible at a point when F1 had disappeared between paywalls and was avoiding social media. But Liberty’s takeover prompting F1 to take its spot – and the unprecedented success of Drive to Survive – unseated any grip FE could have got before it had really managed to take advantage of it and the drubbing of Covid has landed heavier on a street-racing series than any of the others.

2022 Formula E drivers lined up

Battling for a world championship: this year’s Formula E grid

Germain Hazard / DPPI

So Formula E needs what a lot of its drivers originally came to it to find: a redemption story. The final year of the Gen2 chassis has to be about tackling its problems head-on and recovering, with a new qualifying format designed to help build a better season narrative and changed rules in races behind the safety car (oh yes, we have problems too) to try and avoid race control having too much power to affect what happens.

Group qualifying has been done away with, instead running two sessions of 11 cars each that feed into a quarter-semi-final ‘duels’ format that eliminates drivers until only the top two remain. The idea is to avoid track evolution advantaging any particular group of drivers and to let anyone with the skills and speed to consistently qualify well, the pressure back on showcasing what they can do rather than a team precision-timing when to go out.

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After last year’s Valencia disaster, when so much energy was subtracted from cars’ usable allowance that half the field stopped on track, the safety car rule has been altered to add a minute of race time (to the 45 minutes +1 lap) rather than subtracting a kWh of energy. That means drivers and teams have more information about what to expect and how to manage energy, rather than getting a shock number to be removed.

It’s always been a drivers’ championship; a lot of them came because they needed a job and stayed because the field was competitive enough they were enjoying it, even in the earlier, shonkier, car swap days. FE changing its rules to put more power back into the drivers’ hands to affect their fates in a race is what they’ve all been asking for – and brings the scrutiny back on them, during a season with no powertrain development.

At the beginning of the championship a lot of the drivers, by default of being single seater specialists of (mostly) pre-retirement age, were ex-F1. The Red Bull Junior Academy has technically been one of the most extraordinarily successful development programmes in Formula E history, having funded the early careers of three drivers who took four of its championships. Sébastien Buemi, Jean-Éric Vergne and Antonio Felix da Costa were all chewed up and spat out by the F1 machine, rediscovering themselves in Formula E.

New York ePrix podium for Formula E

Sam Bird joined Formula E on the verge of quitting racing but has won in every season so far, including New York, 2017

Getty Images

McLaren’s contributions to the driver pool came somewhat later in the day, donating both a burnt out Stoffel Vandoorne and former junior driver (and current Formula E world champion) Nyck de Vries. Mercedes generously threw in Pascal Wehrlein after only detaining him from missing the first round of Season 5 for a DTM test. Its passing up of Sam Bird, Mercedes test and reserve driver during the first years of its return to F1 as a factory team, saw him land in Formula E while wondering if he had to jack in his whole racing career. Finally Antonio Giovinazzi has, this year, become the first Ferrari protegé to find a seat in Formula E.

Drivers are, by nature, competitive so the comparison to their peers weighs heavy on them. The thing is, if you’ve come up from karting then for every one person you know who might have made it to an F1 seat and managed to make a good go of it, there are a lot more who didn’t quite get there and even more whose junior career puttered out or who only got a couple of races above karts. There are a lot more professional GT and sports car drivers than there are F1.

So although the public perception tends to be that Formula E drivers must be desperate to jack in their factory drives to putter about in a backmarking F1 car, it’s not only not true but a weird misinterpretation of who they think they’re competing with. Take last year’s best rookie Jake Dennis, for instance, who at 6’5” had no hope of getting in an F1 car and had been farmed out to GTs long ago, while still doing a simulator role at Red Bull because he’s definitely skilled enough.

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Jake landed a drive at (then BMW) Andretti and after a frustrating start, delivered one of the best rookie campaigns Formula E has ever seen, if not the best given the maturity of the championship now. He was frustrated to miss out on the title thanks to his brakes cooking during a red flag in the final race and will be aiming to come back with a roar.

Sam Bird has been the eternal bridesmaid for the FE title and the only driver to have won in every season so far, even with some seriously substandard cars. The 35-year-old signed his long-term future to Jaguar, which he’d switched to at the start of last season, last week and it’s hard to think of a combination between team and driver who more badly want to finally see the reward of a top trophy for their time in Formula E.

Season 3 champion Lucas di Grassi has moved this season to Venturi, switching teams for the first time in Formula E history after seven seasons with ABT-Audi and has said he’ll only continue as long as he and his team are competitive. Which is the philosophical way of saying he’s in Formula E as long as he thinks there’s a chance of a second title – and there’s every reason to think Susie Wolff’s regenerated squad could get him (or Edoardo Mortara, who placed second last season) that.

There aren’t many cars in Formula E that you’re outright not going to win in; NIO and Dragon aren’t likely but ruling even them out feels like tempting fate for something this weekend. So all 22 drivers come with the chance to prove themselves – and for Season 8 it’s up to them to create the show that rebuilds FE’s reputation, alongside making their own.