It’s official; Formula E is back. The second generation of cars and power units hit the track yesterday for the first public preseason test day at Donington Park. It was a revealing session, with a six second gap between the fastest and slowest drivers. And, while the tech might be new, the headline story wasn’t: Buemi fastest, followed closely by di Grassi.
Just six weeks after the inaugural season’s conclusion in London, eight teams made it onto track with their new kit and drivers to give us (and them) the first direct comparison between second season technical solutions. An unchanged chassis makes it difficult to visually distinguish the new breed of electric racing cars, but the differences between the offerings of Formula E’s eight new constructors can be perceived clearly in other ways, principally through different noises.
The fastest time of the first day of preseason testing, a 1:32.092s set by Sebastien Buemi for the newly-retitled Renault e.dams team, was just over a second slower than the best time of last year, at 1.31.083s. That was set Buemi too, on the fourth day of testing. Cleaving so close to last year’s fastest time on the first outing at Donington Park this summer means we can expect to see the cars going considerably quicker by the end of the six days scheduled.
With each team working through their own development strategy for testing, and with six days of testing to run, definitive comparisons between teams from lap times are hard to draw at this stage. Inclement weather was also a factor.
The reigning teams’ champions had a fine day of running. Both cars sported a restyled blue and yellow livery. While no confirmation of driver pairing has yet been made, Nico Prost and Sebastien Buemi were in the hotseats again. They finished fastest (Buemi, 1:32.095s) and third fastest (Prost, 1:32.286s) of the day. Apart from a brief rain shower mid-afternoon, their running schedule appeared to go to plan, with no issues to report.
ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport
The German team, which was first to confirm its 2015-16 driver line up, had a solid day. Season one title contender Lucas di Grassi did all the driving and notched up a fastest lap of 1:32.158s. He was very happy with the car, hinting that there is a lot more performance to come.
DS Virgin Racing
The newly Anglo-French team hit the ground running, though the cars appeared somewhat incognito in bare carbon fibre a million miles away from their season one silver and purple colours. Sam Bird achieving the fourth best time of the day (1:32.523s); on the other side of the garage, new boy Jean-Eric Vergne clocked up a 1:36.704s lap. The Frenchman has an entirely new team to get used to, as well as a new car, after moving from Andretti. The new DS element, a sub-brand of Citroen, will be keen to show early on that they can mix it with arch rivals Renault.
With the Amlin badge and livery dropped after a split with their headline sponsor, the Aguri team were unsurprisingly pacey, given that they are the only cars in the paddock to stick with the tried and tested first season powertrain.
Salvador Duran returns after a good series of race results and is hotly tipped to retain his position in season two. He recorded the fifth fastest time of the day (1:32.549s) while his new team mate, Frenchman Tom Dillman, put in a strong first stint to finish the day in ninth (1:36.329s).
The day began with the Indian team announcing Nick Heidfeld had replaced Karun Chandhok. The German driver made a surprise move from Venturi to line up alongside fans’ favourite Bruno Senna.
Hands-on operations are now being run by Campos Racing, who supported NextEV TCR to snatching the drivers’ title in season one. The relationship appears to paying dividends already. Senna recorded the sixth best time of the day (1:35.653s), followed by his new team mate Heidfeild in seventh (1:35.700s). More importantly for a new powertrain, the car looks very reliable, with Heidfeld completing 37 laps (second only to Duran, with 39).
After surprising many with their run to second in the inaugural team’s title, Dragon’s performance was somewhat surprising too at Donington Park. The American team is utilising a powertrain supplied by Venturi and supplied only just in time for the test. Yet, Dragon’s Jerome d’Ambrosio managed to find more speed around the circuit than Venturi’s old hand Sarrazin. The Belgian driver finished with a best lap time of 1:36.324s, while his team mate Loic Duval could manage fewer than half the number of laps of d’Ambroiso and a best time of 1:37.987s.
The team from Monaco, which is also currently trying to better its own electric land speed record in the US, made headlines this week when it revealed that 1997 Formula 1 World Champion, Jacques Villeneuve, had signed for 2015-16, replacing Heidfeld. On the other side of the garage, Sarrazin stays, perhaps hoping to expunge that terrible last-lap defeat in London with a strong second season.
The lap times of neither driver were particularly headline-grabbing, although both got decent time on track. Sarrazin’s (1:36.361s) was slower than d’Ambrosio but faster than Duval. Villeneuve’s 1:38.176s lap must be taken in context: his team mate has a full year’s more experience in adapting to the driving style required of this series.
Reigning Formula E drivers’ champ Nelson Piquet had a very quiet day at Donington. His was the only car from the team to hit the track but the Brazilian looked fairly stately with a 1:38.052s fastest lap. We understand that he’d been in talks with DS Virgin but chose to remain with the team that secured him the title.
It will be interesting to see how the powertrains compare from the two teams over the course of summer testing. While Piquet says he’s got a good car, he’s reserving judgement until the bumpy track in Beijing: he won’t be happy if DS Virgin manage to find more speed. Of course, NextEV TCR seems to have a natural affinity with tight street courses, so Donington Park won’t tell the whole story.
Rumours are circulating that Oliver Turvey, who partnered Piquet in London and impressed the Brazilian, will be re-signed to the team for the full season.
Trulli and Amlin Andretti
Neither team managed to turn a wheel on the first day of testing, with the Trulli team not arriving until later in the day. Amin Andretti’s Simona de Silvestro spent all day out of race gear, which was a worrying sign. Neither team appears to have put in any private testing in the manner of the other constructors, which does not bode well: trying to iron out all the kinks in a new powertrain in six days will be mighty tough.
Jarno Trulli has not confirmed that he will drive the car in season two and Amlin Andretti has yet to confirm a second driver.
Still, a late start isn’t necessarily a bad omen. Dragon Racing got off to a very shaky start last summer, with many unsure whether the team would even arrive at all for testing. Yet, the squad went on to beat many of the “big boys” and finish second only to e.dams Renault. It will be an intriguing few days.
1. Sebastien Buemi 1:32.095 (36 laps)
2. Lucas di Grassi 1:32.158 (24)
3. Nicolas Prost 1:32.286 (32)
4. Sam Bird 1:32.523 (30)
5. Salvador Duran 1:32.549 (39)
6. Bruno Senna 1:35.653 (28)
7. Nick Heidfeld 1:35.700 (37)
8. Jerome d’Ambrosio 1:36.324 (27)
9. Tom Dillmann/Salvador Duran 1:36.329 (24)
10. Stephane Sarrazin 1:36.361 (31)
11. Jean-Eric Vergne 1:36.704 (36)
12. Loic Duval 1:36.841 (11)
13. Oliver Turvey/Nelson Piquet 1:38.052 (10)
14. Jacques Villeneuve 1:38.176 (19)
15. Nelson Piquet (3)
16. Jarno Trulli (0)
17. Simona de Silvestro (0)
Tom Spencer, with additional reporting by Luke Smith