Gutierrez: new seat, same point to prove

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Today’s news that Esteban Gutierrez will become the latest Formula 1 driver to make the switch to Formula E comes as something of a surprise.

Gutierrez returned to F1 in 2016 after a year out of full-time action. He joined the new American Haas team (a sort of Ferrari-lite), but failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations. Sure, he had more than his share of bad luck through the campaign, but his full grand prix record is as follows: 59 starts, one top 10 finish. Hardly anything to shout about.

Gutierrez’s career highlight thus far is winning the GP3 title back in 2010, a victory that catapulted him into the spotlight for a future F1 seat. He eventually got his break with Sauber in 2013. The Swiss team was just beginning to struggle financially, however, leaving him hamstrung as he tried to display his true ability. While Gutierrez hasn’t exactly had the chance to excel in F1, he’s certainly has had the opportunity to fare better than he has.

But don’t go thinking that Gutierrez is a washed-up F1 reject nor that landing in Formula E is an easy path. He is a very thoughtful, intelligent racer, who on occasion can light the track up with searing pace. His arrival in Formula E is certainly a positive for the series, being able to boast another ex-F1 driver among its ranks – and a recent one at that – yet the bigger picture is that the series is increasingly being recognised by top-level drivers as an alternative career move in racing, not a last resort. Just look at how Jean-Eric Vergne has fared after arriving in Formula E a few weeks after being in an F1 seat. He has had oodles of pace but has been unable to challenge the top drivers consistently in the high-pressure, time-critical environment that is the electric racing series.

Gutierrez’s arrival will come as a boost for Formula E in Latin America, particularly in Mexico City. Gutierrez is the second-most recognisable racer in Mexico, only behind Sergio Perez, so for him to fly the flag at the home event next April will be big for the championship. (Of course, Formula E’s trip to that continent this year will also be aided by the hire of Jose Maria Lopez, the Argentinian touring cars star who is now driving for the DS Virgin Racing team.) Gutierrez will also fit into the paddock well, being a relatively easy-going, cheerful character. Formula E is a good place for him.

Today’s announcement confirmed that Gutierrez would be joining Formula E for a “select number of races”, including the Mexico City ePrix, which clashes with the FIA World Endurance Championship’s Prologue test. The penultimate round of the season in New York City also has a WEC clash, while motorsport.com suggests that Gutierrez could step in for Loic Duval at Faraday Future Dragon Racing when the Frenchman is tied up with DTM commitments over the Brussels and Paris weekends.

However, with Sam Smith also reporting that Gutierrez could compete in Buenos Aires next month, it is possible that one of the permanent drivers could be bumped to make way for him. Sure, it would be unfair on one of the current grid, but Gutierrez’s profile is such that no team could really afford to shoot down an opportunity to put him in a seat. Just as when Vergne joined Formula E at the end of 2014, Gutierrez making the move over is a definite talking point.

I chatted with JEV in Hong Kong about F1 and Formula E, spitballing the idea of him ever going back over to F1. “Well…” he began, taking a pause. “You’re seeing a lot of people, not just drivers, who used to be in F1 who are coming here. I’m good where I am.”

It’s a salient point. Sure, F1 is still number one when it comes to audience reach, the sheer cash involved and where drivers really want to be. But, if you can’t find a seat there, Formula E is now a very decent second choice indeed.

Don’t forget the sport has only just begun its third season. For it to already be such a destination for drivers is impressive. Manufacturers are flocking to Formula E; technology is developing; excitement is growing. As powertrain development kicks into gear, the field is actually becoming more competitive, not less. Drivers across the grid continue to have a good chance at winning every race they enter, unlike the tilted playing field clearly seen in F1. And with so many high-calibre drivers in Formula E, winning owes more to guts, determination and racing ability than it does to having a factory staff of 300 and a budget in the hundreds of millions.

It’s a good time indeed for Gutierrez to become the latest member of the electric family – and, much as the likes of Sebastien Buemi, Nelson Piquet and Lucas di Grassi have, time to prove he has the potential to back up his much-touted ability behind the wheel.

Luke Smith

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