Will WEC always win?

Spacesuit-Media-Dan Bathie-FIA-Formula-E-Marrakesh-ePrix-November-2016-Sam Bird Jose Maria Lopez DS Virgin Racing

“The things people say after they lose their ride. Real racers want to race all the time.”

Nelson Piquet Jr has never been a man to mince his words but, when he dropped this scathing burn on Lucas di Grassi in December, it offered a new dimension to the ongoing rivalry between the Brazilian racer 

Piquet’s comeback came in the wake of di Grassi’s comments in an interview, where he said that drivers could no longer commit to both Formula E and the FIA World Endurance Championship. Since the inception of Formula E, WEC has complemented the series, so that drivers could enjoy a racing programme which may have been packed but which did not overlap. With significant schedule clashes now occurring (most notably over the New York ePrix weekend). more and more drivers are being forced into a difficult choice.

Di Grassi’s comments came after the news that Audi would be leaving WEC at the end of 2016, ending its LMP1 programme after 20 years. That move left the Audi works driver without a WEC drive in 201 and, as an Audi words driver, unlikely to find one (and not with a top team). For Piquet, it sounded like sour grapes more than anything.

But the problem for drivers is very real right now. As we analysed in a piece a few weeks ago, there are three season three races that will be affected by schedule clashes: Mexico, Paris and New York. While no drivers will miss Mexico, the Formula E drivers in WEC will be forced to take a red-eye flight on Friday night due to the Monza prologue test. Expect a few tired faces and late sign-ons at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez…

Paris will see drivers racing in DTM (Maro Engel and Loic Duval) probably skip the round with their factory commitments taking priority. Then comes New York, which is the real problem. As it stands today, Sebastien Buemi, Sam Bird and Jose Maria Lopez will all miss the race, and the list is likely to grow.

So are we now reaching a position where drivers do need to put themselves firmly in one camp or the other? Di Grassi thinks so.

“I think it will be hard not to have clashes in the future,” di Grassi told me in Buenos Aires on Friday. “I hope there are no clashes. For me with Audi, they told me: ‘The priority is Formula E. If you want to do one or two other races, you can.’ They even told me if you want to do WEC, you can, but the priority is Formula E. You have to miss the WEC. It’s a very clear, straightforward view for us, for ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport. For the team the priority is Formula E. That I understand and I agree that Formula E is getting to a level where it is getting very complicated, very detail oriented, so you need to focus on that.”

It’s a view that Bird does not share, though. To him, so long as the two series do not clash, there is no reason why drivers cannot race in both, which is why he is so frustrated by the Nurburgring/New York overlap.

“I wish someone would budge,” Bird said. “I think there’s no need for it. There’s a weekend there where somebody could move and it makes it very difficult for us drivers. I understand that running a championship is extremely difficult and coordinating it is very tough. I understand this but I thought that we had an agreement that the two would not clash. It’s already broken down. It’s a big shame for us and it jeopardises our contracts. If there was the understanding still that we had initially then I think it could [be possible to race in both series]. How much longer that could last? I don’t know. It’s looking more difficult. I’m not saying that it’s not a definite no-no that you can’t, but it’s looking more difficult than before.”

DSVR is facing the somewhat uncomfortable position of having to field an all-changed line-up for New York, given that both Bird and Lopez will be tied up with WEC. “My priority is Toyota LMP1 this year,” Pechito said. “I’m going to be racing for sure in the Nurburgring if there is a clash.” Alex Lynn has recently been signed as a DSVR reserve driver and would step into one seat, but there’s still a second to be filled. Is that where Gutierrez steps in?

Quite how long drivers can continue to double dip in both series is unclear, but unless the two categories can ensure they prevent a repeat of this fiasco, as tough as that may be, then it may be impossible for drivers to commit to racing in both. One team boss told me today how he made very clear to his drivers from day one that if they joined the team, it would come before all other racing commitments. They were free to race elsewhere on non-FE weekends, but they had to respect the team’s need for stability. One wonders how many will be pushing for something similar moving forward. 

Two years ago, any ultimatum that made a driver choose between the exotic WEC category, with its high-profile drivers and OEM teams, and the start-up electric series would have seemed ludicrous. Now, with races in New York, Paris and Hong Kong, and with manufacturers lining up to take part (BMW, Audi, Renault, Jaguar, Mahindra already, with Mercedes reported to be on the way), it’s no longer an easy choice. WEC may still win on salaries right now but the day may not be far off when a full-time Formula E seat is more attractive from a financial as well as a marketing visibility standpoint.  

We have a feeling Piquet will still be around. How many of the other double-duty drivers will opt for Formula E over WEC will be a fascinating story.

Luke Smith

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