Hubbub in Hong Kong

Three months on from the thrilling season two finale that saw Sebastien Buemi edge out Lucas di Grassi for the drivers’ championship, Formula E returns to racing this weekend. Sunday’s race in Hong Kong will mark the start of another whirlwind campaign.

The island city was first confirmed as having finally succeeded in its ambition to become a host city for the all-electric single-seater series back in 2015 (exactly a year ago on Sunday, when the race will take place). Hong Kong’s inclusion forms part of a heavily-revised calendar for season three which also welcomes Marrakesh, Brussels, New York and Montreal. As evidenced by such a high level of interest in hosting the series from major cities, Formula E is quite literally going places.

There’s very much a sort of “back to school” feel in the paddock today as familiar faces catch up after a busy summer of preparation. While preseason testing at Donington Park gave us some clue as to how the grid may form up on Sunday, we won’t really know what to expect from the season until the chequered flag falls at the end of the forthcoming weekend.

Sebastien Buemi remains the man to beat heading into the new campaign. His title victory over di Grassi in London last year offered one of the more surreal fights in Formula E (or, indeed, in motorsport more widely), with Buemi widely perceived to have been the more deserving winner. That said, Renault e.dams had the quickest and most agile car and it was really only mid-season blips from team and driver which kept di Grassi in with a shout of the championship. Still, Buemi was lightning quick throughout the year; the challenge now for the Swiss racer is continuing this good form among a field that most expect to tighten up for season three.

Di Grassi is likely to emerge as a title contender once again. The Brazilian has established himself as one of the most talented racers in the world over the past couple of seasons, enjoying success in both Formula E and WEC, the latter with Audi’s LMP1 team. While his antics in the London finale in trying to block Buemi on fast laps turned the race into something of a farce and really does warrant some serious official action (lest a precedent be set whereby drivers can ruin fast laps of others by deliberately dithering on track), di Grassi is without question clever, consistent and quick. The winner of the first ever Formula E race will be gunning for that thus-far elusive Formula E title. With the foundations now in place for an Audi factory effort at the ABT team from season four, will the German marque arrive next season with a champion driver and team to boot?

Audi is not the only manufacturer with plans to ramp up involvement in Formula E. Since the paddock last met at the beginning of September for testing at Donington Park, we’ve had official confirmation of the long-rumoured BMW connection. The marque is aiming to have a works entry in place for season five by way of a partnership with Andretti.

Elsewhere, other well-known names are on their way. McLaren Applied Technologies (which supplied all motors and ECUs in season one) has won the tender to supply race batteries to the grid from season five, when car swaps are set to become a thing of the past. Perhaps most significantly, Mercedes announced earlier this week that it has secured an entry option for season five. The F1 world conquered, the three-pointed star is now pointing at Formula E.

On a similar subject, much of the hubbub in Hong Kong surrounds the racing debut for the new Jaguar Racing operation. Twelve years after its ill-fated stint in F1 came to an end, the big cat is back in top line international motorsport with a slick-looking Formula E team. Drivers Adam Carroll and Mitch Evans may be rookies by name but are certainly not by nature, both having tasted success in global series. Jaguar has cooled expectations for its debut season but, as is the case with any effort of this size, brand and budget, victory is not a desire; it’s a requirement.

The other new name on the grid in Hong Kong is Techeetah. Following two financially-sticky years, Team Aguri personnel secured a longer-term future thanks to a takeover from a Chinese investment firm at the end of last season. Former-F1 racer Jean-Eric Vergne arrives at the team after two seasons in Formula E (with Andretti from the third round of season one and, more recently, from DS Virgin Racing in season two). The team has bought Renault powertrains, which will throw up some interesting questions for Renault bosses should Techeetah be as competitive as they looked in testing.

Formula E constructors are obliged to sell their powertrains at a capped price should customer teams request them, although no data or testing sharing is required. Should the customer team then have the beating of the constructor team, the argument for development spend on powertrains could be affected. It’s a deliberate move to try and prevent rapid spending escalation on powertrains and it will be intriguing to see how this all plays out. In any case, while it remains a fairly lean operation, Techeetah will be out to claim some big scalps in season three.

Up and down the grid, powertrain solutions appear to be converging rather than diverging, which should mean closer racing throughout the whole season this year. Marginal gains will be the order of the day with hardware homologated (and unable to be developed through the season); software engineering can continue apace and this is where teams with vast race engineering capabilities (such as Renault, Audi, DS and Williams for Jaguar) are expected to take steps forward through the season.

As well as two new teams on the grid in Hong Kong, there will be five new drivers. Jaguar is responsible for two of them, in Carroll and Evans; Felix Rosenqvist, Maro Engel and Jose Maria Lopez make up the others. Rosenqvist arrives with a wealth of racing experience, with notable success coming in the F3 European series last year. The Swede is also a race winner in Intercontinental GT and Indy Lights and has won the Macau Grand Prix on two occasions. Engel is also a victor around the streets of Macau, winning the FIA World GT Cup there, but is best known for racing with Mercedes in DTM. Finally, Lopez brings his trio of WTCC titles to Formula E with DS, a sub-brand of Citroen, for whom he is a factory driver. The grid for season three is certainly not short of experience or qualification.

There will also be a number of drivers looking to make the step up from impressive campaigns in season one and two to become championship contenders. Sam Bird has led DSVR’s charge throughout its stint in Formula E, wiping the floor with his team mates in both seasons so far and winning races in both years. Last season was extremely frustrating for that squad; with the DS Performance input, they’d expected to be challenging for a title but that was never going to happen with the wayward, weighty car which emerged. Now, with a new reconfigured and lighter powertrain, Bird will want to dominate his new team mate while finally taking the fight to the likes of Buemi and di Grassi.

Elsewhere, Jerome d’Ambrosio is a two-time race winner with Dragon, which now has Faraday Future for company as a partner. Nico Prost won the final two races of the season so will be hoping to continue that form for Renault into the start of season three, while Daniel Abt will be hoping to step out of di Grassi’s shadow once and for all at ABT and finally bag race victories. Season one champion Nelson Piquet will also be out to return to the fight at the front of the order with NextEV following a sizeable restructuring of the team and an injection of investment, as evidenced by its fancy race truck at Donington and “bird’s nest” engineering platform above its garages. Andretti is also worth keeping an eye on as Robin Frijns and Antonio Felix da Costa combine to form one of the most exciting driver line-ups on the grid, the American team now also armed with a current-spec powertrain after sticking with the season one unit last time around.

Come the end of July 2017, we will have our third Formula E champion. Quite who it will be remains impossible to predict right now but Sunday afternoon will give us a clue. I’ll be on site for Current E; this media source has provided trackside coverage at every single race of Formula E and we’ll bring you news, gossip and snazzy pictures. It’s going to be a great season.

Luke Smith

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