Jean-Eric Vergne plans to see out the rest of the Formula E season with Andretti. After two pole positions and three Fanboost wins in three races, he’s still hunting for his first podium finish.
(This article first appeared as a Current E Insights publication. Download it here: Current E Insights JEV March 2015)
The taut white fabric of the temporary garages seems to glow in the mid-afternoon Miami sunshine, almost as if the lines of square-edged structures are lit from within. The light glitters and bounces off the deep blue of the harbour waters, the moat bowing to the castle ramparts of the paddock buildings and the sand coloured harbour wall.
The afternoon relaxes between imperious concrete roadways that stretch out left and right, framing the square spit of land that Formula E has claimed. Enormous cruise ships sit like floating tower blocks just across the bay and, in between, a small seaplane wheels and dives like a seagull before alighting on the surface of the water with barely a fleck of spray. It’s two days before the first US race of the maiden Formula E season but the Frenchman hoping for victory in an American car appears anything but nervous.
Jean-Eric Vergne is one of the star billings of the new series. The man more commonly known as JEV arrived without much fanfare at the third Formula E race, in Uruguay. The softly spoken F1 refugee had just left Toro Rosso, the mid-field team that feeds Red Bull, the outfit that has dominated racing’s top table in recent years. Many felt that JEV should have been promoted to the senior team when Mark Webber departed, but instead it was JEV’s counterpart who made the move. When Toro Rosso announced two new faces for 2015, JEV was left without a drive. It was an ignominious end to a strong F1 career, where he’d improved in the driver standings every season for three consecutive years.
Still, shirtless (“No photos,” he says), reclining, trademark red shoes crossed, JEV is not a man who seems unhappy with his lot. Having not previously set foot in the complex Formula E car, he bagged pole position in Uruguay and very nearly won the race. Vergne is relishing the new challenge.
“You know, when you come from Formula One but you are not in the best team and you need to beat a team mate who has a weight advantage, the whole of the season, and then you arrive in a car where everybody has the same, no weight disadvantage or these kinds of problems – it’s extremely easy,” says JEV, with almost stereotypical Gallic nonchalance.
His eyes are hidden behind green mirrored aviator sunglasses but the smile on his face leaves no doubt about his feelings. “It’s like running in the sand with 20kg bags on your back. You’re used to running for three years like this, and then you come onto solid ground with no bags. You seem to be flying.”
“Easy” may seem to make light of the rest of the Formula E field (around three quarters of the drivers have F1 backgrounds), but having experience of F1’s new hybrid engines and focus on fuel saving may have made the switch to Spark-Renault and the energy efficient driving style required less of a leap for him than for others.
Still, even JEV admits the Formula E car isn’t the most straightforward machine to master. “I don’t think you’ll ever get used to this car, to be honest,” he laughs.
JEV was a revelation on his first outing in Punta del Este. Many expected him to be fast, and qualifying is all about maximum attack, maximum speed. But no one foresaw such strong race pace, which had him leading until a suspension collapse ruled him out.
Part of the challenge with the Spark-Renault is in figuring out how and when to adjust the levels of regenerative braking through each stint. Energy can be recovered via the rear wheels. The driver uses a paddle and dial on the steering wheel to select different modes, but these must be balanced in unison with the mechanical brake bias, and the levels must be adjusted as the battery energy wanes.
Many drivers have also been caught out by temperature. As the batteries and motors are put through their paces, they heat up. Using regenerative braking puts more load into the system and, therefore, more heat. When the powertrain gets too hot, it effectively enters a “limp home” mode, which slows the car significantly.
All in all, there’s a lot to think about without trying to stay away from the aggressive kerbs and concrete walls, and yet JEV looked to be set for a win in his first race – until that suspension failure. “I don’t know what happened,” he reflects, three months later. “It happens sometimes to some drivers. I didn’t touch the wall or whatever, so I don’t know why.”
Almost every driver has had a problem with the fragile suspension at some point, whether at preseason testing last summer or in the races themselves. Car maker Spark spotted the problem early, and has developed a stronger front upper wishbone and rear pushrod to counter the issue. The parts were first brought to Miami, and seemed to do the trick. But that didn’t change the DNF for JEV in Uruguay, although the fact that points are awarded for pole position in Formula E proved some small consolation.
The end of 2014 came and went, and Argentina beckoned in the first week of January. After his stirring performance in Punta del Este, JEV was widely expected to put in a strong showing again. Buenos Aires proved more challenging, however. He both qualified and finished in P6.
“It wasn’t that bad,” he says. “The car was not as good as it was in Uruguay but hopefully it should be back to a good standard here in Miami. I don’t know what changes between the races. But I believe the guys have done a good job.”
Figuring out how to prepare the car for each race has been the unseen battle of the championship. While there is relatively little that can be changed with the mechanical set up of the cars (suspension settings and wing angles and not much more), the software settings that control the power maps are completely down to each team. Limited live telemetry means that it’s tough for engineers to figure out exactly what is happening during each session, and the short practice sessions yield virtually no chance to change the approach on race day. Getting the best from the car at each brand new circuit is no easy task.
“Andretti has got one of the most data-driven, scientific approaches of the whole paddock,” says Marc Priestley, technical analyst for ITV’s Formula E programme and a former F1 mechanic. “The team translates that for the driver, and that’s what allows drivers like JEV and Scott Speed to just get in, drive, and be very quick.”
The white and blue Andretti cars have seen a raft of different drivers – six in five races. The changing line-up doesn’t seem to have slowed down the progress of the American outfit however, with the team scoring 62 points in those five events: good enough for fourth position.
In the end, the Miami race didn’t go JEVs way. He secured pole again and fended off Sam Bird for most of the first half of the race in a display of confident defensive driving. But the second stint proved disastrous, with Vergne dropping down the order with overheating issues. He retired with two laps remaining, finishing in P18 in the final reckoning. His team mate, the American driver Scott Speed, qualified in P11 but drove through the field to pick up a podium position.
After Miami, there are six races left. Despite some scintillating performances, Vergne has scored just 14 points, good enough only for P15 in the drivers’ championship. That puts him behind Speed, whose second place finish has earned him 18 points in his sole outing so far. It also puts him behind two other notable Frenchmen – Montagny, who picked up 18 points for Andretti in the season opener in Beijing, and championship leader Prost, who has amassed 67 points with the e.dams-Renault team.
The question is no longer one of outright speed, but of whether Vergne is over-driving the sensitive Spark-Renault. When it comes to JEV’s prospects in this first Formula E season, the old racing adage has never seemed truer: to finish first, first you must finish.
“I absolutely don’t think of that at all,” says Vergne, shrugging when asked about championship prospects. “We’ll see where we are at the end of the year but I don’t put myself as a contender for the title. I put myself as a contender to win races. We’ll see.”
As to whether or not he’ll stick with Formula E this year, he says simply: “Yes, I think I will do the rest of the season.”
The relaxed mood of the Formula E paddock seems to suit the laid back Frenchman. After a disappointing end to his time with Toro Rosso, Vergne has since been hired by Ferrari for F1 simulator work.
“I don’t feel bad,” he says. “I quit Toro Rosso but I arrived in Ferrari and I still have chance to get back next year. I wouldn’t say you’d get a chance after being away for two years, but after just one year, there’s a chance. I’m keeping myself busy in the simulator with the best team in Formula One, keeping up to date with all the new technologies and new ways of working with the best teams – Red Bull and Ferrari. And I keep myself busy with racing good drivers. It’s not a bad deal.”
Andretti was recently announced as one of Formula E’s second season manufacturers, and JEV thinks this will be an important step forward for the sport. “As long as you’ve got a championship with constructors, putting in a decent programme of development, then the championship can become established,” he says. “It will be important. The new cars will be good. There are exciting things to look forward to.”
In the meantime, he’s enjoying the wheel to wheel action that characterises Formula E. “There is more fight, more fun, in the racing, the overtaking, than in F1,” JEV says. “In F1, if you touch one wheel or one white line, then you’ve got a drive through penalty or a 10 second penalty. I don’t find that it’s really racing so much anymore. There’s already so many differences between the cars. Here, we all have the same cars. We fight. It’s cool.”
With three Fanboost wins in three races, JEV continues to have an extra edge in the races too. It’s an advantage he’s enjoying: “I’m just thankful for all my fans who are able to give me the Fanboost. I hope to give back to them by winning races. When you want to overtake someone, when you want to keep a position, it does make a little bit of a difference, like DRS in F1. It keeps people interested in their drivers.”
JEV is unquestionably one of the fastest drivers in the Formula E field. What he must now prove is that he can tailor his approach in the race to avoid unduly stressing the car. If he can manage that, the second half of the season may be his for the taking. For now, it’s good to see the young Frenchman with a smile on his face. Carefree, surrounded by old friends and in a competitive car, the Frenchman is living his national motto: liberty, equality, fraternity.
“Coolest interview ever,” says perhaps the coolest racing driver ever, before spotting a seagull on the harbour wall.
“Hey,” he shouts to Shiv, our photographer, leaping to his feet. “Get me and the bird!”