Unlike IndyCar and Formula 1, which came to a grinding halt just as they were set to kick off, or NASCAR, which managed to get a few races in before the coronavirus pandemic forced everyone to go home, the ABB FIA Formula E Championship getting to its midway point. With five of 14 races in the books, the series was already facing race cancellations earlier than most. The race in Sanya, China, originally scheduled for March 21, was cancelled in early February. The Rome ePrix slated for April 4 was scrapped on March 6, and a week later the whole season was put on ice. By then, country-wide lockdowns had become commonplace.
“I think this maybe the longest I’ve ever gone without getting on a plane since I started racing,” says Panasonic Jaguar Racing driver Mitch Evans. The Kiwi, now 25, began racing at age 6.
His teammate James Calado has also had to get used to being at home, which for him is just outside the Welsh capital of Cardiff.
“Between Formula E and racing for Ferrari in WEC (FIA World Endurance Championship), I’m rarely home for more than a few days at a time,” he says. “In some cases I was home long enough to repack and say hello to my wife and daughter before trotting out the door again.
“It’s been good in a way. I’ve gotten a lot of rides on my bicycle – about 200 to 300 kilometers a week. We have lovely, empty roads to ride on here in Wales, and I’ve even been able to hop on my motorbike for some rides as well.”
Evans is locked down at his home base in Monaco where running is his exercise of choice. Given the diminutive size of the Principality, he’s running out of new places to go, even as his longer outings take him across the border into France.
The series was immediately proactive in setting up the ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge in support of UNICEF. Each of the drivers were set up with sim race rigs, and the series has already completed as many virtual rounds as they have real races.
“It’s all good fun, and certainly for a very worthy cause,” says Evans, “but it’s not the real thing, is it? We’re all anxious to get back on track as soon as we can.”
Not only are both drivers keeping their fitness up, they are both still very much in regular communication with the team and their engineers. Evans took a win at the Mexico City round and currently lies second overall in the championship, 11 points off the lead. Jaguar sit third in the team title race, which makes this its best performance since entering Formula E three seasons ago.
“The pause has given us a lot of time to analyze things more in depth,” says Evans. “There’s a lot of brain power in the team to come up with new solutions to close the gap even further. But the other teams have been doing the same things as well. It’s big development race throughout the year when it comes to software. Whether the team has made some gains using simulation, we’ll have to see. The team has done a really great job of keeping things rolling.
“I’m hoping for us it’s a case of picking up where we left off, but you never know. I had the win in Mexico and really good result in Marrakesh, and [was] heading to Rome where I had my first win, so I was really hoping to keep the momentum rolling. The longer this goes on, the more likely it will be like starting from square one.”
While Evans was getting into the hunt for the title, Calado was learning a whole new series.
“I can practically drive the Ferrari in WEC blindfolded, but Formula E is all new and I’m still in a learning phase,” he says. “For me there are new tracks, new software, something that I was getting up to. It’s super-competitive, and I was coming off my best qualifying in Marrakesh and the momentum was good, so I was really looking forward to the next race. But, I’ve been able to speak with the engineers and get really in-depth with my performances to see where I can find some improvements.”
Jaguar entered into Formula E back in 2016 (Season 3) and set a measured path to the front; one that may have appeared quite conservative from the outside. By Season 5 the program had made great strides, leading to Evans winning in Rome. According to Evans, last season was the tipping point where the team went from learning and building to performing. New staff and more knowledge led to more confidence. Operationally at the track and between races, things were beginning to click with regularity. The R&D side was coming up with big improvements. The hard work was beginning to pay dividends in Season 6. And then it all came to a halt.
“It was a bit of slap in the face, when the racing stopped,” says Evans. “We had built up this momentum and we’ve been building up to this for a few years, and to now be in a position to fight for wins and a championship only to have to stop in the middle of it really hurts. It’s tough to take, but at the same time understanding why it happened helps to ease the pain a bit. But when you’re in that rhythm, the last thing you want to do is stop.”
When and where Formula E kicks off again remains to be seen. As Calado notes, everyone is ready and raring to. The question is will it be the back to where we left off or will it be a whole new championship? Let’s hope we get to find out.