It’s good to be (almost) back. 

Formula E is set to return with a truly electrifying season finale in just a few days time. We’re about to experience six races over nine days with three tracks and we’ll emerge with just one champion! It’s the showdown of showdowns and I can’t wait to get back into the action. 

Nicki Shields

3.8.2020

Obviously, it’s great to be back racing again, but the paddock will feel a very different place in Berlin.

Formula E has drafted in the team that successfully reinstated the Bundesliga football series (the German equivalent of the Premier League) a couple of months ago. Safety is, of course, a priority for everyone involved in Formula E, so we’ll be following some rather strict rules during our two week race ‘weekend’. 

The bits you’ll get to see will be a little different. I’m under strict instructions not to employ my usual technique of rugby tackling drivers and team bosses as they walk through the paddock. Instead I’ll have to ask questions from two metres away. And don’t expect much in the way of celeb spotting in Berlin. The only diva anywhere close the grid will be my fellow Formula E commentator Jack Nicholls. Naturally, we’ll be donning facemasks and we’ll be tested repeatedly throughout the event. 

Having been briefed by the crew about what to expect in Berlin, I’m absolutely in awe of the logistics being planned to get the show on the air. Admittedly, I’m in awe of the team most race weekends, but the safety restrictions in Germany have added a new level of complexity to things. At least we’ve got six races to get our act together!

Behind the scenes will be quite different too. It’s a good job I get on with the lovely crew I work with because we’re all going to be living as one big dysfunctional family. 

We’ll be split into working bubbles and will be staying at the same hotel. And it’s not just any hotel. The Estrel is, fortunately for us, Europe’s largest convention, entertainment and hotel complex and the size of a small town. I’ve been told that we’ll be allocated an in-house restaurant each night, so it won’t feel too much like groundhog day!!

Not having family and friends around for nearly two weeks will be a huge challenge, but we’re all having to change the way we do things in an effort to get back to normal.

In, out, shake it all about

Another thing that will take a bit of getting used to are the driver and team line-ups. In theory, we should have the same drivers in the same cars as we had at the last round in Santiago in February. This is, after all, still the same Formula E season we started at the end of last year. 

But if you’ve keeping up with Formula E business during this enforced break, you’ll know that there’s been an epic game of musical chairs taking place away from the track. I won’t spill all the gossip here (frankly there isn’t enough space on the web to tell you everything), so here’s a ‘Shield’s Summary’ of the Formula E lockdown driver changes. 

In a truly bizarre tale that couldn’t be more 2020 if it tried, Daniel Abt was relieved of his drive with the works Audi team for cheating in an online race. It’s a bit of a long story, so here’s the edited version. During lockdown, Formula E drivers were invited to take part in a series of official Race at Home Challenges, broadcast live on YouTube. Spotting the opportunity to play a big practical joke on his fellow Formula E racers, Daniel drafted in the services of a professional esports gamer to drive on his behalf for the final race, with the plan being to reveal his dastardly secret when the chequered flag fell. But somewhere along the line the wheels fell off his plan. The pro gamer finished third and before Daniel could fess up, the virtual ceremony was already in progress. Other drivers cried foul and before he knew it, the organisers were analysing IP addresses to establish who was actually driving. What had been planned as an elaborate practical joke by an eighteen year-old driver and his mates swiftly turned into a PR nightmare. 

As Daniel sought to explain and apologise, Audi suspended him with immediate effect and the series organisers hit him with a €10,000 fine for his troubles

But just as Daniel was eyeing up two weeks all-inclusive in Magaluf, team bosses at Nio were on the phone with an offer. With Nio’s regular driver Ma Qinghua stuck in his native China under travel restrictions, Nio needed a fast replacement. After checking that he didn’t need to know how to play Super Mario Kart, he joined. 

Replacing Daniel at Audi will be Rene Rast - a driver with a CV as long as a charging cable. Le Mans, Porsche Supercup, DTM, Kiddie Karts on Weymouth seafront, he’s done it all. Although he made a one-off appearance in Formula E in 2016 (replacing Antonio Felix da Costa), only time will tell how quickly he adapts to the Gen 2 car around a very unfamiliar circuit. 

The changes don’t end there. Last month Pascal Wehrlein announced on Instagram that he was splitting up with Mahindra. Pascal didn’t give any reasons for leaving, but it’s best to assume that he had an issue with one of the following: team catering / salary payment / choice of company car / vacancy at generously-funded factory Porsche works team. Brit Alex Lynn will replace Pascal for the final nine races and, given that he proved more than handy in his two previous stints in Formula E (with DS Virgin and Jaguar), he could be one to watch. 

Wasn’t this a left hander on Wednesday?

If the Berlin showdown doesn’t quite sound crazy enough for you with all the driver swaps, the multiple track layouts are ramping up the madness for the teams. Although they won’t admit this in public, I know lot of teams are having sleepless nights over the variability of the three different layouts we’ll see in Berlin. The problem is data. When I drive my i3 to the airport, I know almost to the mile how much charge I’ll need. That’s because I’ve done it so many times. For Formula E teams data is king. If they know the track and conditions, they can plan with incredible precision how fast they can burn through charge. This data can only really be reliable if it’s come from a previous race or hours of work on a simulator. With new tracks and no data from previous races, the teams have their work cut out. 

And that’s before the drivers have started knocking lumps out of their cars on the unfamiliar circuits. With six races over nine days, the mechanics and engineers are going to be under incredible pressure just to keep their cars at the top of their game. Formula E circuits aren’t the kindest on cars, so I’m predicting some serious overtime invoices and plenty of last minute repair jobs. Expect tank tape and cable tie manufacturers to do very well out of Berlin.

I hope you get a chance to watch the action as the title race is decided. It promises to be one of the most unpredictable ends to any motorsport season and, as usual, I’ll be in the thick of it. Until the next time, stay safe and enjoy the show!

NS

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