Formula E's 15-way title fight isn't as good as it seems - The Race
Formula E

Formula E’s 15-way title fight isn’t as good as it seems

Jul 23 2021
By Matt Beer

I can’t believe I’m about to write a column complaining about a world championship fight having 15 realistic protagonists with two events to go.

But, here it goes.

Formula E’s 2021 stats are extraordinary.

In 11 races so far, we’ve had nine different winners from seven teams. Nineteen drivers (covering every team bar NIO333) have been on the podium.

Formula E New York City E Prix 2021

The championship lead has changed hands five times between four drivers.

But here’s the big one. The stat that’s either a glowing endorsement of a format creating a wide open unpredictable fight, or a damning indictment of a format that’s impossible to take seriously as a meritocratic contest.

It’s not just that mathematically every single driver is still in theoretical title contention with four races across two events to go. It’s that with the way the championship battle has been flowing, 15 drivers still have an absolutely genuine shot at being 2021 Formula E world champion with just London and Berlin to go.

The maximum score in a Formula E race including the bonuses is 30 points. The gap from championship leader Sam Bird to Jake Dennis in 15th in the standings is just 27 points heading into the London E-Prix double-header.

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And in the last two events we’ve twice seen drivers leap from outside the championship top 10 into the points lead across one weekend, or even one race.

So Bird, Antonio Felix da Costa, Robin Frijns, Edoardo Mortara, Nick Cassidy, Jean-Eric Vergne, Rene Rast, Mitch Evans, Pascal Wehrlein, Nyck de Vries, Oliver Rowland, Lucas di Grassi, Stoffel Vandoorne, Maximilian Guenther and Dennis can all legitimately believe they might win this title.

That’s brilliant. Isn’t it?

I’m not sure it is. Even though as a teenage fan many years ago, it would’ve been the title fight I’d have dreamt of in any series. The reality isn’t as fulfilling as the premise.

Our Formula E correspondent Sam Smith revealing this week that FE is simulating alternative qualifying formats amid a consensus that the current system penalises championship leaders too much was welcome news.

Because this spectacularly topsy-turvy points battle can’t be put down to organic form fluctuations between teams, and is heavily contrived by the format.

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For those new to Formula E, the qualifying system begins with the field being split into four groups of six cars based on championship standings. Given the championship’s circuits are mostly short and narrow, the series wisely doesn’t want all 24 cars jostling for space in qualifying at once.

The top six in the points run first, meaning they get the dirtiest track conditions on circuits that often have no other racing use all year.

After the four groups have run, the overall top six fastest drivers go into the single-lap superpole shootout to decide the front of the grid.

But only 8% of all the superpole places this year have gone to the championship-leading drivers from group one, such is the conditions disadvantage they face.

The 13th-18th in the championship gang in group three is the prime group to be in for a pole shot, with 38% of 2021 superpole places earned from there.

The championship tailenders of group four have taken 27% of the 2021 superpole places, the same stat as for group two.

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Formula E is in brilliantly competitive shape. Ten of its teams are consistently on the pace and the other two have their occasional moments.

With the margins so slender, the cost of the time lost on the dirty group one track is accentuated, and it’s much harder for drivers in quick cars stranded at the back of the grid to make progress in races than it was when there were much bigger performance and energy usage disparities between teams.

All of which adds up to a very effective handicapping system.

Though I’ve kept abreast of Formula E since its Beijing 2014 debut, the vagaries of newsdesk rotas have meant 2021 is the first year I’ve watched every single session, badgered an FE correspondent for info incessantly and got fully immersed in every twist and turn of the campaign.

Fia Formula E Rome Eprix

At first, I loved all the shocks and swings and relished the Formula E weekends. But through the most recent Puebla and New York rounds, the artificially compressed title battle and lack of clear narrative began to grate.

The counter arguments to my stance are clear. This system means pretty much every team gets a highlight to shout about during the season – and for a series trying to keep a lot of manufacturers on side, there are advantages to that. But top teams are making clear that the headache of explaining to the executives who approve their (not small) budgets why they’re qualifying 19th all the time outweighs the positives of the wins that put them in that position.

And my colleague Val Khorounzhiy suggested he found the Formula E pattern quite inoffensive on the grounds it was like a season-long equivalent of a Talladega NASCAR race (photo below by James Gilbert/Getty Images), with everyone just trying to position themselves for a manic final few laps.

Nascar Cup Series Geico 500

If the Berlin finale next month is an incredible race in which the destination of the championship crown constantly changes hands through qualifying and the race, I’ll accept that it was worth it.

But is the title just going to go to a driver ‘lucky’ enough to find themselves in qualifying group three in Germany, and who then can’t be shifted from the front in the race because the cars are too closely-matched now? That feels highly possible.

On paper, Venturi driver Mortara vaulting from 11th to 1st in the standings across the Puebla weekend and current points leader Bird going from 13th to 1st in the championship in a single race with his New York win for Jaguar might have felt like great stories.

But between the Diriyah win and Rome race one second place that initially put Bird in a strong position, and the New York win that put him back on top, Bird’s results were two crashes, a disqualification from 11th place, a 14th, a seventh, a 12th and a ninth.

Does that feel like a title-worthy trajectory? Is it right to be a championship contender in the closing stages on the basis of three good results in an 11-round season?

Is getting back in championship contention because one good result leaps you right past a bunch of pegged-back opponents satisfying? Does it adequately make up for the frustration of being pegged-back yourself for so much of the time before that result, and the knowledge that you’re now firmly on the back foot again for the next few rounds until you have the ‘fortune’ to be elbowed down the championship standings?

A good championship battle – in terms of wide fan appeal – needs a narrative, a proper storyline to latch onto. That needn’t be a straightforward two-person head-to-head.

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Formula 1 made a five-way title battle happen quite organically in 2010 (albeit slightly marred by a processional finale), and the month of 1999 when it looked like any one of Mika Hakkinen, Eddie Irvine, Heinz-Harald Frentzen or David Coulthard might be F1 world champion was great fun and hadn’t relied on any of the quartet disappearing out of frontrunning contention for a long spell like the Formula E fluctuations.

An F1 fan friend who hasn’t followed recently asked me ‘is there a Lewis Hamilton of Formula E?’ As my daughter’s second birthday mini-party wasn’t a great venue for an in-depth explanation of group qualifying nuances, I limited my reply to ‘no, there isn’t really, it’s very open’. But – contrary to what I would’ve once argued – a crazily wide open ‘championship leader of the week’ semi-lottery isn’t as likely to win new fans as a tangible rivalry between a consistent group of frontrunning characters.

Formula E 2021 wouldn’t be a flat runaway season with a more even qualifying format. The field’s too close for that.

Formula E New York City E Prix 2021

The best guess is that on ‘merit’, this would be a Mercedes versus Jaguar championship fight (two properly marketable brands), potentially involving all four drivers from those teams, with wily racers da Costa and Frijns shoving every semi-ajar door open too and mounting title bids as well.

That’s still a better championship battle storyline that pretty much any other major international motorsport series can boast right now.

And Audi, BMW, Nissan, Vergne, Cassidy, probably Mahindra, and Venturi’s customer Mercedes in Mortara’s hands too, would still have cameo appearances at the front on their best days, without being title threats.

I don’t envy Formula E’s task as it tries to come up with a fix for qualifying. And I don’t think what it’s got now was the wrong starting point when it was conceived.

But I’m going to find it hard to get excited by another ‘from nowhere to first’ championship leap in London this weekend. And I really want to feel like the champion crowned in Berlin next month deserves it on season-long merit.

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