Formula E: Mercedes are coming … Should the world’s most unpredictable racing series be worried?

Posted at 5:14 AM, Jul 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-18 07:42:33-04

When a big fish enters a small pond it’s bound to make waves.

Mercedes — winners of the last five Formula One driver and team titles — plan to make more than a splash when they join Formula E in Season Six.

Nico Rosberg, who won the F1 title for the German giants in 2016, has already warned CNN: “When Mercedes come, they come to win.”

With the Silver Arrows targeting Formula E success, should the sport be worried its days of open competition will soon be over?

Reasons to be fearful

Mercedes have taken a unique approach to their debut season by sending the HWA Racelab team out on track in Season Five as Formula E guinea pigs.

It’s not the first time that Mercedes and HWA have worked together, as HWA CEO and team principal Ulrich Fritz explains.

“The A of AMG in Mercedes-AMG is for Hans Werner Aufrecht” Fritz tells CNN. “He sold the AMG road car business to Mercedes in 1998 but decided to continue racing, so HWA is the spin-off and the first letters of his name.

“We have a long history with Mercedes and a lot of successes together. We are the most successful ever team in DTM (the German Touring Car Championship) and, with Mercedes, we won a bunch of driver, manufacturer and team titles.

“We want to win races and we want to win this championship in the future too.”

Could the strength of the HWA-Mercedes relationship give Mercedes an advantage ahead of their rookie season as a works team?

“Toto Wolff (Mercedes Motorsport CEO) is a very clever guy,” answers Alejandro Agag, Formula E founder and chairman, before leaving a diplomatic pause to CNN Sport’s question.

“Having a team for a year learning the ropes will make them hit the ground running when they start Season Six.”

“Exchange of ideas”

The two-way relationship between the invincible Mercedes F1 team and Fritz’s electric whippersnappers is also a huge advantage when it comes to Season Six prep.

Experienced race engineer Tony Ross — who worked closely with Rosberg in his title-winning F1 campaign in 2016 and more recently with Valtteri Bottas — has also been parachuted into the Formula E team one year early.

“We understand each other as a big, Mercedes motorsport family and of course we can benefit from each other,” says Fritz.

“You need to be perfectly prepared, you need a good quality system in place, you need to have a strong group of people who want to extract the most out of the car, the drivers and the team — and that can be learned from each other.

“On the technical side we benefit from what Brixworth [Mercedes’ engine headquarters in England] has learnt in F1, there is a lot of exchange of ideas and a good collaboration.”

“Very reliable”

If there is one thing likely to be worrying Mercedes’ future Formula E rivals, it is the potential of the electric motors and powertrain being built in Brixworth.

Mercedes’ F1 juggernaut is driven by the absolute dominance of the hybrid engine masterminded ahead of the sport’s major technical rule change in 2014.

Now, that same team, under the leadership of Andy Cowell, is honing a high performance powertrain for its electric charge.

The Season Six car — officially named the Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrow 01 — is already up and running, ticking off 218 laps during a test in June.

HWA drivers Stoffel Vandoorne and Gary Paffet reported back that the car was “very reliable” and “first impressions were very good.”

Reasons to be cheerful

Despite the fluidity between the Mercedes F1 and Formula E teams, there is no getting away from the fact that the two formulas are very different; you could say as distinct as grunting combustion engine motors and purring battery-powered cars.

As with most things in life, money, or having less of it, is one of the key differentials.

“F1 is so shrouded in money,” explains Nicholls. “Mercedes are spending hundreds of millions [of dollars] in F1.

“Each team has its own brake and acceleration pedals, each team has to build their own wheel guns, it’s just a nonsensical wasting of money. That spreads out the field too much in terms of being able to compete.

“But since day one Formula E has been pretty obsessed with keeping costs under control so that teams can exist and not go bust, and that keeps the competition closer.”

READ: “When Mercedes come they come to win”

It’s no surprise that the teams with the biggest budgets in F1 — Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull — are the teams consistently at the front of the pack. Mercedes and Ferrari reportedly spent $400m in 2018 with Red Bull dishing out $310 million.

They can dedicate more resources into designing and testing new parts for the car to increase its on-track performance.

The Formula E rulebook simply doesn’t allow for that kind of technical naval-gazing; all the teams race with the same Gen2 cars and batteries and can only customize the car’s powertrain and software.

FIA regulations also say the cost of a ready-to-race car and powertrain “shall not exceed” 817,300 euros ($916,552).

“In F1, Mercedes build the engine and the car and the two together are pretty much perfect,” says Nicholls. “But the restrictions and regulations in FE are so much tighter that I don’t think that same Mercedes’ dominance is possible.

“If anything they’ll be behind the curve of development as you have manufacturers like Audi who’ve been there since day one in 2014.”

In Season Five, HWA Racelab ran a car provided by the Venturi team in a deal that is expected to see the latter outfit — a team run by by Toto Wolff’s wife Susie — use the Mercedes powertrain next season.

But HWA inherited some reliability issues and there were operational teething troubles too as the team finished ninth out of eleven teams.

“Zero mistakes”

Fritz identifies “understanding the product” and the one day race format as the team’s biggest challenges.

“This electrical drive-train, energy management, temperature management and brake by wire are all completely new to us,” Fritz explains. “So we need to adapt our operations and engineering to this — it has been a challenge.

“On the racing side … with practice, qualifying and the race in one short day you need to be on top of things. Having new drivers and a new team hurts you more.

“You need to operate on zero mistakes in Formula E or otherwise it is incredibly tough to succeed.

“We have really learnt a lot and prepared the team we want to have next year. It’s not just about knowledge and pure skill, it is about experience and that is what we’re trying to put together.”

Even with more experience, it may ultimately be impossible for anyone to completely master Formula E’s unique formula of one day racing on ever-evolving city center circuits.

And the brains behind the electric racing series are always looking for new ways to make the racing less predictable and the title race even more exciting.

“This season Formula E implemented a new qualifying format that pretty much guarantees that none of the championship leaders start from the front of the grid,” explains Nicholls.

“They go out first in qualifying so they get the worse track. That is an active sporting decision to try and mix it up and keep it random — and it works.”

A seesawing Season Five saw Jean-Eric Vergne only defend his Formula E title at the very last race in New York while there were eight different winners in the first eight races.

So can Mercedes simply send their Silver Arrows flying into Formula E and kill off the competition?

“I don’t think they’ll come in and dominate,” says Nicholls, who commentates on both Formula 1 and Formula E for the BBC.

“I can see them winning a race. It sounds stupid but you haven’t actually achieved much if you win in FE — it’s so unpredictable that you can get a pole and a win if things fall into your favor.

“It’s the sustained championship fight and the consistency that’s important and I don’t think Mercedes will be challenging for the championship in their first year.”

And what does the founder of Formula E think will happen when the silver sharks that have gobbled up the F1 competition enters his pond?

“They will struggle to have a big advantage like they have in Formula 1,” Agag tells CNN.

“The window of technology is a lot smaller, the driver makes a big, big difference and the car is not as decisive.

“No I don’t see [Mercedes domination] happening — and I don’t think anyone is particularly worried about it.”

The new Formula E season — featuring new Mercedes and Porsche teams – begins in the desert heat of Saudi Arabia on 22 November 2019.