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Topher’s Thoughts: Assessing the S3 driver line up

Focus | Drivers

  • Could Massa switch series and enter Formula E?
  • de Silvestro's seat appears to be under threat

With only the double-header London ePrix left to run in season 2, the Formula E paddock is rife with speculation as to who will race where in season 3. 20 drivers will take part in the season opener, provisionally in Hong Kong, but there looks set to be more interested than there are seats available. Here I take a look at the options to each team and make my own predictions for how the season 3 grid will shape up.

There are no surprises at ABT Schaeffler, as the German team has already confirmed the retention of championship contender Lucas di Grassi and Daniel Abt for season 3.

di Grassi could be on the brink of his maiden Formula E title, leading the standings by a single point ahead of Renault e.dams rival Sebastien Buemi. Even if the Brazilian misses out on winning the championship, you cannot doubt his loyalty to the team providing him with the chance to fight at the top.

Abt may have joined the team initially because of his father’s involvement, but the young German has since proved that he deserves his seat in Formula E and after taking a highly-impressive home podium in Berlin, no one could really argue against him being re-signed for season 3.

Confirmed: Lucas di Grassi / Daniel Abt

It looks like a driver change is on the cards at Andretti, with rumours circulating that Antonio Felix da Costa is closing in on a deal to race for the American team in season 3.

This would tie in perfectly with further rumours that major car manufacturer BMW is looking to partner with Andretti, opening the door for da Costa who races for the German marque in DTM.

It is most likely that Robin Frijns will be kept on with Andretti, after an impressive rookie season has seen the Dutchman score points in every round bar one, where he was punted out of contention by a wayward Sebastien Buemi. A podium in Putrajaya with a broken car also served as a reminder to everyone of Frijns’ exceptional skill behind the wheel of a racing car, and I fully expect him to stay.

While da Costa looks to be taking Simona de Silvestro’s seat, another name has popped up recently, as British GT vice champion Alexander Sims conducted a test with the team. It is a common trend in Formula E that anyone who tests in the series decides to pursue a full-time seat, could the same happen to Sims?

As for de Silvestro, she is a very popular figure in the paddock and I know many would be happy to see her stay. However, any team will tell you that results matter more than popularity and up against the record of Frijns this season, the Iron Maiden simply hasn’t been quick or consistent enough to warrant a place in the team and in all honesty I cannot see her being retained for season 3.

Candidates: Robin Frijns, Simona de Silvestro, Antonio Felix da Costa, Alexander Sims

I predict: Robin Frijns / Antonio Felix da Costa

It has been a season of two halves for the Dragon Racing squad, with both Loic Duval and Jerome d’Ambrosio challenging for victories early on, the latter triumphing in Mexico.

However, the team has fallen away from form since then, losing third place in the standings to DS Virgin Racing following the Paris ePrix.

Looking at the drivers, both are very capable in a car and able to run at the front with good enough machinery. With the team looking to return to the front of the pack, consistency will be the key for season 3 and for this reason I see no reason to look anywhere other than their current driver pairing.

Candidates: Loic Duval, Jerome d’Ambrosio

I predict: Loic Duval / Jerome d’Ambrosio

There were some question marks over the season 3 line up for DS Virgin Racing, with rumours stating that Sam Bird was speaking to Jaguar and Jean-Eric Vergne was due to be replaced following some below-par performances. However, I don’t see this as the case.

Having spoken to Bird at the Berlin ePrix, he confirmed to me that he has one year left on his contract with the team and given his front running pace both this season and last, I can’t see any reason why the Englishman wouldn’t see out his contract.

As for Vergne, the highly-rated Frenchman struggled for pace in the first half of the season as he adapted to the heavier machinery, but soon had a turn of fortunes with a well-earned second place finish at his home ePrix.

With Vergne also impressing in Berlin by taking pole position, I believe he has done enough to convince the team to give him another season in the car.

Briefly looking elsewhere should either driver move on, an ideal replacement would be Adam Carroll. The Ulsterman had a chance of a debut with the team in Buenos Aires after Vergne turned up to the circuit with food poisoning. However, the Frenchman raced and denied Carroll his maiden Formula E outing.

If DS Virgin Racing does need a replacement for season three, this prior association with the team might work in his favour. However, in my opinion that is a big IF.

Candidates: Sam Bird, Jean-Eric Vergne, Adam Carroll

I predict: Sam Bird / Jean-Eric Vergne

We will have a new team in Formula E next season in the form of British car giant Jaguar. Their return to motor racing is highly anticipated amongst the fans, but who will get the two seats?

As mentioned earlier, rumours circulated that Sam Bird was talking to the team, but the Englishman put these rumours to bed as he confirmed one more year on his contract with DS Virgin Racing. The same goes for Nelson Piquet Jr, with the reigning champion also being named as a candidate despite having a year left with NEXTEV TCR.

Also from Formula E, Antonio Felix da Costa is on the list of possibles for Jaguar, but because of previously stated reason, I doubt this will happen.

Nationality correlation seems to be a popular idea in motor racing, with British drivers Anthony Davidson and Alex Lynn both rumoured to be in line for a seat. Davidson could be considered as a more serious prospect as his duties in the World Endurance Championship would not clash with the Formula E calendar, as is the case for other drivers in the series such as Lucas di Grassi, Sebastien Buemi and Loic Duval.

As for Lynn, the Essex racer is currently looking towards Formula 1 with the Williams team, where he is the reserve. It is very clear that F1 is the goal for Lynn, and I believe that if he is promoted to a race seat, it will be to replace my next candidate.

Felipe Massa, an 11-time winner in F1, has made no secret of the fact he may look elsewhere for next season and Formula E is on his list. Williams are partnered with the new Jaguar Formula E team, and to me this makes enough sense for Massa to be considered for the team. However, starting S3 would mean cutting short his current term in Formula 1 due to the irregular calendar pattern, so we should give it another season before Massa joining Formula E becomes a genuine possibility.

Also from F1, Pastor Maldonado is now a free agent after being ousted by Renault and could be a valuable asset with his substantial backing, as well as having a solid resume with a GP2 title and F1 victory on his record. He has made no secret of the fact he is looking at Formula E and I believe this is more likely than people may realise.

I have two more candidates on my lengthy list for Jaguar, and both are Indian. Given that Tata Communications own Jaguar Land Rover, the Indian company may look towards a home driver. Narain Kathikeyan has been named as an option, while Karun Chandhok should also be considered given his prior experience in the series.

Overall this is a difficult one to predict, as there are pros and cons to each of the drivers. I feel as though Davidson is the most likely option given the non-conflicts with WEC, while his team mate isn’t so clear cut. Having considered the options, the most reasonable bet could well be Maldonado as he won’t be tied down to other commitments, as well as being a proven winner in the top echelon.

Candidates: Antonio Felix da Costa, Anthony Davidson, Alex Lynn, Felipe Massa, Pastor Maldonado, Narain Kathikeyan, Karun Chandhok

I predict: Anthony Davidson / Pastor Maldonado

It has been reported recently that Nick Heidfeld is on the brink of resigning with Mahindra, which would come as no surprise considering the Indian team gave him a podium first time out in Beijing and a top ten standing in the championship.

His team mate for next season might not be so definite yet though.

Bruno Senna has spent two seasons with the team, taking a best finish of fourth in last season’s London ePrix II. The Brazilian has yet to stand on the podium and currently lies 12th in the standings.

The likeable Senna may be popular with the fans, but popularity will only get you so far when the results aren’t consistently there. It would be easy enough for Mahindra to retain the Brazilian into a third season, but while I would not mind seeing Senna back in Formula E, I think the team should at least look at other options.

Think back to Putrajaya when Heidfeld sustained a injury after a snapping steering rack torn a ligament in the German’s hand. Mahindra drafted in Formula Renault 3.5 champion Oliver Rowland to fill the vacant seat for Punta del Este. The Englishman could only muster a 13th place finish, but with no prior experience of Formula E machinery it was a commendable effort to see the finish line. Despite this previous outing for the team, Rowland now competes in the GP2 Series and is unlikely to venture away as he looks towards a seat in Formula 1.

At the following round in Buenos Aires, when Heidfeld was still an uncertainty to race, Adam Carroll was called in on standby in case the German elected to stay on the bench.

Mahindra wasn’t the only team looking towards Carroll, as Daniel Abt of ABT Schaeffler and Jean-Eric Vergne of DS Virgin Racing were both struck down with food poisoning the night before race day. Both teams spoke to the Ulsterman about potentially replacing their respective drivers, with DS Virgin even arranging a seat fitting.

This experience no doubt will have whetted Carroll’s appetite to compete in Formula E. Given his relationship with the Mahindra team and racing record as the last A1GP champion and a race winner in GP2, I believe Carroll should be seriously considered to partner Heidfeld for season 3.

Candidates: Nick Heidfeld, Bruno Senna, Oliver Rowland, Adam Carroll

I predict: Nick Heidfeld / Adam Carroll

One half of the NEXTEV TCR race duo is already locked down for season 3, with reigning champion Nelson Piquet Jr already under contract with the Chinese team. The same cannot be said for team mate Oliver Turvey just yet.

The Englishman, much like Piquet Jr, has endured a disappointing season with a car unable to keep pace with that of its rivals, but Turvey’s talent has shown through as he leads his champion team mate in the standings with a pair of points finishes.

A second full season with the team could do more to improve his record and I can’t see any reason to believe why the team would look elsewhere.

As of yet, no other candidates have been linked to a seat with NEXTEV TCR, so this should serve as encouragement to Turvey as he looks to extend his stay in Formula E.

Candidates: Nelson Piquet Jr, Oliver Turvey

Confirmed: Nelson Piquet Jr

I predict: Nelson Piquet Jr / Oliver Turvey

It is already a done deal for team champions Renault e.dams, taking Sebastien Buemi and Nicolas Prost into a third campaign with the French manufacturer.

Buemi is currently embroiled in a titantic title battle with Lucas di Grassi and could lift the crown at the season-ending London ePrix. Having spent both seasons in contention for the championship, there is no way Buemi would have looked away from the team who has given him what is arguably the best machinery on the grid.

Having said that, there is a chance that the Swiss driver may not see out the next season.

It has emerged recently that the Red Bull Formula 1 team, with whom Buemi is the official reserve driver, are looking to sell him to Renault F1. Does Buemi feel as though he has unfinished business in F1 and will he look towards returning? If this does ultimately happen a highly-desired seat within Formula E will open up mid-season and I have no doubt that many drivers will apply to the French squad. For now, Buemi will definitely start season three at the very least.

Prost has had a somewhat inconsistent career in Formula E so far. He emerged as an early title favourite in season 1 after pole positions in Beijing and Putrajaya (albeit with a grid penalty) and a victory in Miami which gave him the lead in the championship, but since hasn’t looked to threaten the top three despite regularly scoring points. The Frenchman is currently in a tight battle for fourth in the standings with Jerome d’Ambrosio and Stephane Sarrazin, doing enough to retain his seat with Renault e.dams.

Confirmed: Sebastien Buemi / Nicolas Prost

In my mind Team Aguri could either be the easiest to predict or the most difficult to predict. With Antonio Felix da Costa reportedly on the brink of signing for Andretti, hypothetically one seat will definitely be available, with Rene Rast potentially wanting to step in full time after his maiden outing in Berlin.

I fully expect Ma Qing Hua to stay with the team. With new Chinese investors taking part-ownership of the team, the Chinese driver will undoubtedly be the number one choice to drive in season 3.

While a seat opening up will no doubt be of interest to many drivers around the world, experience counts in Formula E and Rast has one ePrix under his belt already. The highly-rated German will already be under consideration for the second seat, but that’s by no means a given just yet, which leads me onto the difficult part.

After the Berlin ePrix, Team Aguri had already had five drivers race for them in season two, with a number of other taking part in the pre-season tests at Donington Park. I would hope that the team can find some stability with its line up, but who’s to say it won’t happen again?

The sensible choice for Team Aguri would be to keep Ma and take Rast on full time if da Costa does indeed move away from the team, but at this moment in time it is unclear as to who will occupy those two seats.

Candidates: Ma Qing Hua, Antonio Felix da Costa, Rene Rast, potentially others

I predict: Ma Qing Hua / Rene Rast

Venturi have enjoyed an improvement in results this year, with Stephane Sarrazin achieving his first podium in Long Beach while scoring points at all the other rounds. Mike Conway was drafted in for Buenos Aires as a replacement for the departing Jacques Villeneuve, immediately reaching the Super Pole round.

I’m sure Sarrazin will be keen to stay with the team providing him with a chance to run at the front, also keeping the continuity of a familiar environment as he aims for the title in season 3.

As for Conway, the Englishman has showed tremendous pace already in his short time in Formula E, with the aforementioned Super Pole visit, however bad luck has also befallen Conway. After topping FP2 in Paris, a super-fast lap was ruined following a collision with Nick Heidfeld, ultimately putting an end to any chance of a decent result that day.

The speed that Conway has shown should be enough to encourage the Man of Kent to re-sign with Venturi, and personally I don’t see how the Monegasque team can turn that down.

Candidates: Stephane Sarrazin, Mike Conway

I predict: Stephane Sarrazin / Mike Conway

ABT Schaeffler: Lucas di Grassi / Daniel Abt

Andretti Autosport: Robin Frijns / Antonio Felix da Costa

Dragon Racing: Loic Duval / Jerome d’Ambrosio

DS Virgin Racing: Sam Bird / Jean-Eric Vergne

Jaguar Racing: Anthony Davidson / Pastor Maldonado

Mahindra Racing: Nick Heidfeld / Adam Carroll

NEXTEV TCR: Nelson Piquet Jr / Oliver Turvey

Renault e.dams: Sebastien Buemi / Nicolas Prost

Team Aguri: Ma Qing Hua / Rene Rast

Venturi: Stephane Sarrazin / Mike Conway

Topher Smith | e-racing.net

Main image and de Silvestro image courtesy of Rajan Jangda
Massa image courtesy of FIA Formula E Media

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