Step into the world of Jean-Eric Vergne, year 2016. Seven trying years spent under Red Bull’s watchful eye amounted to little more than heartbreak, as he watched not one but two paths into the A-team evaporate before his eyes. At the end, they dropped the funding, and forced him to walk alone. That was 2014, though, and the two years since were spent trying to find elusive glory in Formula E. And after his lowest electro-ebb with DS Virgin, the only way was up…
…although to the naked eye, it wouldn’t have looked it.
“Racing in Formula E opens up marketing, R&D and fan engagement possibilities for global and Chinese brands. Techeetah Formula E Team is a global team with unique access to Chinese and European fans through our two star drivers next year.” (Sheng Li, founder and CEO of SECA)
Team Aguri – yes, the team which gave fellow Red Bull Racing near-misser Antonio Felix da Costa his Formula E break – were acquired by SECA – China Media Capital and their maiden galaxy brain move was to go hand-in-hand into Season Three with a driver who in the last four races of his DS Virgin annus horribilis, burst out of the rubble with 50 points, two podiums and a third denied by penalties. Picking up an ex-F1 impresser riding a wave of rediscovered form was a no-brainer.
And this was only the start of a string of inspired moves that would propel Jean-Eric and Formula E’s plucky underdogs into the conversation for the series’ most dominant partnerships. Season Three was a marked improvement for Jean-Eric versus what had gone before; Race 1 in Hong Kong ended in retirement, but that was followed up with mightily impressive consistency – every single race he finished was in a points-paying position.
The signs were there, that he’d righted his wrongs and learned his lessons. No more barren runs, no more causes for concern. In the last round of the season, in Montreal’s Race 2, he took outright victory. An E-Prix winner. He’d proven himself and made sure his name, along with Techeetah’s, struck a chord of respect and concern among rivals. It was yet more no-brainers which got the duo to this position, too: Renault customer power units, fresh from the e-dams team which had been Formula E’s leading force since the series’ inception. They worked a charm – simplistic technology allowed the team to focus on their strategic growth, and make sure their race outfit was as slick as could be.
Like Season Two, Jean-Eric finished on a high note. The highest he could. He’d scored 117 points, taken a victory and four more podiums, and ranked 5th in the final standings. But even then, the meteoric rise both of himself and a team unfancied to prevail in the ultimate fights of motorsport wasn’t to be expected. But Techeetah, and as we’ve seen, Jean too, thrive when they’re unfancied. Andre Lotterer’s arrival to the team was the final piece – there was a genuine dream team of drivers, staff and suppliers involved, all by the second season.
Second in Hong Kong’s first race. Fourth in the second. Fifth in Marrakesh, and victory in Santiago (with Lotterer finishing just behind him in a thrilling duel for the win, Techeetah scored Formula E’s first ever 1-2 finish) meant Jean was five points ahead of Mahindra’s Felix Rosenqvist with the European section of the season still in sight. The Techeetah was Season Four’s star package – aided by a team becoming ever more comfortable and confident in their operations, their Renault-powered rocket was making a fool of even the works e-dams outfit, with only Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler able to consistently keep pace.
By the season’s end, the stats looked like this: four victories in Santiago, Punta del Este, his home race in Paris, and finally New York’s second event. Two further podium places in Hong Kong and Berlin. Points in every race, and other than one tenth place in Zurich, no finish was outside the top five. There’d been larger win hauls in a season before – Sebastien Buemi took six before his New York no-show cruelly derailed his title chances – and there had been bigger podium hauls too. But none has ever been quite so consistent, and for a man Red Bull deemed to be too large a risk to ever consider promoting, Jean-Eric against those odds became Formula E’s safest pair of hands.
Exactly one year on has come ABB Formula E Drivers’ Championship number two. An unprecedented double, never achieved before and with a hat-trick on the table for 2020. This one wasn’t quite as consistent – one DNF and four other no-scores – but it didn’t need to be. Season Five was for so long the most open-ended title battle we’d seen yet, and the only reason Jean-Eric went into the last round with a 32-point lead is because, once again, his late-season form (three wins and another podium from race six, Sanya, onwards) was unshakeable.
And now, step back out of Jean-Eric’s world. It’s 2019. You’re looking on at the final podium ceremony of the season, and there stands a man who’s just broken a mold that his series was well known for. The new season, new winner tradition had been broken, and it took an almighty fight to do so. And whether you’re a fan, either of his or of Formula E, a part of the inner circus, or even a Red Bull employee (I’m thinking quite high up), tell me truthfully, would you now think… ‘this can’t happen again?’. I don’t reckon you would.