Formula E heads to Diriyah for a double in the dark amid on and off track questions

After the fanfare and excitement comes the rapid reality: a sporting season always starts with optimism but quickly descends into the realisation that only relentlessness and near-perfection can help reach those dreams and objectives which were spoken about in such positive tones only weeks earlier.

That goes for both individual and team sports and championships, but perhaps in motor racing it’s the most convoluted version of that: there’s the individual driver, but regularly two of them in a team. There’s then the team behind each driver and, increasingly, the team behind the team - support staff, garage staff, engineers, technicians and coordinators working on everything from car software to logistics, ensuring those on the grid can simply do what they do best.

In Formula E, only one weekend and one race into the 2023 campaign, many involved will already be feeling the heat, the need for improvements on what they achieved in Mexico City.

Consider: along with all the usual close-season changes - personnel alterations, new drivers, new manufacturers and new locations to race - this year also brings the playing field-levelling Gen3 car. Every team gets the same starting point, but their powertrains, their software optimisation and their behind-the-wheel ability are all already having a tangible impact on points and positions.

Now, as the all-electric championship heads to Diriyah in Saudi Arabia for a double-header, it’s very quickly going to become crunch time: by Monday, 19 per cent of the season is already over and done with, almost a fifth of the points on offer for the year already handed out.

Take new team Maserati. In pre-season testing, they impressed and gave a real impression that once out of Valencia and into the campaign proper, they would be in a position to fight at the front of the grid.

It didn’t go that way in Mexico; Edo Mortara literally hit the wall after a spin, continuing his frustrating run dating back into 2022. New teammate Maximilian Guenther finished the race and climbed the rankings, but ended just over half a second outside the points. Even there, though, amid frustration and near-misses, is a sign of the possibility this year: Guenther’s energy management is largely what saw him surge up four places, with the new car far more efficient and team tactics built around taking advantage of that.

Nissan, ABT Cupra and Jaguar all had one driver who failed to finish in Mexico; Tag Heuer-Porsche, Neom-McLaren and Envision are perhaps among those who will be far more satisfied with their overall weekend work. Also, of course, Avalanche Andretti, with Jake Dennis winning and Andre Lotterer in fourth.

When they land just outside of Riyadh, however, there’s another stat which rolls back into last season worth bearing in mind: Only once in 2022 did the same driver or team win two Formula E races in succession. That came in Rome, Mitch Evans doing the double for Jaguar on back-to-back racedays.

While Dennis won’t get too far ahead of himself just yet, Diriyah being the first of five double weekends this season does raise further intriguing questions: will we see consistency this early in the campaign? For the winner on raceday one, can the new Gen3 car be manipulated the same way on the Saturday too? And at the other end of the scale, how quickly can teams learn from Friday errors and rectify them to ensure they stay in the running 24 hours later? Again, it all comes back to the team behind the team and how fast they get up to speed in making sure the season is a success.

It’s just shy of 2.5km on the Saudi circuit, where energy management on the way around will play a big part in how drivers finish, due to a long straight to close out each lap.

And it’s not only on the track where Formula E will have questions this weekend either.

A view of the Mexico E-Prix (Jaguar Racing via Getty Images)
A view of the Mexico E-Prix (Jaguar Racing via Getty Images)

Increasingly, all sports and their governing bodies are being pressed and pushed to justify taking their events to nations routinely partaking in sportswashing. The Qatar World Cup was the biggest and most prominent example of such, but not even the only one in the last few months. Before Lionel Messi triumphed in Lusail, Max Verstappen won at the Yas Marina Circuit; since then, Victor Perez has claimed the Abu Dhabi Championship.

The human rights record of Saudi Arabia has been criticised by everyone of note; as recently as last week Amnesty International labelled an exhibition match between Messi’s club PSG and Cristiano Ronaldo - playing for a Saudi All-Star team - as “sportswashing efforts [...] still operating at full throttle”.

Formula E cannot be exempt from the questions, even if there can be little doubt it is playing an increasingly major role in improving matters elsewhere.

Quite aside from the importance for the climate crisis of the adoption of electric vehicles, the drive for sustainability and greater efficiency will be seen in Diriyah in a more literal sense: these pair of races take place at night, with the darkened desert sky and racetrack below illuminated by LED floodlights, technology with a 50 per cent lower energy consumption rate.

And finally, questions of the FIA itself can be applied by casting back to last season’s race in the desert. A late crash and subsequent safety car ruined the end of the event for many, but more importantly there were accusations of endangering drivers as the stricken car was removed.

Lessons have to be learned and applied in every regard. Fortunately, that’s perhaps one key area where Formula E can rightly say their track record is good. From qualification changes to the technical efficiency of the vehicles, it has been an upward curve for the all-electric series to make real progress as an elite championship.

Now, it’s not upward curves that must take centre stage, but 21 turns around an Unesco World Heritage site - twice in two days.