Motorsport fans tuning in to the start of the 2019/20 FIA Formula E Championship in Saudi Arabia this weekend would be forgiven for thinking that Formula One has come to the Kingdom.
The air surrounding the Riyadh Street Circuit at the Diriyah ePrix on the opening weekend of the new season will not hang heavy with the usual smell of petrol fumes or jet fuel like an F1 race weekend.
But there will be an air of motorsport royalty on the start grid as the curtain goes up on Formula E’s sixth season, with the likes of Felipe Massa, Stoffel Vandoorne, Brendon Hartley, Pascal Wehrlein, Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi all lining up for a chance to electrify the premier competition for electrically-powered vehicles.
Di Grassi and Buemi are former champions of the revolutionary new motorsport venture – which debuted in 2014/15, with another former F1 icon, ex-Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr, taking home the inaugural title.
But the man to beat this year will be Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne, the two-time defending champion who is bidding for an unprecedented three-peat.
The 29-year-old is back behind the wheel of the Chinese-backed DS Techeetah team and will be favourite again in the 14-race series, which gets under way in Riyadh this weekend, with two days of racing between November 22-23.
The sixth season is set to be the biggest yet, with 12 teams competing this term – the most ever. One of the new entries should cause a lot of excitement as iconic brand Tag Heuer Porsche enter the fold. And the German giants could be one to watch as they have brought together veterans Neel Jani and Andre Lotterer – both of whom have won the FIA World Endurance Championship.
The duo will team up with Swiss Jani returning to Formula E after a year away, while Germany’s Lotterer arrives from DS Techeetah – where he won the team title last year alongside Vergne.
Techeetah come into the new season on a high after securing both the team and individual titles a year ago, but that means they will also have a target on their backs.
They are relatively new to the all-electric series, having only made their debut in 2016/17. But they have quickly established themselves as the championship’s force.
A respectable fifth-place finish in the overall standings on debut laid the foundation for an assault on the established elite – with French-backed Renault e.dams lifting the first three constructors titles, while Audi broke that cycle in the fourth season.
Vergne picked up five podium finishes in the team’s first campaign – including one race win – and Techeetah haven’t looked back.
He won four times the following campaign on his way to a maiden title and three times a year ago – triumphing in Sanya, Monaco and Bern – to oust former champions Buemi and Di Grassi for top spot on the podium.
And the 29-year-old is not done yet, claiming he “still wants more”, including aiming to become the “Lewis Hamilton of Formula E” by overseeing an extended period of dominance in the sport.
FanBoost is now open for this weekend’s Diriyah E-Prix. @audiformulae have received #FanBoost in 20 of the 22 cities that #FormulaE has visited (only missing out in Putrajaya and Miami). pic.twitter.com/pAcyA8IhmY— Formula E Stats (@FormulaEStats) November 18, 2019
The departure of Lotterer to Tag Heuer Porsche means Vergne has lost his greatest ally, with the German veteran replaced by the highly-rated Antonio Felix da Costa. Da Costa is vastly experienced and a proven race-winner, having stood on the top step driving for both Amlin Aguri and BMW i Andretti Motorsport.
However, his clash with Alexander Sims when battling for the lead in Marrakesh last season shows he is not afraid to ruffle feathers, so Techeetah may have a difficult choice to make if the Portuguese ace refuses to bow down to the champion.
As well as the Middle East, the championship will visit Europe, Africa, Asia, North America and South America over the course of the next eight months, culminating in the season finale at London’s ExCeL from July 25-26.