Why Formula E will have another new champion

Last season, Sam Bird kept in the title hunt with eventual winner Jean-Eric Vergne until the penultimate race in New York. After four seasons as the perennial nearly man, he now has perhaps his best opportunity yet to become Formula E champion. 

Making predictions about a season of Formula E is always tricky, especially when there are new cars and major rule changes. However, if you’re looking for a pick for the driver’s title, there’s an excellent case to be made for the Englishman.

Bird is a stalwart of the series; he’s been with the Virgin team since the inaugural Beijing E-Prix back in 2014, and since then he’s won seven races, making him the third most successful driver in terms of victories, ahead of season one champion Piquet Jnr. (2 wins) and reigning champion Jean Eric Vergne, (5 wins) but behind Lucas Di Grassi (8 wins) and Sebastien Buemi. (12 wins) Bird also has 15 podium finishes to his name, the same amount as Vergne.

His statistics may be impressive, but why has Bird not won the title already? The main reason would seem to be that he simply hasn’t had the car underneath him to consistently challenge for the championship. In the first season the cars were equal, but Bird was pretty inconsistent, with brilliant victories in Putrajaya and London separated by several clumsy mistakes and incidents which kept him out of contention in the title decider.

In the next two seasons, Bird’s consistency gradually improved, especially in qualifying where he has taken four pole positions and been a regular Superpole contender. On the downside, Virgin opted for a heavy twin-motor powertrain, which at some tracks proved to be inefficient, until Virgin ditched the concept for season three.

There were some lofty highs for Bird, in particular, his inch-perfect defensive drive to win the 2016 Buenos Aires E-Prix against that season’s eventual champion Sebastien Buemi, and his clean sweep of the 2017 New York E-Prix doubleheader. But there was the occasional bad luck and some costly errors, such as going straight on into the run-off area after starting on pole two races in a row in 2016, and crashing out of the 2017 Monaco E-Prix while running in the points.

Season four was by far Bird’s strongest showing, which is impressive given that he was essentially driving the same car from the end of season three, with only minimal updates as the team’s focus switched early on towards the challenge of the new car for season 5. Bird really excelled with well-earned victories in Hong Kong and Rome but was also incredibly consistent, scoring points in every round apart from a sole retirement in Mexico. However, in the final few races the car’s lack of development really started to show; ultimately Bird lost second to Di Grassi in the final standings as Vergne wrapped up the title with a race to spare.

In season five, the rebranded Envision Virgin Racing team has become an Audi customer team, putting Bird on an even keel with Di Grassi. Virgin might have appeared to be at a disadvantage operationally due to customer teams being granted significantly less private testing, but the factory Audi team gave Virgin three of their test days, which was unprecedented and will make a big difference in getting the squad up to speed. Bird himself has set a minimum target for the team to “At least score decent points on our debut.”

You might think that the arrival of Robin Frijns as Bird’s teammate would present a big problem for him, given that the last time Frijns was in Formula E, he beat the highly rated Antonio Felix Da Costa at Andretti. It’s tempting to look at Alex Lynn’s struggles last year and conclude that Bird performs better when he has a teammate that is less of a threat to him. But there’s a more compelling case to say that Bird proved himself the most when he had Jean Eric Vergne and Jose Maria Lopez pushing him in the other car; yes there were occasionally clashes (Namely Paris 2016 and Berlin 2017) but overall the team as a whole was stronger when Bird had a teammate who could consistently match, or even occasionally eclipse, his performances, and often it pushed Bird to up his game.

Frijns’ car control and penchant for spectacular overtakes made him a force to be reckoned with. He and Bird memorably battled once before at the 2015 Putrajaya E-Prix. Whilst the defining image of that race is Frijns’ spectacular heroics to finish third in a car with severely damaged steering. It’s easy to forget that Frijns (Then in his second Formula E race) could have finished a place higher were it not for hitting the wall and damaging his steering in the first place; a mistake that allowed Bird, who had recovered from a lowly 14th on the grid, past into second.

Bird is of course far from the only strong candidate for the season 5 title; there is every chance that we could instead see a two time FE champion crowned for the first time, or perhaps the likes of Da Costa, Alexander Sims or Mitch Evans could cause a big upset, such is the unpredictability of Formula E. But if the cards fall his way, then there’s no reason that this determined underdog from Roehampton can’t finally put his ‘nearly man’ image to rest and seal the title that has eluded him for so long.

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