The fates of Alexander Sims, Alex Lynn and Alexander Albon are all intertwined as each driver fights for a place on the Formula E grid. But with available race seats for the season eight grid in short supply, which one of the three is going to miss out?
When Alex Lynn completed a superb weekend in London by taking his first career Formula E victory, and the first win for Mahindra in two years, it created a huge problem for the Indian team: They’ve already signed two drivers for next season, and Lynn is not one of them.
How did Mahindra get themselves into this situation, and is there a way for Lynn to stay on the Formula E grid for season eight? In a staggering coincidence, Lynn’s fate is inextricably tied to that of two other drivers who also share his first name…
Three years ago, Alexander Albon was announced as making his Formula E debut for the newly rebranded Nissan E.Dams team. As it transpired though, he never drove in an official session. He was a Nissan driver for a period of about a month and a half, during which he only drove the teams’ Gen 2 Formula E car for a few private filming days. On the first day of pre-season testing in Valencia, Albon was suited up in Nissan overalls, ready to go…And then he promptly disappeared.
So what happened? It’s an already well-documented story, but to recap: Helmut Marko, who 6 years prior had decided to drop a teenage Albon from the Red Bull young driver programme after an underwhelming first season in the Formula Renault Eurocup, had called. Not only did he want to invite Albon back into the Red Bull fold, but also promote him to a race seat with the Toro Rosso F1 team after an impressive 2018 Formula 2 season where he finished third, just behind Williams’ George Russell and McLaren’s Lando Norris.
Could Albon resist the allure of Formula One? Of course not, and who could blame him? He wanted it all: From the dizzying highs, to the terrifying lows and creamy middles. After receiving the blessing of the late, great E.Dams boss Jean Paul Driot, Albon reneged on his deal with Nissan and took his shot at the big time. Albon’s impressive performances for Toro Rosso secured him a shock promotion to the main Red Bull team by August 2019 in place of a struggling Pierre Gasly, and it seemed astonishing that just a year earlier he had never even driven an F1 car, and had accepted that Formula E was the next best thing to F1 and his best chance of making a living from racing. The all-electric series was now far from his mind…
Whilst Albon didn’t end up making his Formula E debut in season 5, over at BMW i Andretti another driver with the same first name made up for it. After previously testing for Andretti in season 4, Alexander Sims had a tricky debut season plagued by bad luck, scoring points in only 5 out of 13 rounds. However, towards the end of the season his form improved; in the final round in New York City, Sims took his first ever pole position in Formula E, and was only beaten in the race by Robin Frijns, having to settle for a first podium in second. He ended his rookie season 13th in the driver’s standings; 42 points behind his teammate Antonio Felix Da Costa, who left at the season’s end to join champions DS Techeetah.
With BMW’s lead driver departing, it was decided late in the day that Sims had done enough to merit another season with the team, alongside another impressive season 5 rookie, Maximilian Guenther. But once again, Sims found himself on a rolling one year contract, fighting to justify his continued presence at Andretti.
The season started with Sims maintaining his prior form from New York, taking double pole positions in Saudi Arabia. At the second round, Sims was able to convert this into his first Formula E victory, which launched him into the lead of the championship. But this was not to last, with retirements in Santiago and Marrakesh denting his charge. To make matters worse, Guenther had started to outqualify and outperform him.
During the COVID-19 enforced lockdown, Sims’ negotiations with the team had stalled when BMW Andretti refused to offer a contract that would last beyond 2021. Sims wanted stability, and was offered it in the form of a multi-year deal from Mahindra team principal Dilbagh Gill, who had been impressed by Sims’ oversteering heroics in Diriyah. The Londoner signed on the dotted line and the deal was finally announced after Sims’ torrid six race finale in Berlin, where he was only able to score three points, leaving him 13th in the championship for the second year in a row, 20 points behind Guenther, but finally with a secure seat for seasons seven and eight.
Following promising but ultimately unrewarding stints at DS Virgin and Jaguar, Lynn first joined Mahindra for the six race finale in Berlin last year after Pascal Wehrlein departed to join Porsche, and acquitted himself well by scoring sixteen points across the final three rounds, helping Mahindra to climb to 9th in the team’s standings; narrowly beating Venturi. The team was impressed by Lynn’s performance despite his limited time in the car, and eventually signed the Goodmayes-born driver for a full season in 2021 to partner race-winner Sims.
The season began badly for Lynn after two race-ending crashes with the Jaguar drivers in Diriyah; the second of which saw Lynn’s car flip upside down in the air at high speed, although he thankfully emerged unscathed. A second place in Rome for Sims seemed to justify Gill’s faith in his new long-term signing, along with an against the odds drive to fourth in Puebla after suffering a technical issue that prevented him from getting any running in practice. Lynn would himself impress with a strong recovery drive to 3rd in Valencia after being punted out of second place by Norman Nato, but points were generally hard to come by as Mahindra’s season was marred by melee and misfortune in the midfield; prior to London the team languished down in 10th place in the teams’ standings, ahead of only Dragon Penske Autosport and NIO 333.
An Oliver twist
After the Monaco E-Prix it became clear that talks had stalled between Oliver Rowland and the Nissan E.Dams team that had hoped to keep him on for next year. Dilbagh Gill leapt at the chance to sign race winner Rowland, who had previously made his Formula E debut for the team in a one-off outing in Punta Del Este back in season two, and was able to agree a deal for the Yorkshireman to move to Mahindra for season eight. This means that either Sims or Lynn will have to make way, and with Sims possessing a contract for next season and then heading Lynn in the points, it seemed that Lynn would find himself out of a drive for the following season.
Ironically, it is the man Rowland was initially brought in to replace who is now speculated to be top of the list to fill the vacant Nissan e.Dams seat. Unfortunately, the 2020 Formula One season did not go to plan for Albon, who floundered with the Red Bull’s rear instability and found his confidence deserting him. After being dropped in favour of Sergio Perez for 2021, Albon now finds himself racing in DTM (Sharing his drive with Envision Virgin’s Nick Cassidy) and serving as Red Bull’s simulator and reserve driver. Most humiliatingly, Albon was recently used by Red Bull during a filming day at Silverstone to recreate the line Lewis Hamilton took through Copse corner during his controversial first-lap collision with Max Verstappen at the British Grand Prix. When Red Bull attempted to use this as evidence it was soundly rejected by the race Stewards, leading to widespread ridicule of both team and driver.
With a static F1 driver market making it highly unlikely for Albon to find a way back onto the F1 grid, could the time be right for the London-born Thai driver to return to Formula E and rebuild his shattered reputation with Nissan E.Dams? With physical, wheel-to-wheel racing the norm in Formula E, the series could very well play to Albon’s strengths that he displayed so regularly in GP3 and Formula 2. And after Sebastien Buemi’s woeful campaign, Nissan really needs a driver that can push the team forwards and fight for podium finishes the way Rowland has done.
Albon has become a more resilient driver after being very publicly dropped by Red Bull, something which he has in common with Formula E champions Buemi, Jean-Eric Vergne and Da Costa. However, whilst he was the clear standout candidate for the Nissan drive back in 2018, today it’s not quite so straightforward, with fellow Red Bull refugee Daniil Kvyat, Audi’s Lucas Di Grassi, and Formula E’s latest winner Lynn also high on the team’s shortlist.
Indeed, it’s Lynn who presents the biggest threat to Albon making his return/debut in Formula E, after a London E-Prix weekend where he not only dramatically grew his stock, but gained an impressive 44 points; ten more than he managed to score across the season’s previous 11 races. Lynn now sits in 6th place in the drivers’ standings, just 17 points behind championship leader Nyck De Vries, and Mahindra are now up to seventh, 43 points behind leaders Envision Virgin and with an outside chance of both titles.
By contrast, Sims is seeing his title charge unravel after scoring just eight points across the past five races, owing largely to misfortune and being taken out by other drivers. It’s qualifying – where Lynn and Sims have largely shared the same group for most of the season – which will be far more worrying for Sims; with Lynn out-qualifying him 10-3 so far this season. Lynn made it into Superpole on seven occasions compared to Sims’ single appearance in Rome. Whilst the current 34 point gap in the standings doesn’t paint an entirely accurate or fair picture, Sims’ peaks this season have been much less spectacular on the whole, as his 27 year old teammate has well and truly upstaged him.
Ultimately, the pressure is on Dilbagh Gill to decide whether to respect the contract signed with Sims last year, or to break it early and pay Sims compensation money in order to hang onto Lynn, who could become the first official Formula E World Drivers Champion in Berlin.
The latter option would certainly be beneficial to Albon, since it takes Lynn out of the running for the Nissan seat, but it would be very controversial for Mahindra. Not only would the team renowned for their friendly, family atmosphere be tearing up a long-term contract they signed just one year prior, but they would effectively be forcing Sims out of Formula E for at least a year, since many of the teams have already finalised their lineups for season eight. Whilst Lynn has entered discussions with Nissan, Sims being dropped would be a huge shock for the 33 year old, who is fully committed to Mahindra and remains a well-liked and popular figure within the team. The big question is: How badly do Mahindra want to hold onto their latest winner, and are they prepared to go back on their word to keep him?
The season eight driver’s market is very much a zero sum game: Whilst Sims hopes that his contract will hold and his luck changes, Albon aims to put his disappointments at Red Bull behind him and return to the series that welcomed him with open arms in 2018, and Lynn plans to avoid being put back on the reserves bench by taking away the biggest prize in electric motorsport, which may be too big an ask even for him.
Inevitably, two Alex’s will line up on the starting grid in Diriyah, and one will not. But for now, all three live in hope.