Opinion

Mercedes Is Still Playing Coy About Its Formula E Future

Illustration for article titled Mercedes Is Still Playing Coy About Its Formula E Future

Photo: Hector Vivas (Getty Images)

About a month ago, the Mercedes-EQ Formula E team announced it’d signed an option with the series to begin development of its Gen 3 car. “Development,” in this sense, is pretty much tantamount to attending meetings alongside all the other constructors — but don’t mistake it as a confirmation of ongoing participation. The Gen 3 regulations are expected to kick in after the next season, beginning with the 2022-23 championship, and last until the end of the 2025-26 campaign.

On Tuesday, team boss Ian James related in a virtual roundtable discussion, of which Jalopnik was a part, that Mercedes still isn’t quite ready to officially commit to the Gen 3 cycle. However, James also said that formalization will come “in due course.”

We need to take decision obviously at some point because of the development work that’s going on, and at the moment we’ve registered as an interested manufacturer. Therefore we’re able to take part in the technical working groups and so on and so forth.

So I don’t think it’s going to drag on for too much longer, but this just like the natural part of the process — just making sure that, you know, we understand the direction the things are going in and that it’s right. Mercedes has a lot of things going on internally — as there is across the whole automotive industry at the moment — and so there’s sort of external factors to us as a team, which needs to be taken into consideration, and that will all be done in due course.

What’s interesting about Mercedes dragging its feet with respect to a full endorsement is that many of its major automaker-aligned rivals have not. At the end of March a group of constructors, including Porsche, Nissan, Mahindra and DS, made their continued involvement known. There was said to be a deadline at this time for teams to make that call, as The Race reported, but Mercedes evidently decided to take its sweet time and not worry too much if anyone noticed.

If the tentative Gen 3 specifications bear out as planned, Formula E cars should receive quite the power bump — rising from the current qualifying spec of 250 kW (335 horsepower) to 350 kW (469 HP), and 300 kW for races. Energy recovery, or regen, will be harvested from both axles. The addition of mid-race “flash-charging” will necessitate pit stops for refueling, adding a degree of strategy and unpredictability while potentially extending race length, too. Perhaps Formula E will even be able to entertain more full-scale circuits as it’s attempted to this year, considering the cars will be more powerful and possibly be able to run for longer.

But Formula E is in no position to twist Mercedes’ arm. It’s already losing Audi and BMW after this season, as the Silver Arrows’ top two domestic rivals have set their sights on sports car racing, specifically with LMDh prototype programs. LMDh is not a pure-electric series — though it does involve a spec hybrid component — so there is some alternative energy marketability there.

So the ball is really in Mercedes’ court at this point. That said, given the language James and the team’s technical advisor/development driver, Gary Paffett, were using on the call, it doesn’t seem like the company is feigning interest in Formula E just to dip out without a moment’s notice. I asked Paffett — who wears multiple hats within the team — to sum up his feelings on what Gen 3 will bring to the series. It seems he’ll relish the opportunity to get behind the wheel:

The circuits we race at, they’re very tight. Already with the car we have now, the Gen 2 car, the 250 kW in qualifying — you’re arriving at some corners thinking, you know, you could be in an F1 car in Mexico doing 320 [km/h]. They are damn quick. So the prospect of the speed we’re going to have in Gen 3 cars is going to be incredible. It’s going to be an incredible car to drive. And … the harvesting from both axles adds a completely new dimension.

James and Mercedes in general have been nonspecific in explaining why the team hasn’t yet planted its flag for Formula E’s next era, but it’s fair to assume money probably has something to do with it.

It’s understandable that Mercedes would want to be absolutely sure it’s making the proper investment. Part of Gen 3’s addendums states that any team that exits the series midway through a regulatory cycle, as Audi and BMW are about to, must pay Formula E the lump sum of all the regulatory fees it would have incurred on a yearly basis if it’d just kept competing until the end of the cycle.

Those fees amount to $415,000 per year — quite a lot to pony up at once just to not race, though only a small portion of the roughly $12 million Jaguar is said to have spent in 2019. (A prospective cost cap figures to bring that down by as much as two thirds.) Formula E is hoping constructors see that bill and decide they might as well stick around. And even if they don’t, the organizers can still make some scratch as teams walk out the door.


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