“It's still not a car that I like,” DS Penske’s Stoffel Vandoorne on Gen 3 Formula E cars
DS Penske has officially confirmed that Jean-Eric Vergne and Stoffel Vandoorne will continue to be their driver duo for the upcoming Season 10 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship. This pairing has been in place since Season 9, following the collaboration between Penske Autosport and DS Automobiles. The team ended the last season in fifth place in the championship. With one of the strongest driver pairings on the grid, DS PENSKE aims to reclaim their position at the front of the pack. We sat down with the drivers, Nicolas Mauduit (deputy team principal), and Eugenio Franzetti (DS performance director) to discuss their first season of cooperation with Penske and their thoughts on the Gen 3 Formula E cars. We also talked about upcoming developments in the championship and potential improvements to the cars and tracks. They also discussed the introduction of fast energy charging and the challenges they face in the championship. Their insights offer a glimpse into the team's experiences and aspirations in Formula E.
Q: What is your feeling about the first season of cooperation between DS and Penske? How long was it for those two teams to work on a perfect level of cooperation?
Eugenio Franzetti: For us, it's been a great season together. We discovered the high level of the Penske Autosport team. We worked very well together in both directions – the motorsport direction, the performance direction and even in the communication and marketing direction. So, it's a good, positive sensation for us. We are very happy. Two different experiences. The experience in terms of engineering comes from DS Performance and the track experience comes from the Penske team. And together, we work. And even in the marketing and communication aspects that are very, very important to boost the image of our brand and to boost the image of Penske Autosport. So, we are very happy and we want to continue in the next years. We have a contract set for until 2026. So, we want to go ahead with them.
Nicolas Mauduit: This is the first year we have started to work together but some engineers were already working with the DS Performance in the past. So, the transition was very smooth between the merge between DS Performance and Penske Autosport. We are very happy to continue together in the next three years. We are also very glad and honoured to have confirmed JEV (Jean-Eric Vergne) and Stoffel as our driver lineup for this season.
Stoffel Vandoorne: I am very happy to remain with the team. We knew that starting this project last year with DS and Penske kind of merging was not going to be straightforward. But it's been a very good first start and taking a little bit of time in the beginning to gel together. But now we have one season of experience and I think the main target for next season is to properly analyse what we did right, and what we did wrong during the past season and hopefully be able to put up a championship fight again. I mean, that's the ultimate goal for this team. I think we have all the ingredients here that are capable of doing that. And I think that's the focus for us going into next season.
Jean-Eric Vergne: I think the integration of DS with Penske together has been quite easy in a way. From the first race, everything was working fine within the engineering department, marketing department and communication. It feels that everything was working very well from day one. So that gave us the chance to start working as soon as possible on the things that matter the most, which is the performance of the car. It's fair to say that the performance was not at the level that we expected. We've been working very hard since, I don't know how many months, but quite a long time for us to improve our performance for next season. As we know, the regulation stays the same, so there is not much we can change on the car. But on the software side, there are quite a lot of unlimited options that we have at our disposal. So it's a question of putting the finger on the right thing to improve on the car. But on that, I have full confidence. Together with DS and Penske, we are here to work on the long term together. So yes, we have the pressure to deliver, but we are working in a good environment. And I have the full confidence of this team that we can improve the level of performance which will give Stoffel and myself the car to be able to fight for the championship, which is the unique goal that we have as a team.
Q: How will you (the drivers) manage your time between the two series, between WEC and Formula E? There is a clash between Berlin and Spa. What will be your priority in this case?
Jean-Eric Vergne: Well, we are quite hopeful that together with the WEC championship, the organiser of the WEC and the organiser of Formula E, they can find a solution. I know they are working hard on that. I don't know exactly how many Formula E drivers are doing the WEC championship, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's more than half the grid. So, I'm convinced that they are working to find a solution. So, we are very hopeful that somebody will change the date. But in case there is this clash, my priority is DS Penske and Formula E. That program has the priority in terms of racing.
Stoffel Vandoorne: Similar comments to Jeff, to be honest. If you look at the grid in Formula E, there is pretty much half of the grid that has the same issue. So, there are a lot of drivers combining both programs and I think both programs are kind of complementary. But hopefully, Formula E and WEC will find a solution to avoid this clash. I think it would be in the interest of both championships to avoid it and for us to be able to race both. But the same for me, the priority is Formula E. We'll see what happens on the calendars in the next couple of months.
Q: It is clear you have a championship-calibre line-up, but as Vergne said before, the performance of the car was missing last year. Do you have a clear idea of what was lacking last season?
Stoffel Vandoorne: It was indeed a bit of a bumpy ride last season and there are many things that we could have done better, but I think what is good now, since the last race in London, I think we have a pretty clear understanding of which areas we are lacking at the moment and which we need to improve. The regulations are the same for next season, so it means on the hardware side that we cannot make any changes for next year, but a lot of this car is about software as well and that's where we can update things. We're still positive that for next season we can make a good jump forward and address some of the issues that we've been dealing with last season. So the only focus right now is to just gain a little bit of performance. It's not a lot. If you see how close the grid is, it's very competitive and just two or three small details can have a huge impact on the final result. So that's where all the focus is going, whether it's from the technical side, or also from my driving side. There are always things you can improve and I would say my attention goes to that, to try and arrive in the best shape possible.
Q: (To Stoffel) Your former teammate Nyck de Vries will be back on the grid next year. How good is that news about having a world champion with you and now a former F1 driver?
Stoffel Vandoorne: It's good to see Nyck back in Formula E. He's just had a bit of a rough time, but I'm sure he will reset and come back as he does. I can just wish him all the best, let's say, and we'll be seeing each other on track.
Q: Last season, we saw how the top teams in the championship fully exploited the possibility of collaborating with a customer team. Are we going to see a stronger collaboration with the other Stellantis brands this season?
Eugenio Franzetti: The collaboration will be the same. It will be with the Maserati team in terms of hardware. Then the two teams work differently in terms of software and race preparation. You have seen all over season 9 that the two performances of the cars on the team have been very different in different moments. This is our policy. We will go ahead. The teams are working in a separate way now, working on the software in a separate way now. This is our policy and we want to go ahead with this policy.
Q: Last season was quite complex for you (Stoffel), but knowing your abilities, we know that you want new goals. When I think about championship goals, what are your personal goals?
Stoffel Vandoorne: It's quite simple. My personal goal is to win the championship. Both myself and JEV, have been able to experience that in the past and I think there is nothing more appreciating than being able to do that, to share that success with your team. It's the best feeling ever. It's the only thing I want, to live that again.
Q: (For JEV) Consistency is one of your greatest qualities that has allowed you to win. Do you think you can aim for a third title this year?
Jean-Eric Vergne: That's not something I can answer today. We have to, first of all, understand all the progress that we've made with the car. We have to also understand the progress that the other teams have made because they haven't been on holiday all that time without working. We can expect the strong teams to be even stronger. At the moment, answering this question is not possible. Of course, I want to win. Of course, Stoffel wants to win. We want to win the championship, but so does everybody else. Does everybody have the car, the resources, or the drivers to win a championship? No, they don't. The wish and the reality are not always together. I think we need to take it step by step, race after race. This year, we're the underdogs. I guess we have to wait for the first races, see how everything goes, and adjust what we want to achieve throughout the season. I think setting this goal today, winning the championship or not, is not going to change anything about our work. It just makes no sense to cry out loud in the media, we want to be world champions and not deliver. I prefer not to talk too much, that we work on our side, and that we do without saying.
Q: From a technical point of view, what were the areas to improve on your car?
Nicolas Mauduit: Regarding the hardware of the car, the regulation is the same. It's a normalisation for two seasons, so we cannot change the hardware of the car. The only area that we are allowed to change is the software, but there's a lot you can do on the software. On the braking side, with the support of the driver, in many areas, you can improve the car with the software. That's why we have worked since the end of the season up to now, and until the first race in Mexico, and during the full season 10, we will continue to improve the software of the car, and so all the functionalities that we can improve.
Q: Will you be allowed to touch the cars between the Valencia test and the first race in January? Because there's a big hole in the schedule, and for you, is it an advantage or not?
Nicolas Mauduit: No, it's not. We always prefer to be able to have access to the car, but no, we can't. It's a championship decision, so the car will be provided to the transport suppliers to go directly to Mexico, so we will not be able to touch the car. The advantage based on that is the CO2 emission because the cars will go by boat. So, yes, that means that for the CO2 emission, it's good news for the sustainability of the championship, but for the team, no, it's not. We always prefer to have access to cars.
Q: Is the fast energy charging confirmed and are you looking forward to it?
Nicolas Mauduit: Regarding the boost charging, yes, it will happen. The FIA and the league are finalising the sporting regulations. So, that means the boost charging will happen during the race and the modality, or even if it will happen at all the races, that will be specified by the FIA and the league. The charging power will be very important because we are talking about 600-kilowatt charge power and for a relatively short period, 30 seconds, so that will be a very impressive amount of energy back into the car.
Eugenio Franzetti: And as a manufacturer, we are happy, because Formula E is not only a fantastic world championship, but it's even a way to show people and customers how fun, how fast electric cars are and how easy it is to recharge a car. Formula E has also, I think, a pedagogical role, and that is to show people and the customers how fun and fast an electric car could be. And customers always have some questions about the recharging of their cars. Now we want to show them that it's super easy to do it, super fast to do it. So, it's a way to be nearer to the customer and to show them that the future is electric.
Q: It's one year now with the Gen 3 cars. What is your feeling about this first year? Are there some improvements you want to be implemented? What is the way of development you wish?
Stoffel Vandoorne: I would say my position on the Gen 3 since the start has not changed. It's still not a car that I like. We were kind of promised that we were going to have a car that was three, four, five seconds faster than Gen 2, which at most circuits has not turned out to be the case. Some circuits are probably a little bit slower, and some are a touch faster than Gen 2. With a car that has 100 kilowatts more power, has 80 kilograms less weight, it's not what you would expect. From the performance side, it's been fairly disappointing. I think part of that is probably the grip that we have on the tyres, which is quite low at the moment. That's something that we drivers want to improve. We want to be able to push harder with these cars, to be able to have better races, some clean races as well. Some of them have been a little bit chaotic. But overall, we want to have pure pleasure in the car and I think there are a couple of things that could make that so much better straight away. I think with tyres, straight away it would give a much better feeling to the car, especially on the street circuits we are racing on. They are super demanding and super challenging. If we just have a little bit more grip, if we go these actual four or five seconds quicker, it will feel like a rocket ship in those tracks. So that's what we want.
Jean-Eric Vergne: Just to add to what Stoffel said, I agree with everything he said. I think to go more into detail about the tyres, I think they have to give up these all-weather tyres because at the end of the day, it's not a good slick tyre and it's neither a very good wet tyre as we've seen in London. We were not able to race in the rain with supposedly wet tyres. So I think they need to understand that we need clear slick tyres and clear wet tyres. It's not going to change a lot in terms of sustainability because we go to places where the rain is rarely happening and maybe once in a year we have to use those tyres that you can carry over for the season after. So it's not like it's going to be a massive change, a massive impact. So having real slick tyres will increase the mechanical grip that we have. And then to avoid this kind of racing that we've seen in Portland, in Berlin, where the leader doesn't want to be a leader because he opens the road and anyone behind him has more or less 20% efficiency gain by following. Therefore nobody wants to lead the race. As we've seen with Stoffel in San Paolo, he led half the race and he could not even finish in the top five because everybody behind him was benefitting massively from that advantage. So I think that the aero package needs to change because it's way too draggy and if they change the aero package they may as well also increase the downforce. So downforce plus tyres would make those cars much faster, which we all want as drivers. And a car less draggy will also improve the racing because at least we'll have a leader who wants to lead the race, not making fake mistakes to be overtaken and go back in the slipstream of that guy.
Q: About machine learning and artificial intelligence, is this something that is already present in Formula E or that could be employed in the future?
Nicolas Mauduit: Regarding AI and machine learning, we are already using this tool currently embedded in the car, but for sure at some level, we will continue to increase the use and the integration of this kind of tool to be able to increase our performance and I guess our competitors are doing the same, to be honest.
Q: We just talked about the problems from last season. JEV talked about getting maybe new tyres and a new aero package, but I guess for 2024 there is no change we could imagine. It's for the future. So can we expect next season the kind of strange races like we saw in Berlin, Portland and so on?
Jean-Eric Vergne: Everybody learns from last season and the drivers that did a good race, they learnt from it. So everybody gets better. It's just going to increase that effect more and more. And we've seen also in Portland the games being played by some drivers being more advanced than what it was in Berlin. And you sometimes find lap times that were seven seconds faster, the lap after eight seconds slower, the lap after eight seconds faster. And honestly, it brings carnage. I mean, I was in the middle of the pack in that race and it's just not sustainable to race like that because we're like five or six side to side down the straight line. And it's dangerous for the drivers. And I don't think anybody likes it. But unfortunately, we're going to have to deal with that. So we're going to have to be the smartest at that game. That's the end of the story. We have to accept what it is. We're not going to change anything for this year. So we just have to be smarter.
Q: Is the team going to push for what's suggested by JEV? So two sets of tyres and the new aero package for next year?
Nicolas Mauduit: The league and the FIA are working together for an evolution of the Gen 3 for season 11 and season 12. That means, yes, some improvements, some changes are going to be made in this direction regarding the tyres and some other changes. But again, the final definitions are in the hands of the FIA and Formula E. So we should let them work on that and propose to the team the new car definition for season 11.
Eugenio Franzetti: It's true that, as Nicolas said, we are already working on this with the Formula E organisation and with FIA. Talking about the evolution of the Gen 3, listening to the drivers, listening to the manufacturers, listening to the teams. So we are pushing on it. And then we are already talking about Gen 4, but it's still the start of this work that we have to do. But yes, the idea, the pillar is the performance of the car. So talking about performance, all the things that are linked to the performance, we are working on it, improving Gen 3 and working on Gen 4.
Q: When we listen to you, we get the impression that Gen 3 has failed. Don't you think that one more season in this condition, with the cars and the choice of tracks, could be fatal for the championship? Don't you think the improvements planned for 2025 should be brought forward?
Nicolas Mauduit: First, on this side, the Gen 3 cars have been a good evolution with some constraints that we just mentioned, especially on the tyres and aero package. However, a strong evolution has been made regarding the monocoque design, the battery technology, the energy, the front powertrain, and regeneration. So a lot of improvements have been put in place in the Gen 3 car. But what I think our drivers are trying to explain is that currently, we have not been able to demonstrate the additional performance that the Gen 3 can deliver yet on track, because of some limitations currently on the car. But that will be lifted in Season 11. What is true is that for Season 10, we will face the same constraints or limitations of the Gen 3 car.
Jean-Eric Vergne: We're all on the same boat, team, drivers and championship. And I think everybody is aware of the situation. And as long as everybody pushes together, it's going to be fine. Within the life of the company, you never make the right decision at every moment, especially in Formula E, there have been many great decisions taken, and some are better than others. But as long as we keep moving and we understand all of those things, I think we are going in the right direction. And in two, three, four years, when we're going to have different cars, different cities, bigger tracks, everybody will have forgotten this year of difficulties driving those cars, and especially we will be the first ones to have forgotten because it was maybe a bad moment for us to live through, but for better moments to come and for better cars to drive. So, at the end of the day, we're all in it together, and we're all pushing in the same direction, and it's not always a straight way uphill.
Q: About the tracks, do you think that some tracks need to be changed for the Gen 3 cars? In particular, what happened last year in Rome, the uphill section was not a proper full-throttle section anymore. It seemed that you were more on the limit, but the safety measures were the same as the previous years.
Stoffel Vandoorne: I think it's hard in some cases to modify the circuits. Of course, there's been a lot of work done, actually, at all the circuits to further improve the safety for Gen 3, but I think if you look back at what happened in Rome, it also comes down again a little bit to the grip of the tyres that we are having at the moment. This in Gen 2 was kind of an easy flat corner. In Gen 3, it became a very challenging corner, and unfortunately, someone made a mistake with very, very big consequences. And I think it was very unlucky for it to happen because it's a blind corner, very, very high speed, and when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. So, unfortunately, that's what happened. I'm not entirely sure what the solution for it is because it's not that easy to change the track layout in that area. But, again, it comes down to if the cars would have a little bit more grip, that corner would be a little bit more easy, and maybe it would not have happened. But, yeah, these cars still require some skill to drive.