Jaguar is poised to announce its 2017/18 Formula E driver line-up this month, and signing inaugural champion Nelson Piquet Jr would be a surprising but excellent move.
Piquet was thought to be off the market for the coming season, which would make a move to Jaguar as unexpected as it would be a brilliant piece of business.
Jaguar signed Mitch Evans and Adam Carroll for its debut FE season, but struggled to make an impact in the 2016/17 campaign as it wrestled with a below-standard first attempt at a powertrain.
Backed by Williams Advanced Engineering and armed with the experience of its first season, which at least included several points finishes, Jaguar is expected to make a significant step forward in 2017/18.
Securing a strong driver line-up is a key part of its push and Motorsport.com understands a decision was made to end Carroll’s deal after a single season, although Evans’ strong form must have earned him an extended stay.
Piquet, who is understood to have pushed hard for a move to the British manufacturer, has been a target for Jaguar for a long time. But one of the key hurdles to overcome was extricating himself from his existing team.
NextEV announced last summer it had retained Piquet as part of a multi-year deal alongside Oliver Turvey. Piquet’s relationship with the team has yo-yoed over three contrasting seasons and an exit was to be expected at some point, if not so quickly.
Jaguar is to confirm its drivers later this month, and announcing Piquet would mean it overcame an obstacle that once seemed insurmountable – presenting its biggest indicator yet of how serious it is taking its FE programme.
While Piquet’s not won a race since clinching the inaugural FE drivers’ title, he would be a major coup for a new team like Jaguar.
Along with a deft touch for energy management, Piquet offers the perfect benchmark for rising star Evans and has a wealth of experience to offer the Jaguar/Williams technical alliance. Few offer the same development capabilities.
It would also be a reward for Piquet, who remained loyal to Team China Racing/NextEV (the same entry, regardless of name).
Thanks to backing from Adrian Campos, Piquet joined the unfancied Team China Racing operation – as background politics threatened to block his move into the electric series – and claimed the inaugural drivers’ title in surprising fashion against Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi
As FE moved to open technical development in 2015/16, TCR, with fresh NextEV backing, struggled with a cumbersome powertrain. Winless, podiumless and with a best finish of eighth, Piquet finished 15th in the championship, but drew hope from a massive restructuring within NextEV that included the complete takeover of the entry and dismissal of Campos as the operating team.
Piquet took pole for the 2016/17 season opener in Hong Kong, but remained podiumless and failed to score points in the final six races as NextEV’s second powertrain proved potent but inefficient.
Motorsport.com understands his patience eventually wore thin - as Buemi and di Grassi swept to their first titles in two seasons, Piquet was little more than a footnote in the story. Whoever partners Turvey at the now-NIO-branded team next season will move to an outfit that has potential, but has not harnessed it properly thus far.
It is easy to see why a Jaguar-Williams partnership was so highly coveted by Piquet, and equally why the man himself has been a target for the team.
Piquet has established himself as one of FE’s classiest drivers. Given a competitive Jaguar package, there is no reason he would not return to the sort of form that earned him that reputation in the first place.