Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Motorsport prime

Discover premium content
Subscribe

Edition

Global Global
Opinion

Why optimism remains at Formula E “underdogs” DS Penske

OPINION: On the surface at least, positivity remains at DS Penske and with its drivers Jean-Eric Vergne and Stoffel Vandoorne ahead of the upcoming Formula E season. It's in stark contrast to the end of the last campaign, when morale was low, and serious questions were being asked

Jean-Eric Vergne, DS Penske, DS E-Tense FE23

Two months is a long time in motorsport, especially when that period spans across seasons, with the results of the previous campaign consigned to the past as new optimism builds for the year ahead.

There was certainly plenty of positivity, smiles and even laughs amongst drivers Jean-Eric Vergne and Stoffel Vandoorne during DS Penske’s press roundtable at the end of last month. It was there that both drivers were confirmed as staying with the Formula E team for a second season in the all-electric championship, which will also be the sophomore season of the DS and Penske collaboration.

The Penske name is synonymous with success in motorsport and Jay Penske, son of IndyCar tycoon Roger, heads the team formerly known as Dragon that, under its previous moniker, joined the championship from the outset back in 2014. Under its old guise, though, the team struggled for success, recording only two wins during eight seasons – both of which came in the first two years – as it went up against the might of manufacturer-backed outfits.

Enter DS, a brand that joined Formula E ahead of the 2015-16 season before its powertrain partnership with the Techeetah team helped guide it to back-to-back drivers’ and teams’ titles between 2018-2020. With the team not currently racing, a large number of staff have transitioned over to DS Penske, including race-winning engineer for Penske Nigel Beresford who, after a stint in America, became integral to Dragon’s early success and then subsequently at Techeetah.

The collaboration between DS and Penske according to Vergne – whose second Formula E title came with DS Techeetah after his first came when Techeetah ran customer Renault powertrains – has come together well over the past 12 months, with former NIO 333 driver Oliver Turvey adding his expertise in a reserve role that has added sporting advisor responsibilities.

“I think the integration of DS with Penske has been quite easy in a way,” Vergne said. “From the first race, everything was working fine within the engineering department, marketing and communication – it felt that everything was working very well from day one.

Vergne says DS and Penske's integration was

Vergne says DS and Penske's integration was "working fine" straightaway

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

“That gave us the chance already to start working as soon as possible on the things that mattered the most, which is the performance of the car. It’s fair to say that the performance was not at the level we expected.”

That last point struck a home truth between the generally positive answers and good vibes during the interview and hinted at a far different tone that had been in the DS Penske camp only two months earlier. When the 2022-23 championship came to a close in London both Vergne and Vandoorne were blunt in their assessments of how the most recent campaign had gone.

“We can’t hide, we’ve simply been lacking pure performance compared to our competitors,” said Vandoorne when asked about DS Penske’s performance over the season in London. “There’s been weekends where we’ve been stronger than others. Jean-Eric obviously had a good run at the start of the year where things were kind of coming together and he managed to execute on that.

“But then the second part of the year has just been very difficult. We’ve been qualifying quite far back, we’ve not really been racing at the front let’s say and just generally been quite far behind the competition.”

"On the software side there are quite a lot of unlimited options at our disposal. It’s a question of putting the finger on the right thing to improve on the car. But on that, I have the full confidence together with DS and Penske" Jean-Eric Vergne

Things had started promisingly, the maiden season of the partnership between DS and Penske yielding a win in only the fourth race after Vergne had put in an incredible defensive drive in Hyderabad to hold off Nick Cassidy’s more energy-efficient Envision for victory. The Frenchman almost made it back-to-back wins next time out in Cape Town, only losing the lead to Antonio Felix da Costa’s Porsche on the penultimate lap with possibly the overtake of the season.

The result left Vergne third in the standings, just 30 points behind early championship leader Pascal Wehrlein and riding a wave of momentum. Five more points finishes, including another podium in Berlin, followed but even by that stage Vergne had called on his team “to wake up” given its comparative lack of performance against Jaguar and Porsche.

Arguably it was the rallying call of a driver who knew any hope of the championship was slipping away, and so it proved, with only one further points finish in the final six races leaving him fifth in the drivers’ standings. It was even worse for team-mate Vandoorne, the reigning champion failing to reach the podium across all 16 races and finishing outside the top 10 in the standings.

A strong start to the season for DS Penske didn't last

A strong start to the season for DS Penske didn't last

Photo by: DPPI

The nadir came in Portland though, where both DS Penske cars were required to start from the pits after the team was found to have used RFID scanning equipment in the pitlane during practice. The insinuation of spying on other teams prompted Vergne to angrily speak out, for which he was handed a suspended fine as morale within the team hit its lowest point.

“Confidence is not something I’ve seen for a long time lately,” said Vergne in London. “It’s time to make some changes because we cannot continue as a team to perform like this. It’s good that we’re going to have a few months break and regroup and work for next year. I cannot accept to be in the position and neither the team, so we have to do something about it and we’re definitely not going to stay where we are.

“I think we’re going to have important talks. But we worked very hard this year, and nothing seemed to have worked, so I think we need to change the direction of the work or try different things. It’s not good enough at the moment. We’re not going to stay where we are at the moment because it’s not in our DNA and it’s especially not in my DNA.”

Such strong words in public would not have gone unspoken behind closed doors, and no doubt critical talks between the drivers and team management will have taken place over the last two months.

Although morale might be higher than it once was, the team’s performance on track could well languish behind that of pacesetters Jaguar and Porsche as various aspects of the Gen3 car are homologated until at least the 2024-25 season.

“As we know, the regulations stay the same so there is not much we can change on the car,” said Vergne. “But on the software side there are quite a lot of unlimited options at our disposal. It’s a question of putting the finger on the right thing to improve on the car. But on that, I have the full confidence together with DS and Penske. We are here to work in the long-term together.”

Talk of long-term ambitions is certainly one reason why both Vergne and Vandoorne have remained with the team this season. Both could have looked to move away if they felt DS Penske was not capable of giving them a machine to fight at the front, in a similar vein to Lucas d Grassi’s departure from Mahindra to rejoin Abt.

The 2023/24 car won't change much due to homologation restrictions, but both drivers have decided to stay

The 2023/24 car won't change much due to homologation restrictions, but both drivers have decided to stay

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Vergne and Vandoorne have proven capable of reaching the very top of Formula E with their respective titles, so options elsewhere on the grid would have been likely, but instead, they have decided to stay.

Arguably the strongest sign of backing the DS Penske project is where their priorities lie for the upcoming campaign, which will be done in unison alongside their commitments as Peugeot drivers in the World Endurance Championship. Three clashes currently exist across both calendars, although Formula E’s schedule is due to be officially approved at a meeting of the World Motor Sport Council later this month and so could change.

But even if any clashes remain, Vergne and Vandoorne – the latter having only been given a full-time drive this year after being a reserve for Peugeot – have stated they will prioritise Formula E over any sportscar commitments; a clear sign of how seriously they are taking their DS Penske roles.

"We need to take it step by step, race after race. This year we’re clearly the underdogs" Jean-Eric Vergne

Optimism remains within the squad heading into season 10, which gets underway with pre-season testing in Valencia later this month, and there are positives to take, especially as it was the nearest challenger to Jaguar and Porsche last season. DS, Penske, Vergne and Vandoorne have all proven to be winners and, in theory at least, there’s no reason why that can’t be repeated in the future – but it’s an uphill struggle that won’t get any easier.

“We have to first of all understand all the progress that we’ve made with the car, we also have to understand the progress the other teams have made because they haven’t been on holiday all that time without working,” said Vergne. “So we can expect the strong teams to be even stronger.

“We want to win the championship but so does everybody else. We need to take it step by step, race after race. This year we’re clearly the underdogs.”

Vergne believes that DS Penske heads into the new season as an underdog team

Vergne believes that DS Penske heads into the new season as an underdog team

Photo by: DPPI

Be part of Motorsport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Hankook's Formula E journey into the unknown
Next article Porsche retains Wehrlein and Da Costa to complete 2024 Formula E field

Top Comments

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Motorsport prime

Discover premium content
Subscribe

Edition

Global Global