Mercedes has taken a very different approach to its Formula E preparations than fellow 2019/20 entrant Porsche, sending HWA on a fact-finding mission one season in advance. Four disastrous races in, what has it learned?
Earlier this week Mercedes teased its fans by showcasing a concept livery on its Formula E show car at the Geneva Motor Show. While the colour scheme itself was underwhelming, the fact that the manufacturer is now in a position to build up its marketing might around FE demonstrates once again that the electric championship is approaching an exciting new phase.
For the 2019/20 season Mercedes - and fellow manufacturer Porsche - will finally join FE. Mercedes will have a second high-profile global championship, running alongside its Formula 1 behemoth, and FE will be bursting with entries from many of the most famous marques from motorsport history.
But while Mercedes and Porsche both announced their intentions to join FE in the same period - in late 2016 and mid '17 respectively - they have taken very different approaches to their preparations for their full works entries. Porsche claims it "never" considered running a feeder team ahead of season six, but Mercedes-affiliated HWA gained the 11th berth for the current season. HWA will run the Mercedes FE race squad from next season and has always maintained that the current campaign would be a learning year to make sure it was fully prepared.
But the first four races of the 2018/19 season has been a very trying time for HWA.
At the first round in Saudi Arabia, things actually got off to a good start when ex-McLaren F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne shone in the gloomy qualifying session to take fourth on the grid. But he went backwards in the race and finished 16th, while his team-mate Gary Paffett, the reigning DTM champion, retired after contact with a wall.
Things got much worse in Marrakech where both drivers suffered technical issues ahead of the race, then collided at the first corner and had to retire as a result. In Santiago, Vandoorne again stood out in qualifying to start fifth, but lost a likely points finish as he crashed out at the halfway point of the scorching event. Paffett did make the finish but was a lap down after suffering further technical problems.
Last time out at Mexico City, both HWA drivers made it to the end of the race for the first time this season, but were down in 16th and 18th, and Vandoorne was on the receiving end of two penalties for fanboost-activation infractions.
Stoffel Vandoorne, HWA Racelab, and Gary Paffett, HWA Racelab
Photo by: Alastair Staley / LAT Images
"Everybody was always hoping for more, but we're pretty much exactly seeing what I've always said and what I've always told people," says HWA team boss and CEO, Ulrich Fritz. "You don't get here and just smash everybody, there are highly professional teams in the paddock who have been doing this for years now.
"It would be not humble enough to say you can just jump them and fight for victories. I think the base product is maybe also not at a level where we can compete for victories on a regular basis. But it's good enough to score points and if we put our things together, if the drivers put their things together, then I think we're in for a strong result."
So HWA is, sort of, where it expected it to be. Not winning, but also not doing quite as badly as the results table indicates. Indeed, as Fritz points out, had Vandoorne finished sixth in Santiago - where he was running before his crash - HWA would have scored eight points and be above NIO and Dragon in the teams' championship.
It must be taken at its word when it says this year is fundamentally about learning the ins and outs of FE ahead of Mercedes' arrival. So what, then, has it discovered from the four tough lessons that have played out so far this season?
"We've learned a lot," says Fritz. "We've really learned about the competitiveness in Formula E, we've really learned on the technical side that you need to take so much attention to detail because really small small things can turn out in a DNF or whatever. Which just followed by a chain of strange and difficult events. That is just something I happened to see only in Formula E."
Stoffel Vandoorne, HWA Racelab, VFE-05 Gary Paffett, HWA Racelab, VFE-05
Photo by: Zak Mauger / LAT Images
Let's assume the Mercedes entry starts at the foot of the 2019/20 table alongside Porsche for the first round. Based on FE's current qualifying rules, the four drivers from those two squads would be running in the fourth and final group and would have every chance of repeating BMW Andretti's feat from this season's opening round in Saudi Arabia - immediately going from last to first...
But before we get too carried away, HWA has learned the hard way how little things can cause big problems in FE. After pointing out the possibility of encountering a "chain of strange and difficult events", Fritz cites a specific example of a lesson it had to go through that will surely be one Mercedes won't have to learn next season.
"Such an unfortunate chain of difficult events was just in the race ," says Fritz. "Gary's temperature was a little bit high and he was then asked by the engineer to switch the positions on the steering wheel. And by switching these positions on the steering wheel, he somehow went through the 225kW mode, which ended up in a drive-through penalty because we got this overshoot. Only for 0.3s, because it was just flipping it through, but it happens.
"You learn a lot from those things. the switch was completely new and different. But we need to take what we get from our manufacturer and obviously things like that haven't happened to them in the past four years, so we experienced it for the first time and we jointly worked on it, and we just made it better. That's just a small example, but it goes from A-Z."
Gary Paffett, HWA Racelab, VFE-05
Photo by: Alastair Staley / LAT Images
Just knowing how best to use "the time you get after the boxes are open" has been valuable knowledge HWA has gained for Mercedes - although in this area it had to endure another tough lesson. In Marrakech the squad was fined €5000 for an organisational team member arriving too early before the race day curfew had ended, setting up to work on his laptop, unaware that by opening the garage he had broken a rule even though it had nothing to do with the team's cars.
The first third of the 2018/19 season is already in the book, and while there aren't too many pleasant memories for HWA to look back on, there's plenty of races left for it score points and grab the high-profile results its lineage and employee talent is capable of achieving. It will work closely with Venturi to make progress with its customer powertrain - although Fritz points out that "we aren't a manufacturer, we aren't allowed to do a lot, secondly it's a little bit late anyway and you have homologated parts".
But Venturi's form in Mexico - where Felipe Massa qualified third and Edoardo Mortara finished in the same position - should at least give HWA encouragement that its powertrain is capable of a podium. Fritz, who was speaking the day before the most recent race, clarifies that it is the combination of the whole HWA package that means it is unlikely - although not fully out of the question - for it to score a win, and it's not down to problems with the powertrain it has purchased.
"I wouldn't really push that down to the powertrain or whatever," he says. "For me, the package is not only the drivetrain, it's also not only the car - it's also the software behind it, the engineering behind it or whatever. And we need to learn a lot for that. So, all in all, we don't have the package at the moment to win races here against very strong competition."
Stoffel Vandoorne, HWA Racelab, VFE-05
Photo by: Alastair Staley / LAT Images
But the development work for the 2019/20 packages is already well advanced. Only last week the DS Techeetah squad completed its first of 15 days of manufacturer testing at the Calafat circuit, where Mahindra Racing was also present. Mercedes and the rest, including Porsche, will start putting the miles on their season six powertrains soon - if they haven't already.
Where Mercedes and Porsche have taken a second different approach ahead of their full FE entries relates to their respective driver line-ups. Porsche has already confirmed Neel Jani will be one of its season six racers, whereas Mercedes won't announce its driver plans until after the summer.
"It's too early to think about it, but on the other hand we've come here with a driver line-up we believe can be a competitive one," says Fritz. "To make decisions into one or the other direction after just four races - where in most of the races we haven't managed to give the drivers the package they deserved - would be too early and therefore this is absolutely not on our discussion list at the moment."
With its haul of DTM titles, all of which it scored with Mercedes, HWA's capabilities will shine through eventually, even if the FE points table currently looks pretty disastrous. Its reach now extends throughout motorsport, from its customer GT racing programmes to Formula 2 and Formula 3, and still in the DTM with R-Motorsport and Aston Martin.
That adds up to quite a machine, which Mercedes will benefit from in the next FE season. So even if HWA's electric adventures have been point-less so far, there's nothing to suggest it will stay that way or hinder the might of its manufacturer in season six.