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SEASON REVIEW: Nissan’s Intricate Success

Sam Smith looks back on Nissan’s debut season in the ABB FIA Formula E Championship…

Photo: Formula E

There were many paradoxes and puzzles to the first season for the Nissan e.dams partnership that it is almost impossible to give a fair and accurate appraisal of its campaign as a whole.

It was one that revolved mainly around its powertrain which, as detailed in several other articles on e-racing365, was the fulcrum of a fascinating technical and political narrative.

It was one which captivated the paddock. At first, it was an almost urban legend whisper, but then soon fanned itself into a blaze of intrigue all of its own.

The full chronology and how e-racing365 reported it have been accounted here but it is hard to separate its enormity from any other aspect of the team’s progress because it was so central to the Nissan story.

As the first Japanese manufacturer to commit to Formula E, Nissan was making a significant decision in its tumultuous history of motorsport programs.

While the team was based in Le Mans and some of its senior management had offices in Paris, it was careful to stay true to its NISMO ideals, and so it was launched officially at Fuji Speedway last November.

This came after a fraught testing period, one in which the whispers of its technical setup intertwined with a messy change of drivers. This came after Alexander Albon was spirited away to Helmut Marko’s snakes and ladders world of ‘nurturing’ young talent in Formula 1.

Oliver Rowland was drafted in to partner Sebastien Buemi who was honoring a long-held deal which had initially been signed in the early summer of 2017 when the team was still under the Renault brand.

Photo: Formula E

Ultimately, what characterized Nissan e.dams’ season was a volatile mix of pace, learning and promise which didn’t really mature until the sixth round of the season at Sanya in March.

Promising showings in Santiago and Mexico apart, it was in China where Rowland grasped the Formula E nettle and started to showcase a potent talent which finally started to reap the rewards it deserved.

After little dry weather testing and with a car extremely complex to initially extract the best from, Rowland got the big early results with second places in Sanya and Monaco.

This isn’t to say that Buemi was nowhere to be seen. Quite the opposite.

The 2015-16 champion was again in fine form, perhaps his best since he dominated the opening phase of Formula E’s second season. It was just that despite the pole position in Santiago and the subsequent peculiar ‘mistake’ while in the lead of that race, he was finding the IM01 car something of a challenge.

The quirks of Nissan’s deployment of power initially gave a confusing picture to the drivers but as it matured the benefits seemed plentiful. In some qualifying sessions and some races, it was clearly in a different league to the opposition.

Of course there were many who asked ‘well if it’s so quick, why isn’t it winning everything?’

It was a fair if slightly blinkered question. The facts were that the Nissan’s true pace was masked by a combination of nuances during the first combative season of Gen 2 racing.

A key one was the limited scope for traditional Formula E ‘energy races’ and how this hurt the full potential of its cars.

Then there was the simple fact that the design just needed additional development on top of its pre-season testing. Doing this in the tight confines of a single Formula E event day was always going to be difficult.

Then there was the qualifying format. In truth, this actually favored Nissan slightly, but only after a difficult start in Saudi Arabia and Marrakesh ensured that group two and three appearances started a trend of Buemi and Rowland in the favored middle round of the procedure.

It brought a remarkable six pole positions (three each for both drivers) and eleven Super Pole appearances for Buemi, with only the weather-induced restructured format in Ad Diriyah and a scrappy Hong Kong session spoiling his enviable record.

In the general scheme of things Buemi could quite easily have been celebrating a second title last July.

Were it not for the briefest of tags, which resulted in a puncture from Robin Frijns in Paris, Buemi would have been right with Vergne heading to the final rounds when he again proved to be among the quickest throughout the weekend.

So did Nissan’s big gambles pay off? In the short-term it brought the team an impressive debut season, one in which many milestones, including poles, podiums and a win were ticked off.

But was the aggravation, politics and pushing things so close to the edge worth it in the long-term?

A lot will depend on how adaptable its powertrain’s DNA will be to the modifications that need to be made by downscaling to a single MGU design for the 2019-20 season.

The theory was that Nissan knew that there could be issues with its interpretation of the unique twin-MGU set-up and that a Plan B had existed all along.

Photo: Formula E

You have to presume this because the likes of Michael Carcamo and Vincent Gaillardot – Nissan’s project leaders – are far too clever to not look ahead and have every possibility covered off.

Nissan’s season ended on a poignant note. First came the success of New York City and a well deserved breakthrough win. Then came the news of DAMS founder Jean-Paul Driot’s death after a brave and tenacious fight against terminal illness.

Buemi’s excellent win in New York in the last event of the season was a fitting tribute to a man whose vision and legacy will far outlast any of the political off-track sourness of an often fraught but ultimately impressive debut season for the Nissan brand.

Photo: Formula E

Sam Smith is e-racing365's Formula E Editor. A 20-year veteran in motorsports media, including press officer roles in both the FIA Sportscar Championship and at Lola Group, Smith is a well-known face in the Formula E paddock, where he served as series editor for Motorsport.com from 2014-17. Contact Sam

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