until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

A likely doomed title bid is already Formula E's biggest success

by Sam Smith
9 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Oliver Rowland might be out of all realistic contention for an unlikely tilt at the Formula E title but, whatever the final outcome, he has significantly surpassed any internal or external expectations this season.

It wouldn’t be fair to use the cliche that he’s even surprised himself; Rowland has always believed he can get the job done with the right team and the right car. But with just two events remaining, Rowland finds himself fourth in the standings, having accumulated 36 more points on his own this season than Nissan’s entire tally from last season.

It’s all come just a year on from a not-so-amicable split from Mahindra. But more pertinently in the light of what he has now achieved with Nissan, Rowland has done it all with half-a-season less knowledge of Gen3 compared to his chief rivals.

The thing that makes Rowland’s turnaround all the more impressive is the fact that, unlike some in the Formula E paddock, he never doubted he’d be back better than ever.

How Rowland got here

We know how Rowland’s consistent results have formed an unlikely title challenge this season. But more intriguing is how he first got in to the position to do so. It reads as a true ascent from what 12 months ago appeared to be a career trough at a crucial point.

How he came into a second phase as a Nissan driver can only be understood if we look at why he left in the first place.

At the end of the 2020-21 season, he’d signed off in style with a fighting second place in the season finale at Berlin, his second podium of a difficult season as the Nissan team continued to regroup after the death of its talismanic leader Jean-Paul Driot two years earlier.

Rowland had outscored his much more experienced team-mate Sebastien Buemi by a huge 57-point margin. He’d also outperformed Buemi 9-6 in qualifying and had a much better average starting position. Yet, behind the scenes, he felt he wasn’t being given the necessary credit for his achievements.

In part that was due to the fact that the team was being overseen by the Driot brothers, Gregory and Olivier, sons of the much-missed Jean-Paul. Frankly, there didn’t appear to be much enthusiasm for Rowland during their term in office, which seemed odd.

These facts and a lucrative approach from then Mahindra boss Dilbagh Gill in 2020 proved crucial. Rowland was sold a Gen3 dream by Mahindra - but it turned out to be a bit of a nightmare.

Gill left the team suddenly in August 2022, a season which Rowland knew he just had to get through and start the Gen3 testing and development phase.

That phase, too, wasn’t easy. A nasty testing shunt at Mallory Park, caused by the Mahindra powertrain, was foreboding. Then came the realisation Mahindra wasn’t really in the Gen3 game at all. At Cape Town the Mahindras weren’t even in the race - all four cars across the works team and customer Abt deemed unfit to compete due to a suspension flaw.

By the Monaco E-Prix in May 2023 Rowland couldn’t see many positives on the horizon. He smashed his hand up in the race after a devil-may-care blast through from the midfield into the top six.

A post-race summit with new boss Frederic Bertrand didn’t happen - instead, events escalated. These were intricate affairs which all parties locked down on, but a few weeks after Monaco it was announced Rowland would step down and be replaced by Roberto Merhi.

Truth was that Rowland had been approached by several teams about a way out. The Race understands at one stage he was made an offer by Maserati, and James Barclay at Jaguar and Sylvain Filippi at Envision were also interested. All the time though he had a contract with Mahindra until the end of the 2022-23 season at least.

It got complicated. Rowland was at a crucial juncture of his career, having just turned 30. He was potentially locked into a car that couldn’t buy a result, and on one occasion wasn’t even fit to take the grid. Action was needed.

That’s where he and his manager Steve Hewett started to plan. Hewett previously managed Nelson Piquet and proved adept at navigating him through the maelstrom of early-day Formula E.

When a deal with the unfancied Team China Racing entity was announced, few gave the partnership more than a handful of races. Less than nine months later, Piquet was champion and able to broker a tasty financial deal with the next iteration of the team, which became NEXTEV and later NIO.

The ins and outs of what transpired with Rowland and Mahindra are still shrouded in some secrecy. But effectively they agreed to disagree - but agreed to agree he would be a free agent at the end of the season.

Then a deal was struck with Nissan and his future was secured with a multi-year deal in his pocket. The old Rowland could crack on where he left off, albeit this time with a true Nissan factory unit and not one in transition.

Tommaso Volpe had made some key hires, notably technical manager Theophile Gouzin from Spark and team director Dorian Boisdron, formerly of Renault Sport and DAMS.

“We sat down and we talked a lot,” Hewett recalls of that transition time with Rowland.

“We came up with a plan together, and we executed it. That's what we do.

“And, you know, sometimes it's good cop, bad cop, we figure out a way to get it done because he’s at a crucial stage of his career and he deserves some success in light of him being talented and also having come into racing with very little to start with.

“The fresh deal with Nissan was a chance to reset and go again. It wasn’t easy but we got there and he’s proving that we took the right direction.”

Why Rowland's so adept

It’s easy to forget that Rowland missed Portland last year, when peloton-style racing really kicked in. The Berlin double-header in 2023 had shown hints of it but it was in the US where it really evolved.

He watched that race from his sofa with his daughter Harper, no doubt struggling to explain the madness that was unfolding before them both.

There was a six-month gap without Rowland driving anything at all last year. And, with the Nissan Gen3 package not feeling like the most efficient one on the grid, he was in no way expected to be a title challenger this year.

Quick over a single lap and in particular on smoother surfaces, the Nissan had its strong points but it never really looked like winning a race.

Two things have changed that this season. One of them was, naturally, work by a team that is still gelling after big structural changes from the old edams ways to the new 100% Nissan constitution. The other? The return of Rowland.

The preconceived idea before the season began was that races such as Misano, Berlin, Shanghai and Portland - that’s to say high-energy races - wouldn’t play into Nissan’s hands. That proved to be wide of the mark.

“Honestly, I felt like from a package perspective, they were going to be our hardest races,” admits Rowland.

“But I reckon that made us really do our homework and think about being absolutely perfect, let's say, in those situations. Honestly, I think that this style of races suit me, just because it's always been something that I've been good at - even from a very young age."

There’s a bit of Cadet karting in it, and while most of his contemporaries were embroiled in that, too, as kids, Rowland is kind of forever young. To some extent his 2024 prowess comes from him still being actively involved in karting via Oliver Rowland Motorsport, which runs many young racers in several phases of their careers.

“I'm watching 10 races a week, let's say, different karting and single-seaters,” he says.

“I'm still keeping my brain quite active in that style of racing, where you kind of have to fight for every position and any critical mistake can cost you the race.

“Of course, in some phases of the race, you have to be aggressive. But I think you have to plan your race and, in those phases of the race, there is an element of risk.”

Plenty of his rivals can attest to the aggression. In the filmed ‘drivers’ room’ that Formula E puts on for the fourth-to-10th-placed drivers immediately after each race, Jake Dennis said to Mitch Evans after the first Berlin race: “Rowland...the risks he takes!”

To which Evans replied: “Rowland! He doesn’t give a f*** about anyone!”

It’s often not pretty, but in races where it’s all about managing until the last three laps - whether that's by defending, fighting or positioning - it is a necessity of this no-holds-barred racing, and Rowland has found his old karting instincts have been beneficially bruising.

A haunting Misano disaster?

Rowland was never going to win the second Misano E-Prix - the one in which Nissan got the lap count and energy allowance/tolerance wrong after issues on the grid knocked on to create the mother and father of all embarrassing mistakes.

But just because that race wasn't winnable doesn't mean he shouldn’t have got a podium on pure pace and comfort with his car that day. Had he done so, Rowland would have been right on points leader Nick Cassidy’s coattails now.

In the general plan for 2024, Nissan and Rowland were never dreaming about being in this position at all - yet now they want to at least stay there. Again, remarkably, he alone has already taken 36 more points so far this season than current team-mate Sacha Fenestraz and his then-partner Norman Nato achieved throughout the whole of last season combined.

“Our targets were very clear going into this year in that we knew that the races were going to be tough, we knew that we had a fast car on one lap,” says Rowland.

Ironically, it has almost flipped - with qualifying being a bit of a struggle recently with lowly starts in Monaco and Berlin, although they are generally inconsequential for the race results now.

“It wasn't on our radar to achieve what we've achieved this year,” admits Rowland.

“After Misano race two, I said, 'OK, maybe I wouldn't have won, but I was still putting myself in the same position as the day before where I think I would have been on the podium'.

“In our situation, to miss those points on that day, we will most likely regret that towards the end of the year.”

A good position - on and off track

Rowland is in the title fight but at the same time he knows it is a fickle and unlikely tilt he may have.

Even though it should have been a better position considering the Misano mistake, he still sees the fact he is there at all as a huge bonus.

“I would say we're in the fight, but I wouldn't say we have expectations,” is his assessment.

“I'm not putting myself down as like, ‘Oh, if I don't win this I've messed it up’.

“For me, it's like I'm an underdog. And if we do manage to pull off a miracle, it's great. If we don't, we've still had a fantastic season, so it is quite a nice place to be in, I guess.”

Should he continue to dwell in that nice place up to London - where the emphasis will all be on qualifying and then holding position in the flat-out races - Rowland could still end up in an even more elevated position than he finds himself in now.

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