12 Nov 20

Jake Dennis' journey: Out of left field to a Formula E seat with BMW 

Jake Dennis headed into an evaluation with BMW i Andretti Motorsport last month having barely raced in 2020, but staring down an opportunity of a prized manufacturer drive in the 2020/21 ABB FIA Formula E World Championship with one of the most decorated marques in motor racing.

There were nerves, but Dennis was able to settle them, carry out all the research necessary to lend him a chance of success, and deliver from left-field during his evaluation with the team, up against world-class competition.

“I got the opportunity of an evaluation on the simulator,” says the 25-year-old. “That all went well, and I headed to one of BMW’s test tracks, alongside Max Guenther. My test went really well, my pace was there and everything else was well aligned with the requirements the team had.

“I was definitely nervous as the pressure was there and I knew the seat was up for grabs. I hadn’t driven a single-seater since I drove the Formula 1 test at Budapest in 2018 and in Formula 3 with Carlin in 2017.

2020/21 line-ups: How is the grid shaping up for Formula E's first season as an FIA World Championship?

“It was a combination of getting back used to driving a race car having not really raced this year, and getting into an electric single-seater that’s heavily dominated by software.

“There was so much to take in but I did my research and spoke to a few Formula E drivers to gather as much information as I could. I tried to hit the ground at jogging pace rather than walking. There wasn’t a chance I’d hit it at running speed but it went as smooth as it possibly could, with a lot of laps under my belt.

“I got the call to say the test went well and that they were impressed with me. It was a shock and it’s surreal that it’s all happening. I’m already getting ready for the test at the end of this month - there’s a lot to take in and learn!

“I don’t think many people saw it coming but it’s just phenomenal and it’s a big confidence boost for me as a driver. For me to take a factory BMW seat is a real testament as to what I was able to do during the selection process.”

By his own admission, the phone call from the team’s management that confirmed he’d made the cut was a shock, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise given that early in his single-seater career he was mixing it with, and beating, drivers like Charles Leclerc, George Russell and Alex Albon.

Dennis’ showing garnered high praise from BMW Group Motorsport Director Jens Marquardt, who felt Jake met “very special criteria” required of a driver if they are to be successful in Formula E, and that the Brit provided the “perfect package” amid stiff competition from a selection of top-tier drivers vying for the seat.

The team’s philosophy of selection on merit, and not based on a CV or any preconceptions, bore fruit with the decision to give Maximilian Guenther a drive in 2019/20, with breakthrough race wins at Santiago and Berlin.

Guenther repaid the faith team principal Roger Griffiths and the team placed in him with those victories, and Griffiths is confident that Jake's selection will also vindicate the outfit's decision making process.

Guenther and Dennis were part of the same crop as Leclerc, Russell, Stroll, Antonio Giovanazzi and more on their way up through the ranks. The pair were team-mates at Prema in GP3 Series (now the FIA Formula 3 Championship) before their careers forked, with that batch of drivers winding up with the opportunity to climb the single seater ladder whilst Dennis would eventually make the switch to sportscars.

Team ethic and hunger

Dennis could hardly have been more complementary of his new team-mate and the support he had offered up during the selection process. He sees the German as the perfect foil in the sister BMW iFE.21 as the “hungry” pair seek to drive the Andretti-backed outfit forward in 2020/21.

“Max was on hand for the drivers the whole time during the evaluation, and I’ve known him since 2015,” continued Dennis. “He joined Prema for a couple of races and raced alongside me for a whole season then went our separate ways with myself going into sportscars.

“He’s a great guy and was super helpful in trying to get me up to speed with the systems as quickly as possible – especially now I’ve signed so we can both contribute as effectively as possible in developing the car.

“It’s great to have two guys pushing each other and we’re both young, hungry and highly competitive. The team has gone for that kind of line-up and if we can supply the speed, then the experience will come.

“We both have the pace, I’m sure – and Max has already showed that with a couple of race wins last year, so it’s great to have someone so helpful, answering any questions I have.”

Climbing the ladder

That open door attitude is something that can go missing in motorsport, particularly on the cutthroat journey through the junior categories, as Dennis is well-aware – with young drivers, of varying financial clout, clambering over one-another to make it professionally from the first time they’re strapped into a kart.

“Working up through the ladder, there can be a real split between drivers, some want to go out there and screw you over, and some want to help each other and grow,” adds Dennis.

“They’re the good guys and I found that in sportscars that was the ethic, certainly as you get older. You grow up as a generation of drivers and just chill out a little bit, realising that you’re all in it for the same thing – racing cars and earning a living.

“As a 16-19-year-old, it could be really cutthroat. You don’t give away a single tip or advice and you’re just there to beat your team-mate. That’s all you can do in those junior categories. Max and I get on well and have always helped each other through the process.”

Jake Dennis Prema

Talent and timing

Dennis feels making it is as much about timing as it is ability, especially given the distillation of talent, and increasing budgetary pressures, as careers progress. His transition into sportscars in 2016, after stints in Formula Renault and Formula 3, enabled him to level the financial playing field, whilst his earlier days in single-seaters added another string to his bow.

“It’s about being in the right place at the right time with the way the ladder works and I was fortunate enough to move myself into a professional career and so were my peers – Giovanazzi, Leclerc, Russell, Albon, Stroll all in Formula 1, Felix Rosenqvist in IndyCar and then myself, Nyck de Vries (Mercedes-Benz EQ) and Max now in Formula E.

“That crop of drivers in Formula 3 was pretty strong. People take different paths and we decided that the most realistic path for me given our budgets was sportscars, and we took the plunge with Audi in 2017 which set me up to turn professional at a young age, whilst others were still trying to make that leap.

“I would encourage younger drivers to develop a realistic picture of your budget as a youngster and look at other paths like sportscars quite quickly. That said, I do think having a base and good level of experience in high-level single-seaters under your belt is incredibly valuable.

BMW

“People see it as valid, and people look at you because of it – I feel it helped for me with this move into Formula E. Others maybe didn’t have that single-seater experience and I had six years’ worth."

Catching the eye

Dennis impressed in a fresh, underdog squad in the ultra-competitive DTM last season, which played a part in his arrival on BMW’s radar. On top of that, his ability to switch between machinery and categories whilst still extracting the maximum from the car underneath him has also been evidenced plenty in his career to-date.

"Joining such a massive brand, and such a big manufacturer is huge for any young driver. Formula E is just getting bigger and bigger."

An ongoing role working with a team at the top of the sport with Aston Martin Red Bull Racing as a simulator driver adds another card to a deck that would suggest Dennis will quickly grasp the demands of Formula E.

With the ever-growing quality and level of competition on show in the championship – unparalleled he believes – Dennis is fully aware of the challenge at hand.

“Adapting to the Formula E car is a challenge in itself and something you don’t get to the same degree anywhere else is dealing with track evolution – it’s insane,” says Dennis.

“With practice so early, qualifying can be in completely different conditions, with a different temperature and with the track no longer as dusty. Adapting to that for the one lap you have is a huge thing.

“General adaptation between cars, and between disciplines, is a challenge. From 2016 onwards, I started jumping between cars and it was a challenge but after a couple of years it helps that ability to make the transition.

"I feel it’s stronger in talent than Formula 1. You have a number of drivers there that are great but it can also become about budget, too. There’s not one single driver in Formula E that isn’t here on merit. They’re all ultra-capable."

“I struggled at first but now, I feel like it doesn’t matter at all. You can switch, and the older guys are even more experienced than me with that but it’s part of the learning curve of being a younger professional racing driver.

“The simulator work with Red Bull has also given me a better foundation as to what’s required at the top level from a driver and working with switches, management and maps in-car. It’s been a good thing to do, and they’ll allow me to continue that relationship.

“Joining such a massive brand, and such a big manufacturer is huge for any young driver. Formula E is just getting bigger and bigger.

“There are so many young drivers, and drivers of all ages, looking to get one of the seats because it’s such a highly competitive grid full of quality – you only need to look at the names on there.

“I feel it’s stronger in talent than Formula 1. You have a number of drivers there that are great but it can also become about budget, too. There’s not one single driver in Formula E that isn’t here on merit. They’re all ultra-capable.”

Laying the groundwork

Between now and the Valencia test at the end of November, preparations are somewhat hamstrung by the quarantine regulations. At Valencia and beyond, though, Dennis is keen to start from a solid base, work with his team-mate and take it from there with a strong package beneath him in 2020/21.

Guenther BMW Formula E

“Quarantine is making life difficult but there are some simulator days pencilled in and we have shakedown before the Valencia test, too,” he adds. 

“What makes things more challenging for rookies is that the street circuits aren’t changing so much anymore. I’m going to go in there and compare myself to Max firstly, as that’s all you can do to begin with.

“BMW has a great powertrain and great software – the car is great. I’m there to do a solid job initially and do as good a job as I can from there. I need to get my head around it as quickly as possible in the first couple of races.”

Formula E

Silly season is drawing to a close as teams sign off on their driver line-ups for the 2020/21 ABB FIA Formula E World Championship. Take a look at how things stand