Mercedes' Vandoorne on Diriyah, and 'top-tier' Formula E: Accelerate line-up

Mercedes-Benz EQ's Stoffel Vandoorne is looking to make off-season improvements count when it comes to the season-opening double-header in the dark in Saudi Arabia on February 26 & 27. In the meantime, he's got his eyes on the 'top-level' grid set to take on Formula E: Accelerate next week.

Stoffel Vandoorne signed off the 2019/20 campaign in the best possible style, with his and Mercedes-Benz EQ's first win in Formula E. The Belgian is hoping to push on from a strong base when the field arrives in Diriyah - the site of the team's maiden podium as a manufacturer last year - for Formula E's first night races.

"I’m really looking forward to getting started in Saudi," said Vandoorne. "It’s been a long time since we raced and it’ll be super exciting to be back on the grid with the adrenaline and pressure of performing. There’s nothing really that can replicate that until you’re back on track."

No margin for error in Diriyah

"Saudi is one of the most complicated circuits. It’s very high speed, especially the middle of the lap and the walls are very close. So, there’s no margin for error. The fact it’s in the desert as well, in a sandy environment, means there’s a lot of evolution during the day as well. Usually, the conditions are very tricky and slippery to start off with. We have to continually adapt as the track changes and it makes for a big challenge.

WATCH: Catch up with last season's action and every Formula E race to-date in our archive

"A double-header is very challenging for everyone because of the shorter time between races. We don’t have much opportunity to analyse the data from the day before. It’s great to have two races on a weekend, though, and it gives us two opportunities to go well. Last year, we had a double-header in Saudi as well and we got two podiums there with two third places.

"Hopefully, this time around we can replicate that or even do a bit better. This year will be an even bigger challenge because it’ll be a night race, so that’s something we haven’t experienced before. It’ll be different and I’m looking forward to seeing the cars and the track lit up in the dark."

The opening round of Season 6 from Diriyah

Formula E: Accelerate will be 'hard work' for the sim racers

Before we get to the Middle East and Round 1 of Season 7, there's Formula E: Accelerate to look forward to. The qualifiers are over, and the grid of world-class sim racers and Formula E stars is taking shape ahead of the opening event on February 28.

They'll be competing for the chance to win a share from a minimum €100,000 prize pool alongside a real-world drive of a Gen2 car, and Vandoorne says the competition will jump to the next level following the Race at Home Challenge with the addition of energy management and ATTACK MODE - key components of any Formula E race weekend.

"I’ve seen a couple of names on the list and they're top-level guys that are dominating esports at the moment. They’re strong whatever sim they race on and they’re always at the front, so it’ll be interesting to see them go head-to-head here with something different than the other cars they race – we have a lot more things to think about in Formula E!"

"The sim racers are going to have to work a lot harder than we had to in Race at Home, and think a lot harder. Back then, we didn’t have energy management or ATTACK MODE," said the Belgian.

"They’re in the simulation now and that just brings it so much closer to reality and to what we have to do on-track in real life. It’s extra stress on the esports guys and there’ll be a lot more tactics and strategy involved. I’m sure it’ll make for a great show.

"I’ve seen a couple of names on the list and it’s the top-level stars that are dominating esports at the moment.

"They’re usually strong whatever sim they race on and they’re always at the front, so it’ll be interesting to see them go head-to-head here with something different than the other cars they race – we have a lot more things to think about in Formula E!"

Stoff's not afraid of the Diriyah dark

Vandoorne has plenty of experience of racing at night from his exploits in sportscars and the FIA World Endurance Championship. He feels any benefit gained from that will be subtle, but valuable when it comes to Formula E's first foray under the floodlights in Diriyah.

"There’s not too much different in terms of the driving," said the 28-year-old. "Conditions are a bit cooler which means the track is actually quicker at night. You can get a bit more tunnel vision, and everything seems a bit quicker because of the way the circuit is lit and the darkness around. So, it just makes it much more exciting during the racing and also for the fans. Everything looks cooler at night!

"You adapt very quickly to the different environments but there’s a couple of things you have to be aware of and have in mind if you’ve experienced night racing before. Hopefully it’ll help me subconsciously."

'We've made a step forward'

Mercedes-Benz EQ's maiden Formula E campaign reached a final round crescendo with a stunning one-two; Vandoorne leading rookie team-mate Nyck de Vries home for a maiden win and podium for the pair in the championship, respectively.

The Stuttgart team flew out of the blocks with a pair of podiums in the season-opening Saudi Arabia double-header from Diriyah and laid down a marker for the rest with that dominant display in Round 11 as the team came home third in the Teams' table.

This time around, the team is starting from that strong base and on a definite upward curve. Vandoorne is hoping an off-season spent poring over data and making sense of Season 6 will pay dividends.

"It was our first season as a manufacturer and we’ve now been able to get a lot of data on-board and learn a lot from our first campaign," he said. "Coming into this year, we’ve got a complete new powertrain which has been developed based on what we’ve learned in 2020.

"It’s a step forward in every aspect, which is positive. We know we had a good package towards the end of last season and managed to win the last race so our baseline is very good. Hopefully, with improvements in every area we’ll be closer to being able to challenge for the championship.

Stoffel Vandoorne Mercedes-Benz EQ FIA Formula E World Championship

"It’s so unpredictable, though. We have to wait and see – give it a couple of races and try to see the patterns in the competition and how well they’re getting on to know where we stand.

"As a driver, there’s always room to improve and I’m looking to iron out the mistakes that I made last season. I had some highlights with the win in Berlin and a couple more podiums in the year but there were also moments where I felt I let myself and the team down. These are moments I have to iron out if we’re really going to challenge."

'Closer than ever'

With Formula E heading into its first season as an FIA World Championship, competition has never been closer. Vandoorne knows reigning champions DS TECHEETAH will be the team with the target on their back following their title-winning run, but he's sure they're far from infallible.

"It’s so close and every point counts and what I’m looking to do is score every weekend," adds the Belgian. "When the chances are there to take a podium or go for the win, we need to grab it but when that opportunity isn’t there, we need to maximise points.

"DS is the reference right now because of the run of championships they’re on in the last couple of years. The base they’ve showed on-track is strong but they have shown they are beatable. It requires perfection from everyone else to be able to do that but it’s possible and the points are back to zero now so it’s a new opportunity for everyone.

"It’s not only them, there’s a lot of competition elsewhere and a lot of other people won races last season. It’s going to be closer than ever this year."