Nissan finds master teacher in customer team: "McLaren has proven speed of e-4ORCE 04"
Nissan scored its first Formula E points of the 2023 season at the Diriyya E-Prix in Saudi Arabia: Newcomer Sacha Fenestraz managed eighth place on Saturday. Nevertheless, the Japanese manufacturer continues to lag behind its aspirations - and its own customer team McLaren. Nissan must catch itself as quickly as possible and tickle the existing potential from the car. But where exactly does this lie?
For Nissan, after a few difficult years, everything should be better in the Gen3 era. The Japanese said goodbye to e.dams during last season in order to have full decision-making freedom in the team. They also built a completely new powertrain to finally attack the front again. Also, to get more vehicle data, Nissan has been supplying powertrains to customer team McLaren since this season.
But it is the British, of all people, who are showing what is possible with the Nissan powertrain. McLaren has been in the mix at the front in all three rounds of the season so far, taking its first pole position as well as its first podium in Formula E. "A big thanks to Nissan for giving us this car," praised McLaren team principal Ian James after Saturday's race. "I have to say they've done an outstanding job over the past few months with this overall package."
His Nissan counterpart, Tommaso Volpe, would also like to be more successful, but says: "We were very pleased to see our customer team McLaren take their first pole position and podium in the sport, proving the pace of the Nissan e-4ORCE 04. Congratulations to them. There is still a lot of work to do to reach our full potential, but we are on the right track."
In fact, Nissan was already closer in Diriyya than it was in Mexico City. Both Norman Nato and Sacha Fenestraz finished ahead of their grid positions in both races - but that wasn't too difficult either. After weak qualifying sessions, the Nissan ran better in the race nonetheless. Fenestraz drove into the top 10 for the first time in his fourth Formula E race on Saturday and at least gave his team its first world championship points of the year.
"Qualifying was a bit frustrating this weekend. We made a few mistakes, but the race pace was really good for both drivers," Volpe says. Driver Nato explains one of the reasons: "We need to understand the tires better in qualifying. I think if I had started a few places further forward, I would have had a really good chance to finish in the top 10."
So is it really only qualifying pace that differentiates the factory team from the customer team? Perhaps. But other factors may also play a role. McLaren has signed Jake Hughes, the high-flyer of the season so far. The Briton drove to grid positions 3, 2 and 1 in his first three qualifying sessions. In the race, moreover, his experienced teammate Rene Rast fended off Sam Bird until the very end and secured McLaren its first trophy for "Papaya" despite an energy disadvantage. From the outside looking in, McLaren clearly has the stronger driver pairing, even if Fenestraz is making progress.
McLaren so strong or Nissan so weak?
But there is probably another reason. McLaren is known to have emerged from the Mercedes team, which won all the world championship titles in the past two years. "I know why they won the championship twice," Rast explained during pre-season testing in Valencia. "When I saw how the team works, how the structure is behind it, it honestly opened my eyes. They perform at a very, very high level."
So the fact that Ian James' team set the standards in recent Formula E history doesn't make it any easier for Nissan in a head-to-head comparison. We've already asked in ePod the question: Is McLaren that strong or Nissan that weak? Probably a bit of both. What is clear is that the carmaker from Yokohama has to put its back into it and work on the weak points it has identified - after all, the resources are there.
"We now need to focus on the small details and continue to make progress," confirms Volpe. "We came to Diriyya with some new processes that worked really well. We had a good strategy and felt strong as a team - these are good signs for the rest of the season. We can still achieve more and will continue to work hard between now and the race in India (...)."
The first Hyderabad E-Prix is just over a week away on February 11.