ABT CUPRA: Formula E’s Backmarker Team that Defied all the Odds
Written by Jake O’Callaghan, Edited by Ishani Aziz
ABT CUPRA Formula E entered the world’s premier electric racing series at the beginning of 2023, built upon the bones of the old Audi team who left over a year before, following the conclusion of the 2021 season. Dutchman and veteran Formula E driver Robin Frijns joined the team from Envision. A well-respected and seasoned driver, expectations were relatively high going into the season. Frijns partnered with Swiss driver Nico Mueller, who had competed in 17 races over two seasons of Formula E, but hadn’t started an ePrix in over a year. Regardless, he had a proven record of pace in other series and was sure to be competitive, provided the car was capable. They announced a partnership with Mahindra powertrains for the season.
The first couple of races were a massive blow to ABT’s hopes, with an underdeveloped car and particular issues with energy management, as the team languished at the bottom of the standings, with not a single point to show for. ABT had committed to a Gen3 program much later than other teams and their performances reflected that. Additionally, they suffered from multiple DNFs and the team’s first driver Frijns suffered a fractured wrist after a crash in Mexico City. South African Kelvin Van Der Linde, who didn’t have a single start in Formula E previously, filled in for the recovering Frijns.
Coming into the team’s home races in Berlin, they were a sizable margin behind the rest of the field. Two races on the Berlin Tempelhof Circuit were to be run. In the qualifying session for the first race, it was an all-too-familiar sight for the ABT team, with Mueller qualifying 17th and Frijns starting dead-last in 22nd. The race showed an improvement, and there was reason for hope, with the drivers running in the top 10 for some periods of the race. Unfortunately, due to the car’s poor energy management, Frijns and Mueller finished 14th and 15th respectively, far adrift from the points. This made it seven races on-the-bounce without points, which in the chaotic world of electric street racing, is an eternity. As is the case in Formula 1, Formula E awards points to the drivers that finish in the top 10.
Coming into the weekend’s second race on Sunday, it had rained overnight and track was drenched. The imminent qualifying session was due to be a huge challenge for all 22 drivers. ABT logged early surprises when they both managed times quick enough to get into the duels, a bracket-based knockout qualifying session where drivers compete head-to head until the fastest two remaining battle it out for pole.
As the session progressed, the track remained wet. This was to ABT’s delight as the tricky conditions evened out the playing field for all teams involved. Frijns and Mueller both won their quarter final duels, and in an even bigger shock, both their semi finals as well. Frijns and Mueller would go head-to-head in the final for pole, and while this had already guaranteed pole for the team, each driver wanted to be lauded with the prime honour of righting the course of the previously-ailing team. Frijns eventually secured pole, ahead of Mueller in second and on the front row with his teammate. It was a moment of jubilation for the team so used to the bitter taste of disappointment.
Approaching the race, the track dried as the sun emerged from the clouds, and this meant ABT would struggle, as dry conditions are much more dependent on software setup, with which the team has struggled to master this year. In trying to explain how they were so triumphant in the wet, ABT CUPRA Team Principal Thomas Biermaier said to the media: “I think in wet conditions the mechanical setup is a little bit more important than the software settings, or it has more influence. Also the tyre pressures and things like that. It’s not one specific thing”.
Predictably, they struggled in the race. Frijns dropped like a stone in water, starting on pole but ultimately finishing 17th and one of the last cars that wasn’t involved in an accident. Mueller, however, held on and managed his energy enough to net the team a ninth place finish, which they celebrated like a win. Two valuable championship points meant ABT CUPRA were finally on the board. In speaking to the media after the race, Mueller said: “We executed the race pretty much perfectly with the package we have, and the qualifying is the big highlight.”
While ABT CUPRA may be behind on development and overall pace compared to their fellow competitors, this shock performance gave the team a much-needed boost of hope after such a difficult start to the season, and as we all know in the highly-unpredictable world of Formula E, no team is unable to take a victory, provided the right conditions are present.