The Season of a Rookie: Diriyah

Norman Nato reflects on his debut weekend in Formula E…

Just as every dog has its day, every racing driver must make their debut, and February 26, 2021, was a date that was boldly circled in Norman Nato’s diary.

Following the postponement of Santiago, the 2021 Diriyah E-Prix was the Frenchman’s definitive start date and ultimately, his time to shine in Formula E’s first-ever night race.

After waiting in the wings since Season 5, it was the race that the 27-year-old had been anticipating, and when the lights flashed for the season-opener, a weekend of learning was in-store.

When Norman arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, however, the start to the weekend was odd, in-line with the strange circumstances of the world at present as he explains.

“It was a bit weird having to stay in our hotel rooms for nearly three days when we arrived but I tried to establish a proper schedule every day so I could be busy,” said Norman.

“To prepare, we had a lot of video meetings, we watched the Diriyah races from Seasons 5 and 6 and I also did a lot of physical training in my room and I think it worked quite well.

“The most stressful moment had to be doing the PCR test though – this was the moment we were all focussed on to be honest because it was the first thing we had to pass!

“We’ve been preparing for months and months and with the PCR test, a positive result can change everything but fortunately, we were all negative which meant we could go racing. 

“Obviously, as a rookie, everything was new for me but we maximised our time so we could prepare with a routine in the track walk, the meetings and the debriefs after every session. It was really good to finally be in Riyadh.”

Having spent extensive time in the simulator ahead of the race, Norman explained that virtual experience can only count for so much and that some situations are impossible to prepare for.

Prior to Diriyah, Norman last raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in September 2020 and hadn’t raced single-seater cars competitively since contesting Formula 2 in 2017.

This created a fast learning curve, but by finding the limit with a cautious approach at first, Norman advanced his knowledge rapidly which was reflected as the weekend progressed.

“It feels great to have finally completed my first races in Formula E,” Norman continued. “Before the season opener, I knew that there would be a lot of things that I would discover and that’s exactly what happened.

“You can work extremely hard in the simulator and try to anticipate every scenario, but there are some situations that are impossible to train for. 

“On that first day, I learned a lot – more than I did during pre-season testing. Before Diriyah, I had only driven the car six times in three years and the previous race I did was Le Mans in WEC which was almost six months earlier.

“I realised on the track walk that my most recent standing start was in Formula 2 in 2017 and that the last street circuit I raced on was Baku! I still had a lot to learn.

“Finding the limit in Riyadh was not as easy as I expected because I didn’t want to go over the limit. I wanted to get as much track time as possible, and that meant avoiding mistakes.

“Overall, I think it was quite a good debut. I was expecting more so I’m not happy with my results but there were a lot of positives when looking at everything in detail.

“During practice using 200kW I was always inside the top six and Race 1 was quite good which was a surprise for me because this is where rookies usually struggle the most.

“I was fighting with the likes of Sebastien Buemi, Antonio Felix da Costa and Jean-Eric Vergne and I learned a lot from these guys because it was the first time I was fighting and following.”

A hampered practice programme in FP1 and FP2 prevented Norman from performing a complete 250kW simulation ahead of qualifying and this placed the Frenchman on the back foot for Race 1.

“One downside was that I wasn’t able to properly prepare for my 250kW run in practice and this meant that I was not completely ready or confident for qualifying,” he said.

“I wasn’t satisfied with my lap and that was frustrating. After Race 1 I felt a lot more comfortable and I was looking forward to applying everything that I learned for Race 2 but the second day was completely different.

“I was impeded on my 250kW run in FP3 but the pace was promising. Because of what happened to Edo, we weren’t able to contest qualifying which was a tough pill to swallow.

“We had to start the race at the back and it felt like everything was against me! But despite us fighting from there, I think Race 2 was a step up and an improvement in almost every area.

“In the 200kW mode, I was the second or third-fastest car on track and this is positive, especially so early in the season. My experience will only go up from here and I’ll be able to apply that in future races.”

With the Rome E-Prix fast-approaching, Norman will have the opportunity to put his new knowledge from Diriyah into practice at the start of April.

Coupling a more direct, on the limit approach with an intense one-day schedule, the 27-year-old believes that momentum can work in his favour and ultimately, put him in a better position when the starting lights flash out.

“Firstly, the schedule for Rome will be different to Diriyah. Every session will be on one day and as a rookie, I think this will work better for me,” he added.

“Analysing data and reviewing video footage for hours can be helpful, but sometimes, it can be better to do each session, give feedback in between, jump back into the car and improve. I think it can help with momentum.

“Now that my first race weekend is over, my approach for the next race will be very different because I know what to expect. My debut was about learning – now it’s about pushing.

“This season, all of the teams and drivers are so close. You can’t afford to make any mistakes but you have to be on the limit at all times.

“From the first lap of FP1 in Rome, I will be pushing a little bit harder so I can be better prepared for qualifying – if you don’t start inside the top eight, it’s difficult to compete for something.

“For sure, it’s not like I learned everything there is to know in Diriyah, but with my knowledge, I’m in a better position for the third race of the season.”