DS TECHEETAH's reigning Formula E Drivers' Champion Antonio Felix da Costa says he's heading into Season 7 feeling good; free of the pressure of chasing a maiden title and with every confidence in the "insanely talented, contagiously motivated" team backing him every step of the way.
"I feel good heading into the season as champion. I’m probably not under as much pressure as a result this year, so I’m in a really good place," says a relaxed Antonio Felix da Costa, with the enlightened perspective of a title-winner.
"I’m confident and happy with where I am, how I’m driving and with the team I'm lucky enough to be a part of. I just want to put my helmet on and drive as fast as I can. Other people will have made steps over the off-season which will make life really hard for us but I’ll have a smile on my face and I’m just looking forward to racing cars and other people."
The 29-year-old fired his way to the Drivers' crown in 2019/20 with a record-equalling three-win streak between Round 5 in Marrakesh and Round 7 in Berlin as the Portugese flew out of the blocks to to best the rest in unprecedented circumstances at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport and the six-race nine-day Season 6 finale.
The scale of his achievement was not lost on Da Costa in either a personal or a professional sense. He left Tempelhof as the foremost driver in a series in which all 23 of his rivals are at the top of their game - where each can win any given race in cars operated some of the most decorated manufacturers in motor racing history.
"In sport, and here we see it a lot in Formula E, we compete representing big brands and with a lot of people behind us and counting on us," said Da Costa after the chequered flag fell in Berlin. "Sometimes people can be impatient and you’re only ever as good as you’re last result.
"I have had moments similar to this before, though never winning such a prestigious championship. In junior formulae, when you're climbing through the ranks, you compete against maybe five or six guys that might make it in the sport.
"In Formula E, you’re up against 23 other guys who can win on the right day. You’re beating the best, and the paddock is full of talent across the teams, in the garages and on the grid. I have no words for what I'm feeling right now."
The Portuguese heads to the Ad-Diriyah season-opening double-header on February 26 & 27 as the man with the target on his back, and with the competition kicked up a notch further as a grid full of world class teams and drivers look to get their hands on FIA World Championship honours, but he wouldn't have it any other way - especially with the tools at his disposal.
"I’m hoping I’m the guy people see in their mirrors and are like ‘here comes trouble!’ because I’ve been in those shoes before," says the Lisbon-born racer. "I have the team to thank for building an absolute beast of a car – not only quick over a lap but efficient and good to race, which is a very important factor for me.
"We’ve got one of the most powerful powertrains but also one of the most efficient. It’s great to be in this position for a change but I’ll never take it for granted because I know it doesn’t last forever and I know how it feels on the other side. I’m so grateful to the people that have allowed me to get into this position by building the car they have.
READ MORE: Nice guys finish first. Da Costa's emotional title triumph
"I'm just lucky to do what I do. I'll never be angry or super sad or frustrated about this or that, so sorry. I'll just carry on. I really try to just have as much fun as I can on a race day and with the mechanics, the engineers and the other drivers – as well as with the fans.
"I love to do it that way and I’m glad I did because we don’t have fans at the moment and we have to race without them. I sit with a smile on my face remembering all the times I gave out autographs and photos to them. It’s so much more fun with them around.
"I will push, I will try to win and do it all again but I put my chances of that at something like 20 per cent at most as any one of five or even more drivers will be in for the title. It’s such a competitive season, in such a competitive championship and it’ll come down to all sorts of factors."
Da Costa enjoys the Diriyah circuit - a track he feels is one of the best on the Formula E calendar - but last year's visit, and his start to the season in Saudi Arabia, didn't live up to expectations with 14th and 10th place finishes, though the "shocker" would provide a valuable learning experience and wake up call for both driver and team.
"I'm just lucky to do what I do. I really try to just have as much fun as I can on a race day and with the mechanics, the engineers and the other drivers – as well as with the fans.
"I love to do it that way and I’m glad I do because we don’t have fans at the moment and we have to race without them.
"I sit with a smile on my face remembering all the times I gave out autographs and photos to them. It’s so much more fun with them around."
"It’s one of the most fun tracks for sure," adds the 29-year-old. "The second sector with the high speed downhill coming back up the hill reminds be a bit of the Macau Grand Prix circuit and it’s a lot of fun combining that with the proper 90-degree city track corners and hairpins. It’s really tight in some spots and it just makes for a great race and one of the best circuits on the calendar.
"We'll race in the evening and that shifts our whole day forward with the first Formula E's night races. With the time difference from Europe, I would ordinarily have to do some jetlag adjustments but I won’t be doing that here.
"Temperatures are normally a big topic for us in Saudi. Not only for the batteries but also the tyres and warmup procedures – and in the way we prepare a qualifying session and map out a race. At this time of year, its usually pretty cold in the day and very, very cold at night – so I’m expecting a difference to our preparation and how we get things working in the right window. It’ll be the complete opposite to what we’re used to in Diriyah.
"It’s very important to start a championship strongly. I’ve been doing that almost every season, regardless of where I or the car was – apart from last year where we had a shocker for our first race weekend together.
"That aside, I’m very confident it’ll be different this time around. Everyone’s incredibly motivated for what’s to come and having that bad day was kind of a wake-up call. We try to minimize them as much as we can and learn from them to make sure we have as many good days as we can."
Formula E's first foray into the dark will provide an added challenge to an already demanding event. No jet lag adjustments for Da Costa, but plenty for drivers to adapt to under the lights in Diriyah and he's looking to play his part in what he's sure will be a spectacular sight for the fans watching from home.
"Formula E has been groundbreaking in so many areas – racing in the most iconic city centres for six seasons now – but to have our first ever night race with a grid full of electric cars, it’ll be really special to be a part of," says Da Costa.
"I’ve been here since the beginning and had the chance to do crazy things I never thought possible in the motorsport world but I think this will really be a hell of a show. Unfortunately, with the pandemic we won’t have fans with us but we’re going to put on a real spectacle for everyone.
"I’ve been racing in the FIA World Endurance Championship for a few years now and that comes with the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Daytona 24 Hours and the Nurburgring 24 Hours, so I’ve done a fair bit of racing at night and I normally do it well. There, you’re completely in the dark with just the headlights of the car and there’s a lot of flashing lights on the steering wheel – the revs and information on the dash – so there’s work to do to adapt.
"We’re working on dimming the dash lights as they’re designed to run in the peak light of day, so they’re naturally very bright. We’ll be in the opposite situation in Diriyah so we’re working on small details like that and simulating it in the simulator to make sure we’re as prepared as possible."
With the field so finely poised, and less than a second separating all 24 drivers on the evidence of the Valencia test back in November, teams have been paining over whether to stick or twist in a bid to get ahead.
With the onset of the global health crisis, Formula E and the FIA introduced cost-saving regulations that were voted in to give teams three options when it came to their powertrain for the season ahead.
They could choose to continue with their 2019/20 powertrain - the components that convert the energy from the batteries into motion - bring in an all-new setup that has to last for the coming two seasons or delay the introduction of their new parts until later this season, carrying over their current package until then.
DS TECHEETAH, alongside Nissan e.dams and DRAGON / PENSKE AUTOSPORT, decided to stick and Da Costa predicts this should give DS the jump.
"We’re starting with our Season 6 car so we’re pretty much maxed out on what we know and can get from this car," he explains. "We’re hoping to hit the ground running whilst others are finding their feet with new cars and software, and gain the upper hand.
"We don’t have to mess around with new things and hopefully that’ll be our advantage whilst we’re working on and testing our Season 7 car which we’ll bring in at the next homologation point.
"I have full trust in this team. These guys are insanely talented and motivated and it’s really contagious to be a part of and to feel how hard they want to win.
"We work hard every day to win and we’re glad that others consider us the targets and the ones to beat. Having said that, we’re always humble and we look at others with a lot of respect. We know how talented other teams are and I expect they’ll have made big steps and will really bring the challenge.
"For example, Mercedes, Nissan and Porsche ended last season very strongly and teams like BMW showed insane pace at points. Then you think of the two quality drivers in each team – the competition is crazy. We know our opponents well and whoever it is, we’ll be fighting whatever their strengths and weaknesses are."
Da Costa's focus is firmly on enjoying his craft just now. Whether its that he finds himself the incumbent champion, or whether its a product of the current situation we all find outselves in, its how he sees things, and how he feels he gets the best out of himself in-car and beyond.
"I have my good days and bad days, and day-to-day problems in my life but I’m so fortunate to do what I do for a living," says Da Costa. "There’s a lot of mental work that goes on with my coach and psychologist that helps me focus my energies on the things that I can control and improve. I’m only human and far from perfect.
"That side of things, as a human and an athlete, I try to improve all the time. Fitness and internal happiness is an important factor too but we all sometimes get a kick in our stomachs when something beyond our control happens – when family and friends are in trouble, or ill, or whatever it might be.
"I just try to put on the helmet and enjoy myself. I really think that makes a difference to how we perform."
Published on 16th February 2021