Action-Filled Formula E Has Lesser In-Race Engagement?

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Formula E ePrix reports are increasingly becoming a long list of drivers who spun or were nudged into a spin, were excessively investigated or awarded penalties. Does the chaotic (but fun!) races make for lesser in-race engagement for the fans? Can you actually follow a driver and his strategy through the entire ePrix?

The 2019 Santiago ePrix was a race of attrition – only 14 out of the 22 drivers completed the third round of the 2018-19 FIA Formula E Championship. But also, it was a race full of spins, technical infringements and investigations – in fact, the post-race investigation into race winner Sam Bird almost saw the victory be handed over to Mahindra Racing’s Pascal Wehrlein.

The weekend started with hot weather (track temperatures were nearing 50 degrees Centigrade) throwing up questions regarding the impact it would have on the performance of the Gen2 Formula E racing car. Will the battery performance be impacted? How could the tyres hold up? Remember, unlike the previous seasons where drivers swapped cars mid-race, this season, they race from lights-to-flag without a compulsory pit-stop. For the teams, heat would have played a factor in terms of race strategy. As for the drivers, given that most of the race in other series during the regular racing calendar, fitness wouldn’t have come under much questioning.

How Difficult Is It To Follow Your Favourite Driver In A Formula E ePrix?

One of the pros of the Formula E race format (45 mins + 2 Attack Modes) is that drivers often end up treating the race unlike they would in other Motorsport categories. Usually, drivers jostle for positions in the opening few laps and settle down to try and attack later in the race. However, in Formula E, there seems to be active across the 45 mins of the race duration. After a point, it was almost impossible to track each driver’s progress through the field given the number of spins, Attack Mode activations and penalties that were being dished out. Does this overdose of action lead to lesser in-race attention and engagement as compared to say Formula 1 where one is able to follow multiple drivers, their strategies and understand how their race would unfold?

Jean-Eric Vergne To Be The Lewis Hamilton Of Formula E? 

The opening lap of the 2019 Santiago ePrix was un-Formula E like. There was almost no chaos and only a few cars exchanged positions. Pole sitter Buemi led Wehrlein and Bird as the rest of the grid followed. The opening pack was tightly connected and that prompted race leader Buemi to use his first Attack Mode option early in the race to try to pull a gap to the rest.

Of the many incidents, the first one was on the first lap itself as NIO’s Tom Dillmann drove into retirement after damaging his car over opening lap debris. The most notable early race incident was triggered by Techeetah’s Andre Lotterer who nudged the rear of BMW’s Antonio Felix da Costa who further nudged the other Techeetah driver, Vergne. Vergne spun from the middle of the pack to rejoin 20th while da Costa was relegated to 21st. Strangely, it was at the Santiago ePrix last year when Lotterer nudged the rear of Vergne while they were running 1-2; positions they eventually finished in to register the series’ first-ever 1-2 finish.

The battle at the front between Buemi, Bird and Wehrlein heated up after the first Full Course Yellow (after the 15th-minute mark); Bird had already overtaken Wehrlein for 2nd and spent a considerable number of laps at Buemi’s gearbox breathing down the inside a few times to snatch the lead. Buemi, a veteran racer, used his experience well to keep ahead, but it was a rare off-line moment that saw him lose control of his car over the marbles only to nudge the left-front of his car into the barriers. The Frenchman attempted to race with a dislodged front-end but eventually decided to retire from the race. Buemi’s crash was unfortunate given that Nissan e.dams were confident to have solved their energy management issues in the lead up to the Santiago ePrix.

Similarly, a mistake from Vandoorne while running in the top-8 saw him understeer into the barriers and into retirement. The Belgian driver is yet to shave off the bad luck that followed him throughout his Mclaren career in Formula 1. Likewise, former Formula 1 driver Felipe Massa had a race to forget after he ended up clipping the barriers while engaged in a wheel-to-wheel battle Nissan e.dams driver Oliver Rowland. Massa and Vandoorne are two of the five drivers who are yet to score points this season. Finally, BMW driver Alexander Sims was stripped off his podium after being awarded a time penalty for nudging Mortara into a spin. For reigning Teams’ Champions Audi, Sims’ penalty meant that they scored their first podium of the season with Daniel Abt.

The high attrition rate saw three teams – Venturi, Nio and Dragon, open their championship account by scoring their first points of the season. In fact, HWA Race Lab are now the only team to score points this season. At the sharper end of the Teams’ Championship, Virgin Racing lead Mahindra Racing by 9 points, while early leaders Techeetah were demoted to 3rd (47 points) after failing to add to their tally in Santiago. The reigning champions Audi moved up to 5th place and have accumulated less than half the points of Virgin Racing. However, Audi had a similarly disastrous start to their season last year and ended up dominating the second half to claim championship honours. Will they be able to repeat the feat this season too?

Qualifying

The first two rounds of this season gave us sufficient proof to believe that the BMW and Techeetah cars were the class of the pack. However, for the Santiago ePrix qualifying, neither of their drivers made it to the Super Pole session. The reigning Formula E champion Jean-Eric Vergne did attribute their lack of pace to early track conditions, one that also seems to have caught out Mahindra Racing’s Jerome d’Ambrosio. D’Ambrosio, who arrived at this ePrix as the championship leader, could only manage a qualifying time that was 21st fastest. On the other hand, Wehrlein clinched pole position in the group qualifying session and secured his first-ever entry into the Super Pole session in only his second ePrix.

For the Super Pole session, Audi saw both their drivers (Lucas di Grassi and Daniel Abt) qualify; joining them in the top-6 was also Sam Bird of Virgin Racing, a customer team of Audi. Di Grassi’s pole lap was a stunning effort – one that saw him go 6 tenths faster than the rest of the field to claim the Super Pole. Embarrassingly enough, it was only a week before the Santiago ePrix where Di Grassi was beaten by a sim racer (Enzo Bonito) in the Race of Champions in Mexico. However, a post-session penalty saw Di Grassi be disqualified from qualifying (sending him last!) and his exclusion did result in some laughs. First, the rule for which he was penalised was brought into force only a few days before the 2019 Santiago ePrix. Second, he was penalised for not following the set in-lap procedure and for braking ‘too much’.

Unpredictable & Chaos Is Formula E

As Formula E’s reach and interest among fans increases, the series organisers should work with the FIA to explain these complex and ever-changing rules, how they impact a driver/car performance and why they are introduced in the first place. Currently, it seems that the fastest driver in qualifying was punished for a lap that actually didn’t matter towards his overall performance in this ePrix. However, it was Nissan e.dams driver and the 2015-16 Formula E Champion, Sebastian Buemi, who inherited Di Grassi’s pole position.

The qualifying result would have brought some joy for Mclaren’s Formula 1 discard Stoffel Vandoorne who managed to qualify in the top-6 and participate in the Super Pole. Likewise, for his team HWA Race Lab who are still coming to grips with their debut in the all-electric series this season. The other former Formula 1 driver, Felipe Massa, managed to qualify 9th, but was beaten by his lesser-known team-mate Eduardo Mortara by two tenths.

Mahindra Racing

The result of the Santiago ePrix must have been bittersweet for Mahindra Racing. The team struggled to recover from D’Ambrosio’s qualifying error and 20th grid start. However, penalties and lack of points for the others means that D’Ambrosio still leads the Drivers’ Championship by a slender 1 point margin – post-race penalties saw him be promoted to 8th despite finishing the race in 10th place. While D’Ambrosio might seem more lucrative to back for championship honours, Wehrlein’s speed and tactical racing indicates that he could make a late championship assault and that one should rule him out at their own risk.

In only his second Formula E ePrix, Wehrlein’s pole position in the group qualifying session and 2nd place finish in the race wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. Thankfully, he had better luck than his more experienced Formula 1 peers. Kudos also to Mahindra Racing for working on a smart race strategy – one that saw Wehrlein conserve his pace, tyres and an Attack Mode till the end of the race. In fact, had Wehrlein not faced battery temperature issues, he would have almost certainly made at least one overtaking attempt on Bird to claim the lead of the race. The better part of Wehrlein’s performances could mean that Mahindra Racing can target scoring consistent points from both their cars, a feat the team struggled to do last season and one that impacted their overall standings.

Up next is the Mexico City ePrix on 16th February and there’s no way we are taking bets on which team-driver will score maximum points or attract maximum penalties.

This post was first published on Firstpost

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