Wehrlein Could Embarrass Mercedes & Formula 1
Can Pascal Wehrlein win the Drivers’ Championship in his maiden Formula E season after a not-so-sweet end (or pause?) to his Formula 1 career? He certainly seems to the be class of the field in Formula E.
Formula E, promoting itself as the most unpredictable sporting series on the planet, delivered on their marketing tag-line and sentiment yet again. This time, the venue was Mexico City — and like always, the ePrix was a mix of action, strategy and drama for nearly every minute of the 45-minute long race. In fact, from the four ePrixs so far with the Gen-2 car and new rules like the Attack Mode, we would go a step further in acknowledging that the 2019 Mexico City ePrix was probably a model race for Formula E. (Read: What’s Not To Like About The New Formula E?)
We have often called out Formula E for offering an overdose of action, strategy and drama — so much so that following the action ended up becoming a function of reading data from the sensors since the visuals offered too much to process in terms of spins, accidents, overtakes, penalties and more. The addition of the Attack Mode to the existing Fan Boost only added more elements to follow in-race. However, one assumes that moving the Attack Mode activation zone to the inside of a corner (it was placed on the outside of the corner in the previous races) did the trick in delivering a fantastic ePrix where following your favourite driver(s) and their race strategy was easier — let’s just say, there seemed more method to the Formula E madness!
— ABB Formula E (@FIAFormulaE) February 16, 2019
Before the ePrix, drivers voiced their concerns about the lack of overtaking opportunities despite the wide circuit layout — they expressed that the race could turn processional (the irony!), a term usually reserved for Formula 1 Grands Prix. However, the lack of an opportunity to overtake actually did better for the ePrix than otherwise expected. First, it meant that the drivers had to work hard to gain position — this helped control the usual overdose. Second, it laid more emphasis on race strategy, the energy usage and the timing of the Attack Mode — the focus being on timely execution.
Lucas di Grassi, the 2016-17 Formula E Champion and Audi Sport driver, won the Mexico City ePrix after the last corner of the last lap. In fact, he won the ePrix in the short-ish straight distance between the exit of the last corner and the finish line. The second and third place drivers, Antonio Felix da Costa (BMW) and Edoardo Mortara (Venturi) followed him across the finish line less than a second behind. Pascal Wehrlein, the pole sitter, finished 6th despite leading every single lap of the ePrix!
Further adding to the unpredictability, six drivers from six different teams made it to the Super Pole session. Felipe Massa, who has had a not-so-impressive start to his Formula E career, made it to his first Super Pole session, as did Oliver Rowland, the British driver who was awarded a full-time Formula E racing contract by Nissan (formerly Renault e.dams) after their original choice of driver, Alexander Albon, was poached by Toro Rosso to race in Formula 1.
Championship leader (leading up to the Mexico City ePrix) and the winner of the last ePrix in Santiago, Sam Bird suffered from a car issue in his qualifying attempt leading to a Did Not Qualify against his name. Jerome d’Ambrosio, who was second in the Drivers’ Championship, ended up with a lap time that was good enough for a lowly 19th place. In the build-up to the ePrix, some of the veteran Formula E drivers prompted the series to change its qualifying format in a bid to reduce unpredictability.
Should Formula E Change Their Qualifying Format?
Currently, the top-six drivers in the Drivers’ Championship are classified in Group 1 of qualifying by default. This means that the best drivers of the series attempt their qualifying runs when the circuit is at its ‘dirtiest’. In Motorsport terms, this means that the circuit isn’t rubbered in and has excessive dust on the ‘racing line’ — two key reasons that would offer drivers in Group 1 lesser grip and hence a disadvantage versus drivers in the other groups. At Mexico City, Antonio Felix da Costa was the only driver to make it to the Super Pole session of the fastest six drivers from the group qualifying stage. He managed to do so by topping the Group 1 qualifying session. The reigning Formula E champion and also a Group 1 member, Jean-Eric Vergne, could manage a time that was only eighth fastest. Could the pole lap that was two tenths quicker than Vergne’s be attributed to track evolution? Possibly so.
Oliver Rowland claimed pole position in the group qualifying session, followed by Pascal Wehrlein. However, their positions changed in the Super Pole session as Wehrlein became the fourth different driver in four races to claim pole position. In the Wehrlein vs Rowland battle, Wehrlein’s near-perfect lap (three tenths quicker than the other 21 drivers) in the Super Pole session saw Rowland make a few mistakes and end up only fourth. Di Grassi claimed second, while it was good to see Massa qualify third. Last year’s ePrix winner, Daniel Abt, could only manage 21st, while former Mclaren driver and a consistent winner of the Fan Boost, Stoffel Vandoorne, qualified 20th.
Pascal Wehrlein made an electric (pun intended!) start to his ePrix. As the start lights went out, he comfortably led the opening few minutes of the ePrix while Rowland’s start and first corner overtake on di Grassi saw him second. As the opening few minutes passed, Massa dropped down to sixth, while d’Ambrosio was racing six positions higher than where he started. However, an early race incident between Jaguar’s Nelson Piquet Jr and DS Techeetah’s Vergne saw Piquet miss his braking point, launch his car over Vergne’s and crash into the barriers to bring out a Full Course Yellow. The Full Course Yellow soon turned into a Red Flag, a second such instance in the relatively young history of Formula E.
The circuit marshalls took their time in fixing the circuit but the FIA was kind enough to add the stoppage time back to the original race time — this means that fans were treated to a full 45 minutes of electric-racing action. At the re-start, it seemed that the safety car stayed out a lap extra than planned and this possibly worked against the race strategy advantage of the early Attack Mode activators — Buemi, Massa, Mortara, Lotterer, d’Ambrosio and Vergne. On the second lap behind the safety car, almost every driver activated Attack Mode; one wonders if this was an error by Race Control.
Wehrlein Shows His Class
However, up at the front, Wehrlein beautifully controlled the pace of the race as he was chased down by Rowland and di Grassi. The top-3 were fighting their own race for the first half of the ePrix and were later joined by Buemi and da Costa as energy use and the activation of the final Attack Mode came into play. The key concern for every driver was activating Attack Mode without losing track position. This was important because in the trade-off between the extra power of the Attack Mode and track position, the latter that was more important. And remember, it is compulsory for every driver to use Attack Mode twice during the course of the ePrix.
As expected, the top-5 drivers activated their Attack Mode in descending order of their race classification — Da Costa was first, followed by Buemi, di Grassi, Rowland and Wehrlein. Da Costa was unable to make any progress up the grid, while Buemi was very cheeky in his activation — he wriggled his way on track to ensure that he didn’t lose track position. However, Rowland couldn’t manage to keep the rear of his car in check while activating his Attack Mode and this saw him lose position to di Grassi. In fact, Rowland was almost tagged by his teammate Buemi as he lost further ground immediately after activation. When di Grassi went for his Attack Mode activation, it gave Wehrlein a momentary breather as he battled hard to keep his rivals behind him.
The Difference Of 1% Power In Formula E
At various times during the ePrix, Formula E flashes the total energy usage of every driver in comparison to their rivals. Wehrlein’s total consumption was one percent more than di Grassi, but similar to Rowland’s. However, in the last two minutes of the ePrix, Wehrlein was forced to conserve energy — this required him to resort to extreme defensive driving against a charging di Grassi who had better energy consumption throughout the ePrix, a decision that allowed him to charge at a limping Wehrlein towards the end. Despite Wehrlein’s applause-worthy defensive driving, di Grassi sneaked up on the inside a few corners to the end on the last lap. To salvage position, Wehrlein (cheekily!) cut a chicane to retain track position ahead of di Grassi. However, Wehrlein’s Mahindra Racing car struck 0% power just metres before the finish line allowing di Grassi to overtake and clinch a hard-fought and smart victory.
To add salt to Wehrlein and Mahindra Racing’s wounds, the FIA Stewards awarded the young rookie a five-second time penalty for cutting the chicane, a fair decision that saw him drop down to sixth in the race classification. Joining Wehrlein with 0% power were the two Nissan drivers Rowland and Buemi. In fact, the duo ended up not finishing the race as they ran out of power on the last lap. Da Costa and Edoardo Mortara surprised themselves too when they clinched second and third respectively adding to Formula E’s unpredictability. In the current season, four drivers from four different teams have won an ePrix and eight drivers from six different teams have stood on the podium. Before climbing on to the top step of the podium in Mexico City, di Grassi had failed to finish on the podium even once this season. Finally, no driver this season has failed to lead the race from start to finish.
Should Mahindra Have Helped Wehrlein Manage His Race Better?
On the note of Wehrlein’s running out of power issue, one wonders if this was down to the driver’s lack of experience in Formula E. Let’s remember this is only his third ePrix in the series and he could still be getting to grips on energy management. This also begs to ask if Mahindra Racing could have helped him manage his energy consumption better? Could the team have advised him in the earlier parts of the race to use lesser energy? This is the classic could’ve-would’ve-should’ve moment for Mahindra Racing and their growing legion of fans in India.
Had Wehrlein won, he would have jumped to the top of the Drivers’ Championship — a bit of an embarrassment for the other drivers given that the former Mercedes driver has raced one less ePrix than his rivals (he had to skip the opening round in Saudi Arabia due to contractual conflicts). However, Mahindra Racing still lead both the championships — d’Ambrosio’s fourth place finish keeps him ahead of da Costa and Bird, while Wehrlein is already up in fifth place. Oddly enough, Tom Dillmann (Nio) and the two HWA Official drivers (Gary Paffet and Stoffel Vandoorne) are the only drivers to have contested all four ePrixs and not scored points.
Wehrlein’s early finding of pace and comfort in Formula E makes one wonder if he is Formula 1‘s most-noticeable young talent loss of recent times. Either way, there’s ample proof already that Formula 1’s loss is Formula E’s gain — and the Wehrlein story has only just started.
The Business of Formula E
Formula E launched Extreme E — a series where electric powered SUVs would go racing (from 2021) in areas specifically impacted by global warming. The purpose would be to highlight the electrification of the automobile. The broadcast wouldn’t be like a regular series — it would follow the docu-sport format that would be released in episodes towards the end of the Extreme E season. Let’s hope Extreme E adds as much excitement to Motorsport as Formula E does.
And finally, the opening round of the 2019-20 Formula E season in Saudi Arabia could mostly be turned into a night-race event. Given the success and interest in Singapore (that hosts a night race for Formula 1), one understands why Saudi Arabia wishes to be the first venue to attempt a similar ‘race under the lights’ for Formula E. And of course, the lights would be powered by sustainable power.
This post was first published on Firstpost