POWER LINES: FORMULA E SEASON 1 REVIEW PART 2
Following on from last week, here is how the inaugural Formula E championship reached its thrilling conclusion on the streets of London....
London June 28th 2015
Safety cars have the ability to throw a well ordered race into chaos. Disadvantages overturned in seconds while a hard won upper hand is lost. Some fans will curse them, others cheer their arrival. What’s not disputed is it’s reputation for turning races on it’s head.
On lap 19 yellow flags flew at the point on track where Fabio Leimer had lost control of the second Virgin entry. It was an innocent enough accident for the 26 year old Swiss driver, locking his brakes into the chicane but on the narrow streets of the Battersea Park circuit it could mean only one thing. Safety car. The Formula E championship contenders now found themselves at opposite ends of that particular spectrum. For Sebastian Buemi the Qualcomm BMW was yet another challenge to overcome. A title that had, at the start of the day, seemed his for the taking, grew more difficult to claim with each passing minute. For Nelson Piquet Jnr. the slowing pack before him was yet another opportunity to capitalise upon. The championship dream was still alive. Only a few rounds before it was another son of a racing legend who saw his wishes come true....
Round 5: Miami, 14th of March 2015
Race number five saw the teams arrive in the United States of America for the first of two rounds. Miami gave the series a stunning bayside location, Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze on a beautiful east coast day.
On pole position was Andretti's Jean Eric Vergne and, as the lights went out, he lead Nico Prost down towards turn one. The E.Dams driver challenged but was held off, Prost falling back into the clutches of Sam Bird. These positions were soon reversed and the Englishman became a permanent fixture in Vergne's mirrors for many laps. Home favourite Scott Speed in his first Formula E race ran in ninth but was eager to impress and move up the order.
Approaching half distance the order at the front remained the same. Extreme resistance was needed to keep Bird back but on lap 19 applause from the Virgin team heralded a strong overtaking move into the lead. Unfortunately the pitstop sequence caused disaster for the leader; mismanagement of the power saw Bird start to coast halfway through his inlap, hopes of victory disappearing as fast as his rivals in front him. When the stops had filtered through, Daniel Abt found himself in the lead chased by Prost and Lucas di Grassi. Coming up rapidly though was Scott Speed. After dispatching teammate Vergne he loomed large in the mirrors of di Grassi’s Abt car and surged by to advance to third. Prost took over the lead of the race but the Californian was quick to follow, chasing an American Dream result at home.
On the very last lap hearts were momentarily in mouths at E.Dams as Prost’s car had an oversteer moment and brushed the wall. Speed was right on the Frenchman’s gearbox, but unfortunately there was no way past in the tight final sector and Nico Prost became the fifth winner in as many races and took a well deserved championship lead at the same time.
Fans trackside moved closer to the edge of their seats as green flags waved to signal the end of the safety car period in London. Sam Bird drew cheers as he made a daring move to overtake Loic Duval for second. Elsewhere on track the NEXT EV China Racing teammates, Piquet and new signing Oliver Turvey, utilised their FanBoost in a bid to keep the fastest lap points away from Buemi and maintain the Brazilian’s still fragile championship lead.
Back in April on the other side of the Atlantic, on top of Fanboost Piquet had received another boost psychologically as well as in the title race...
Round 6: Long Beach, 4th of April 2015
Round 6 transferred the teams to the West Coast and the iconic Long Beach street circuit. A venue packed with racing heritage on a track that has welcomed both Formula One and Indycars over the years. A shortened version was arranged for Formula E and it was Daniel Abt at the head of the field with new championship leader Prost alongside. At the start though it was Nelson Piquet Jnr. who made the perfect getaway to slot into first at turn one. The top three were soon stretching out an advantage as the sunshine glistened off the cars around the Californian streets. Expectations were high for Scott Speed to take victory after his Miami heroics but these hopes were shattered within the first five laps as he crashed into retirement bringing out the safety car. The field would be slowed again a few laps later after Jarno Trulli and Charles Pic engaged in an automotive pirouette at the final hairpin. The racing underway once more championship leader Prost lost out in the battle for fourth to his teammate Buemi. As Prost was losing places Piquet was stretching his advantage leading by 2.5 seconds at half distance. Behind him an intense battle for second had Abt, Vergne, di Grassi and Buemi circulating within about a second. Such had been his dominance that the leader faced no threat in the pit stops and easily maintained his lead after the field changed to their second cars. A penalty for Abt though knocked him out of the fight for podium places. So after 36 laps Nelson Piquet Junior crossed the line for his first win at a track where his father, Nelson Piquet senior, won his first F1 race 25 years previously. After one of the most dominant displays all season, no one could argue with his own summation: "I felt the weekend was ours"
The championship now rested on a knife edge as the laps counted down in the final race. Buemi had the advantage but only just. Piquet was behind but with an ace up his sleeve. His team mate and new fastest lap holder, Turvey, traveling just ahead of him would cede his place and more valuable points would come the Brazilian's way. It almost went unnoticed that just a few corners after this swap, Piquet was ahead of Salvador Duran as well and into a virtual championship winning position once more. Now Buemi had to find a way past Senna...Back at Monaco the Brazilian gave Buemi no trouble whatsoever…
Round 7: Monaco, 9th of May 2015
Formula E hit Europe for the first time in round 7 as the grid lined up on the famous streets of Monte Carlo. The principality, situated on the riviera, home to riches, roulette and in 2015, racing; Formula E style. The shorter track layout comprised of Saint Devote, the swimming pool chicanes, Rasscasse and Anthony Noughes. It was Sebastian Buemi who covered the 1.7 km fastest to line up on pole. He also held the lead confidently at the start as the cars behind jostled for position, the track taking an unfamiliar route along the quayside. A safety car was immediately deployed as Bruno Senna was sent momentarily skyward vaulting over the stricken car of Daniel Abt in a frightening accident at the tightly truncated Saint Devote which affected half the field. At the restart Piquet moved up to third at the expense of Jerome D'ambrosio and gave chase to the leaders. The Abt team attempted a strategic undercut by bringing di Grassi, with energy still to spare, in before race leader Buemi. The Brazilian attempted to make best use of this, powering round the track as his rivals took their mandatory stops. It was an aggressive and cunning ploy by the Abt team, but not a successful one as he just fell short; Buemi stubbornly resisting and keeping in the lead. This was the last challenge the E.Dams driver would face and with less than ten laps to go he was comfortable at the head of the field. The lead was bolstered yet more as di Grassi was forced to defend from a determined Nelson Piquet Jnr. who threw everything at his fellow countryman, whilst Piquet in turn was kept company by Sam Bird, who had navigated the chaos to get into 4th. The street fighting continued behind as Buemi punched the air to become the first Formula E winner in Monaco and the first repeat winner in a dramatic season of racing.
With just 5 laps to go in London Sam Bird continued to make inroads into the lead of Stephane Sarrazin. He now trailed by just over a second but, significantly, had 5% more useable power available. It was now a tale of two races as fans switched their attention between the title fight and the battle for race honours. With too big a gap to Piquet in the championship, Lucas Di Grassi found himself in close attendance behind a desperate Buemi who in turn was following Bruno Senna driving the widest Formula E car in London. A little over a month ago though Di Grassi looked to have made himself odds on favourite for the title…
Round 8: Berlin, 23rd of May 2015
It was destination Germany for round eight and an original track created at Berlin's Tempelhof airport. After a season of disappointments there was an unexpected highlight for the nascent Trulli team as the eponymous boss took pole position in front of the German fans. As the lights went out Jarno Trulli made a strong start leading into turn one with di Grassi shadowing him. The speed from the Abt driver in second gave the race, even at that early stage, a sense of inevitability. It was no surprise when the Brazilian surged by into first place and immediately opened a gap leading by 2.1 seconds after just one lap. The field raced on taking wide, sweeping lines around the track. Cars began forming a train behind Trulli and soon the pole sitter was overtaken and beginning to slide down the order. Di Grassi was, by this time almost 10 seconds up the road and continuing to set a rapid pace at the teams home event. As the Abt driver made his pit stop he briefly handed the lead to his championship rivals but it was soon safely back in his hands. One of his main rivals, Piquet, was forced to battle hard in the latter stages to gain as many points as possible. On this particular day though in complete command was Lucas di Grassi who simply drove away from the opposition, seemingly in another league. After the win he simply said "I had the perfect car" and no one could argue with that. Two hours after the race though officials decided the car was maybe just a bit too perfect. An illegal front wing saw him controversially disqualified from the race; losing the win and the championship lead in one fell swoop. Di Grassi was naturally not at all happy for being thrown out after an offence not of his own making, and the Abt team had the option of protesting the decision but opted wisely to not decide the championship in a courtroom. Although never in a position to challenge, Jerome D'ambrosio took victory for Dragon racing and Nelson Piquet took the lead in the title race....
Fastest lap for Sam Bird demonstrated just how hard he was trying in front of his home crowd; Sarrazin was having to defend equally desperately to keep the Englishman at bay. Further back Buemi was also trying hard, darting this way and that behind the Mahindra of Bruno Senna. If the potions stayed as they were Piquet would take the title; he would win the fight, just as he had in Moscow....
Round 9: Moscow, 6th of June 2015
From the banks of the Moskva, in the heart of the Red Square and with the Kremlin as a backdrop, came round nine of the Formula E championship. Thirty five laps awaited the drivers as they lined up on Russian streets and prepared to do battle once more. Pole this time belonged to Jean Eric Vergne but by turn one this advantage was lost thanks to wheel spin and an opportunistic Piquet. Corners came thick and fast with the championship leader pulling out a slight gap after the hairpin. The Brazilian set the fastest lap on the fourth pass beneath Moscow's iconic architecture and looked like the man to beat. Further back Jarno Trulli had turned circuit designer and was illustrating how the track should be laid out by missing parts out in his battles with Antonio Felix Da Costa and Justin Wilson. Whilst Piquet enjoyed a comfortable lead, the battle for second was anything but as Vergne, di Grassi and Buemi fought for the podium places. Power saving saw Buemi inherit a temporary lead but this roll of the dice came to nothing thanks to a mistake in the pits. Each race has a minimum pit stop time and E.Dams had kept both drivers stationary for 10 seconds longer than necessary. A fundamental and costly error so late in the season. Advantage Piquet as he took back the lead. This was a lead he would never lose and at the chequered flag he took his second win of the year to put himself on the cusp of championship glory. Further back, Wilson took a point in what would prove to be his sole appearance in the series: The lanky, affable and talented Brit tragically lost his life in an Indycar race two months later.
Sebastian Buemi snatched 3rd place on the last lap, but unfortunately he was judged to have been released into the path of Nick Heidfeld after his botched pitstop and so the hitherto luckless German notched up a rare podium for the Venturi team, whilst Buemi came away with only 2 more points to his tally heading to London and a race he had to win…
Two laps to go and Buemi couldn't be closer, the title was still there for the taking. Title victory could still be his, just as the race had been 24 hours before....
Round 10: London, 27th of June 2015
Although two rounds remained there would be no more traveling for the drivers and teams this season. London was the final destination, and the place where the destiny of the inaugural Formula E title would be decided in a double header championship showdown at Battersea Park, south of Westminster. On the line was a place in Motorsport history. Nelson Piquet could wrap up the title if circumstances fell his way but qualifying had handed the advantage to E.Dams and Sebastian Buemi. After the first corner was deemed to be too dangerous, a rolling start was decided upon and the Swiss driver capitalised, jumping away to leave D'ambrosio and di Grassi in his wake. Champion elect Piquet was back in fourth as the cars raced line a stern around the narrow streets. The Brazilian rode his luck in the early laps, slight contact with di Grassi nearly handing him a costly DNF. Jean Eric Vergne, his car newly painted bright orange, got by Piquet and set about making di Grassi's life difficult moving ahead by quarter race distance. There was no mistake this time for E.Dams, a flawless pit stop kept the leader in charge with his title rival Piquet back in fifth. The remaining laps saw a battle royale between Di Grassi and Piquet over fourth. An often fractious rivalry, neither gave an inch, fighting for every point, every piece of tarmac. Both drivers though acutely aware that no mistakes could be made potentially resulting in a zero points score. In the distance however it was Sebastian Buemi who justifiably raised his fist in the air. A faultless drive, the championship lead now within reach and E.Dams crowned as team champions.
The last lap. It all came down to this. Race win and championship victory all on the line. Tensions running high in the pits and on the track. Piquet was forced to watch as his rival tried everything he could to dislodge Senna. Over and over. Left then right. In front of the duelling pair Loic Duval's energy levels were critically low and he was being sucked back towards them. Out front Bird made his move. An attack that sent Sarrazin sliding, tail out but maintaining the lead. However if Duval's energy was critical, then Sarrazin was in an even more dire state, crossing the line first but with 0% available. Thoughts of penalties were put on hold as everyone's attention switched to Buemi. Both he and Senna were almost on top of a slowing Duval as the Swiss driver tried to force open a door that was repeatedly slammed in his face. At the line inches separated the three but crucially the positions remained unchanged. It had been so very close but Buemi had failed in his title bid.
Or had he?
As the cars circulated back to the pits uncertainty reigned in London. Was the title to be decided by the stewards based on lack of power and penalties? The seconds ticked by with various possible outcomes up in the air....
It was live on television that Piquet finally learnt of his victory and this confirmation brought the emotions flooding out. "I'm just so relieved" he would later say in interviews "we pushed really hard" before thanking all those who helped make his dream a reality.
There was happiness too in the Virgin pit garage as Sam Bird was promoted to first and a popular home victory*
Formula E was and is a vision of the future, a brave new world of Motorsport. After a season of twists and turns Nelson Piquet junior stands on top of that world. With season 2 only one week away, one can only wonder what’s to unfold in Beijing on the 24th of October.
*Sarrazin was penalised and sent tumbling out of the points but with everyone moving up there was no change in the points difference between the championship contenders.
Written by Mark Child, Edited by Edward Hunter