FIA FORMULA E CHAMPIONSHIP: SEASON 2, ROUND 3 - PUNTA DEL ESTE RACE REPORT
Twas several nights before Christmas, and Formula E
was a present most early for you and for me!
Lucas Di Grassi was leading the way
But would he be first at the end of the day.....?
(Please forgive Mark for this detour into verse; 'tis the season, for better and for worse! - Ed)
That's right! it was festive poetry in motion as the Formula E series made its final stop in 2015. The destination: Puntadel Este on the South Eastern coast of Uruguay, and more highly charged thrills and spills were definitely the order of the day. The only FIA level championship to take place during the heart of the holiday season proved to be a fantastic gift.
Sadly not all the teams were under the Punta del Este tree as Trulli announced earlier in the month that they were withdrawing from the championship. This news was received with much sadness in the paddock and amongst the team's many fans. Although the Swiss team had struggled all season, not making it to the grid in either Beijing or Putrajaya, they were an immensely popular part of the Formula E family. Also missing from the race was Mahindra's Nick Heidfeld. Ligament damage to his wrist at the previous round, and a subsequent operation, saw him reluctantly forced to follow the doctor's advice and pull out of the event. So stepping into the German's racing boots this weekend was Britain's Oliver Rowland. The Formula Renault 3.5 champion faced a steep learning curve but was keen to show what he could do on the coastal streets.
Race day dawned with nine teams and eighteen drivers all hungry for success. For some the chance to achieve a dream result, for others a chance to maintain championship momentum. All of them aiming to see the chequered flag first. For all of them though the first challenge was to get the best grid position, and to avoid the walls on this high speed circuit...
The first qualifying group saw Jean Eric Vergne, Nathanael Berthon and the two Nextev cars take to the track with British driver Oliver Turvey fastest, ahead of his reigning champion teammate Nelson Piquet. Disappointment for Vergne came after a cut chicane ruled him out of contention for a quick time, his mood not improved by contact with Berthon further round the track.
Next came a group containing some definite pole contenders with four former race winners strapping in and setting off to record a time. As at the first two rounds the e.dams team looked incredibly strong but Nico Prost compromised his lap running over a bollard and causing damage to the front wing. His time was subsequently beaten by Jerome D'ambrosio, Bird and Di Grassi, who set a massive 1:15.1 to go fastest overall. Only Robin Frijns was slower in the group.
Third out on track were Daniel Abt, Antonio Felix da Costa, Stephane Sarrazin, Loic Duval and Oliver Rowland. With track evolution providing better conditions for drivers later in the session it was a surprise to see none of these drivers taking top spot over all. Loic Duval ended fastest in the group but Di Grassi was still on provisional pole, his time looking more and more impressive.
Finally Simona de Silvestro, Bruno Senna, Sebastien Buemi and Jacques Villeneuve had their shot at a Superpole time. A close encounter with the wall ended the former F1 champion's lap with Villeneuve setting no time. This incident would later rule the Canadian out of the event as well as compromising De Silvestro's lap. As expected though Sebastien Buemi, pole sitter for both the previous rounds, easily made it into the Superpole shootout with a time even faster than Di Grassi.
The final race for pole in Punta del Este would be between Buemi, di Grassi, D'Ambrosio, Duval and Bird. A strong shootout line up for round three in the championship and Sam Bird took his Virgin DS out onto the circuit first. His lap time did not prove competitive enough though and he was soon pushed down the order by both Dragon cars. Duval first lowered the bar by three tenths and his team mate took it down by another four with a ballsy lap where at one point he was inches away from the wall. The main event though would surely be championship leader Di Grassi against his main rival so far in season 2, Sebastien Buemi. The Brazilian put in a scruffy lap though and found himself surprisingly slowest of the group to that point. If that was a surprise though it was immediately topped by the shock and disbelief in store as Buemi, who had barely put a foot wrong until now, cracked under pressure, bringing his record run of poles to an end and leaving the e.Dams driver slowest of the Superpole contenders. This meant a front row lockout for the Dragon team led by a delighted Jay Penske and pole position for Jerome D'Ambrosio, his first pole in Formula E.
A highly charged assortment of electric racers lined up on the grid, the sun beating down on this Punta del Este circuit. Thirty three laps covering just over fifty seven miles awaited the drivers as they focused on the lights, each looking to make the perfect getaway, make up positions, attack or defend.
As the red lights disappeared Jerome D'Ambrosio made the most of his pole position, pulling safely away towards turn one. This was in contrast to his team mate, Frenchman Loic Duval who was slow away and soon under pressure from Sam Bird. The Virgin driver attacked and was into second place before the first corner. Sebastien Buemi also capitalised at the start to move ahead of championship leader Di Grassi and up to fourth. Crossing the line for the first time then it was Dragon's D'Ambrosio with six tenths in hand as the drivers all began to find a rhythm on the fast and flowing track.
The first casualty of the race came on lap three as Bruno Senna saw the Aguri of Antonio Felix da Costa get by under braking. He was soon slipping down the field as a puncture, caused by contact with the wall, dramatically slowed the Brazilian's progress. Whilst he fell to the back as he was forced to experience Formula E's first ever tyre change, still out front was the Dragon Racing entry of Jerome D'Ambrosio. The Belgian, already a winner in Formula E, was managing to keep a determined Sam Bird at bay. The pressure was reduced somewhat as a rapid Buemi took Duval on lap 4 and was almost immediately looking for a way into second. The fast approaching Edams car would force Bird into a more defensive drive and by lap five a train of cars were following in the wheel tracks of the Englishman.
Setting fastest laps with apparent ease, Sebastien Buemi was always going to find a way through and start hunting down the leader so it was no surprise to see him send the car alongside and through at the chicane. By quarter distance the Swiss driver was threatening to do the same to Jerome D'ambrosio. This also had a sense of inevitability about it as he seemed alone in being able to pick off drivers at will in Uruguay, such was the pace and energy efficiency of his car. This was in contrast to his team mate Prost, who for reasons only known to himself seemed unable to match the speed coming from the other side of the garage.
Lap eight saw Buemi complete his march to the front. After a disappointing qualifying he had made up four places and was now in a position to stamp his authority upon the rest of the field. Nico Prost also made a move that saw him get some clean air ahead of Daniel Abt though there was a significant gap for the Frenchman to close to the cars in front. If he could simultaneously gain time and save energy then he could get involved with the intense battle for third as Duval, Bird and Di Grassi circulated within a few tenths of each other. Challenging but, based on their performances so far, more realistic than the thought of seeing his team mate again before the chequered flag.
On lap 10 the fan boost winners were announced (Vergne, Sarrazin and Bird) while Nathanael Berthon was in a spin at turn 19. The end of the lap also saw a strong move from Di Grassi to take fourth place from Bird and start to limit the damage Buemi was doing to him in the championship.
Over the next few laps the Edams team watched as their lead driver continued to pull out a significant gap. Lap 15, over three seconds. Lap 16, over 4 seconds. The only time a car was close to him was when a luckless Bruno Senna, having rejoined but struggling with a now badly handling car, went into the wall in front of him. Meanwhile Di Grassi was nose to tail with Duval. He looked one way, then another but the Dragon racer was determined to defend his third place and the championship leader was forced to wait for the pit stops to progress any further.
The car change overs were instigated by Abt, Sarrazin and Turvey who came in at the end of lap seventeen before almost everyone else did exactly the same one lap later. Almost, but not everyone as Formula E rookie Oliver Rowland got to experience a moment in the Punta del Este sun, leading a lap before he too was forced to pit and resume a lonely race at the tail end of the field.
A mistake by the Dragon team in the pits for the second race in succession saw them lose position to Di Grassi who emerged in front of both Duval and D'Ambrosio. Second place, on a day when Buemi was in such dominant form would be a good result for the Abt driver.
Someone whose opportunity for a good result was about to evaporate was Sam Bird. After a rocket start into 2nd place he had found himself slipping back behind D'Ambrosio and Di Grassi. This was compounded as the DS Virgin racer was brought to a stop out on track. The tried and tested I.T. adage of 'turning it off and on again' was not particularly effective and very soon he was forced to retire the car; this ended a rollercoaster day for Bird, who had suffered a large accident in free practice due to a suspension failure and his second car had to be extensively repaired before the start, which may explain it's unreliability.
This necessitated a full course yellow and caused the only perceived moment of tension for the race leader as he slowed before he had to, thereby allowing Di Grassi to gain several seconds on him and bring them right together at the restart. As Sam Bird's stricken car was removed and the race got underway again it looked as though there might be a genuine fight for victory. Could the winner in Putrajaya pressure Buemi into a mistake? Could we see a repeat winner for the first time in Formula E? Behind them pressure was being felt once again in the Dragon garage as their two drivers fought for the podium.
On lap 25, Jean Eric Vergne used his FanBoost to find a way by Sarrazin for tenth. In front of him Turvey got a penalty for being released from his stop a few seconds before the mandated time limit, which resulted in a drive through penalty for the British driver, ending any chance he had of points. With the laps counting down, Vergne set about charging after defending champion Piquet who was determined to score more points in NEXTEV car more suited to the Punte Del Este track than usual.
Out front Buemi was inching away from Di Grassi. Both drivers have so far been the class and of the field in season two and look set to make this a two horse race for championship honours. On this track though it was clear from the early stages that e.Dams, and Buemi in particular, were in another league. With five laps to go the Swiss star had the gap up to 2.2 and would, if they finished as they were regain the points lead. He just needed to drive as he had been doing, hit the same apexes, brake at the same points, while everyone behind tried to force him into a mistake. No pressure then.
Really feeling the pressure was Nelson Piquet. This was not going to be his year but any points were valuable. Valuable, but hard to keep, especially when there was a hard charging Frenchman in the shape of Jean Eric Vergne diving around in his mirrors. There was a small lock up from the champion but he still had it under control. Then on the penultimate lap Vergne braked deep into turn 8 and went sailing by the Nextev car, smoke pouring from the tires. But he had gone too wide in doing so; Piquet easily cut back underneath and the two made contact side on before they resumed their battle, the Frenchman gesticulating angrily for the second time that day. Honours even. Positions unchanged. At the next fast left though it all went disastrously wrong for the Brazilian as the car's rear right tyre briefly touched the wall and the NEXT EV machine snapped sideways on him, sliding him into the barrier, across the track and into the wall. Fast reactions from the DS Virgin driver then saw Vergne take wide avoiding action and eighth place in one simple move.
Vergne was the beneficiary of further misfortune when at the end of the final lap he was able to pass an ailing Daniel Abt for 7th place, securing 6 valuable points for the DS Virgin team and ending a fabulous comeback drive from the very final spot on the grid. Further back, Simona De Silvestro managed also to make a move on Turvey for 11th place right at the end, finishing tantalisingly close to the points after her strongest performance of the season so far. The wait for a female driver to score in Formula E continues, but the feeling at Andretti is that with better luck she can and will break her duck.
No such patience necessary for Buemi as the 27 year old rounded the final corner to record his second win of the season and take a slender one point lead into 2016. It was not the greatest of races, in comparison with Putrajaya for instance, but it was a great drive. A masterclass from a driver who must already be thinking he is in the right place to challenge and potentially win the second Formula E championship. A result like this was surely the best present he could have wished for.
2015 Punta Del Este ePrix Results
1st) Sebastien Buemi
2nd) Lucas Di Grassi
3rd) Jerome D'Ambrosio
4th) Loic Duval
5th) Nicolas Prost
6th) Antonio Felix Da Costa
7th) Jean Eric Vergne
8th) Daniel Abt
9th) Stephane Sarrazin
10th) Robin Frijns
11th) Simona De Silvestro
12th) Oliver Turvey
13th) Oliver Rowland
14th) Nathaniel Berthon
DNF) Nelson Piquet Jnr. (Crashed)
DNF) Bruno Senna (Brake failure)
DNF) Sam Bird (Electronics failure)
DNS) Jacques Villeneuve (Crashed in qualifying)
1st) Sebastien Buemi, 62 points
2nd) Lucas Di Grassi, 61 points
3rd) Jerome D'Ambrosio, 28 points
=4th) Sam Bird, 24 points
=4th) Loic Duval, 24 points
=6th) Nick Heidfeld, 17 points
=6th) Robin Frijns, 17 points
=8th) Stephane Sarrazin, 16 points
=8th) Antonio Felix Da Costa, 16 points
10th) Nicholas Prost, 11 points
=11th) Bruno Senna, 10 points
=11th) Daniel Abt, 10 points
13th) Oliver Turvey, 8 points
14th) Jean-Eric Vergne, 6 points
=15th) Nelson Piquet Jnr, 4 points
=15th) Nathaniel Berthon, 4 points
17th) Simona De Silvestro, 0 points
18th) Jacques Villeneuve, 0 points
19th) Oliver Rowland, 0 points
1. Renault e.Dams 73pts
2. ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport 71pts
3. Dragon Racing 52pts
4. DS Virgin Racing Formula E Team 30pts
5. Mahindra Racing Formula E Team 27pts
6. Team Aguri 20pts
7. Amlin Andretti Formula E Race Team 17pts
8. Venturi Formula E Team 16pts
9. NEXTEV TCR Formula E Team 12pts
Written by Mark Child, Edited by Edward Hunter
In Association With Formula E Addicts