FIA FORMULA E CHAMPIONSHIP: SEASON 2, ROUND 4 - BUENOS AIRES RACE REPORT
With Christmas celebrations now just a distant memory and Motorsport withdrawal symptoms reaching their peak, Formula E powered back to ease the suffering of race fans round the world. This time the electric circus pitched it's tent in Buenos Aires, Argentina for 35 laps around the Puerto Madero street circuit. It was a welcome return to a circuit that offered one of the most dramatic races from season one. Multiple race leaders and an unlikely first win for Team Aguri driver Antonio Felix da Costa made it a race to remember.
It was not such a happy return for all those who competed at the last round in Punta del Este though with two drivers not returning at all. Team Aguri announced towards the end of January that they would be parting ways with Frenchman Nathanael Berthon. This vacancy was soon filled by series returnee Salvador Duran. The Mexican had been signed for the Trulli team but found himself without a drive as, just like an old DOS game being booted up on your shiny new laptop, the Swiss team failed to launch this season. So it was a natural fit to see him back in Aguri colours in Argentina this weekend, a team he has a great relationship with having driven for them during season one.
More headline-grabbing though had been the loss of Jacques Villeneuve. The reason for his departure from the Venturi team was cited as a difference of opinion regarding the team's direction, and certainly the 1997 F1 champion's lacklustre results and lack of pace in his three outings were indicative of things not working out for either party. Whatever these irreconcilable differences were, his name was a significant loss to Formula E. However, filling the sizeable void left by the outspoken Canadian was World Endurance Championship driver for Toyota and Indycar street course maestro Mike Conway, who had previously tested for the Dragon squad prior to season one.
So on to qualifying and with the groups decided the first cars were let loose. Sam Bird, Stephane Sarrazin, Mike Conway, Nick Heidfeld and Jean Eric Vergne made their way onto the 2.479km street circuit with six minutes to set their fastest full power time. Although looking solid on his lap, a somewhat under the weather Vergne could only manage a 1:10.581 making him the slowest of the first electric quintet. Nick Heidfeld, on his racing return after wrist surgery, didn't fare much better but went two tenths quicker to set the fourth fastest time of the bunch. Conway impressed on his debut steering his Venturi into a competitive third place in the group, breaking into the 1:09 bracket. Swapping places at the head of group one though were Sam Bird, who initially went fastest, before being pipped by the second Venturi of Stephane Sarrazin with a strong time of 1:09.236
Group two would see championship leader, and five times pole sitter, Sebastien Buemi take to the track. Challenging him would be his E.dams team mate Nico Prost as well as Loic Duval, Simona de Silvestro and Daniel Abt. First to go on the attack would be Nico Prost, determined to turn his season around after a disappointing start. He would deliver a strong lap but was two tenths down on the quickest lap from group one. The drama would come soon after as title favourite Buemi made an uncharacteristic error locking up and spinning out of contention. Barring a miracle this would see the Swiss driver start at the back of the grid. So group two finished in the order of: Prost, Abt, Duval, De Silvestro and Buemi.
Out next was the group containing reigning champion Nelson Piquet Jr. The Brazilian trying to set a competitive time in the company of Bruno Senna, Robin Frijns and Salvador Duran. Flying Dutchman Frijns took to the track first looking determined and fully committed on a lap that would see him finish just outside the time needed for Superpole. Bruno Senna was flying in sector one before bringing out a red flag by running too much over the curbs and being launched into the wall at the end of his lap. In a separate incident Salvador Duran also struck the barrier and buckled his front wheel, and this would mark the end of group three with no restart of the session. The finishing order was Frijns, Piquet, Senna and then Duran.
Finally Jerome D'Ambrosio, Lucas Di Grassi , Oliver Turvey and last year's race winner Antonio Felix da Costa raced against the clock for a top grid slot. With problems for Buemi this would surely be an opportunity for title challenger Di Grassi to capitalise with a Superpole slot and potential pole position. Two sectors into the lap though and things were not looking good for the Abt driver as he trailed the fastest time by four tenths. He would eventually finish second in the group but a disappointing seventh overall. Far from disappointed though was season one winner Da Costa as he set a blistering 1:09.381 to secure his spot in Superpole. Di Grassi, D'Ambrosio and Turvey completed the final times set in the group stage.
With all the times set, the drivers in the Superpole shootout were Stephane Sarrazin, Antonio Felix da Costa, Nico Prost, Sam Bird and series debutant Mike Conway. Qualifying had already proved very successful for the Venturi team with both cars lining up in Superpole and it was Englishman Mike Conway who took his VM-200 onto the track first. A hard charging lap was compromised by running off-line and getting dirt on the tyres. The resulting 1:12.391 would not challenge for pole but it was nonetheless a very impressive first qualifying session overall for the 32 year old. Out next was Sam Bird for Virgin racing who set a storming 1:09.420 to go quicker than his time in the group stage and lay down a serious marker for the drivers still to come. First to challenge the time would be Nico Prost. A lap that troubled the curbs as much as the time sheets saw the Edams driver take second with Da Costa, next out on track, just a hundredth behind him in third. Finally Stephane Sarrazin completed the session for Venturi. Eager to repeat his pole position from London in season one the Frenchman knew a repeat of his group stage time would be enough. Sadly for him and the team this was not to be as he was unable to get below 1:10 finishing with a 1:10.298. The finishing order for Superpole in Buenos Aries then was as follows:
1st) Sam Bird
2nd) Nico Prost
3rd) Antonio Felix da Costa
4th) Stephane Sarrazin
5th) Mike Conway
An unexpected pole by Bird, but with the last two race wins not going to the polesitter, the Englishman would have his work cut out if he wanted to take his first win of the season.
The grid formed up in the Argentinian sunshine ready to do battle in the fourth round of the all electric Formula E championship. With visors down and heart rates climbing, all were set for what was expected to be a race of attrition over 86.7km. The added spice of championship leaders and contenders out of position at the start promised a race with action aplenty. The keyword on everyone's lips was temperature and how to best manage energy whilst quite literally keeping cool out on track. All eyes on the lights....
A strong start from Bird saw him cut off any potential attack from Nico Prost down into turn one. The fast starting Frenchman locked his tyres into the hairpin and was unable to sneak by on the exit meaning that the order at the front remained unchanged. This was not the case further back with Prost's team mate, and leader of the championship, Sebastien Buemi taking a calculated risk and passing 3 cars. The Swiss driver was clearly on a mission. Also attacking at the start was another Swiss, this time of the female persuasion; Andretti driver Simona de Silvestro hugged the wall tighter than anyone to go 5 wide and into 12th as she got fully stuck in to an almighty midfield scrap. Robin Frijns managed to overtake Mike Conway for 5th, but the Englishman was still able to keep up in the Venturi.
By the end of the lap the top three stayed the same with Bird fending off Prost and Da Costa keeping a watching brief in third. Meanwhile Buemi climbed yet another place to run in 14th as the drivers began lap two. Contact somewhere on the lap saw the Dragon of Jerome D'Ambrosio left with a smoking tyre and struggling for pace as he slipped, rapidly down the order.
A fast moving traffic jam headed by the NEXTEV cars, Turvey running 8th with Piquet in 9th, was creating a gap mid-pack while the leaders continued circulating about three quarters of a second apart.
Jerome D'Ambrosio's day showed no signs of improvement as pitting for damage saw him attempt to leave while still connected via a wheel gun on the left rear. The offending tool receiving a swift kick from a frustrated Dragon team mechanic before being removed and allowing the car to rejoin the circuit. A lock up by Piquet saw him almost collect Loic Duval before falling down the order ruining the Brazilian's chances for points as his difficult title defense continued.
By lap 5, the man running second in the championship, Lucas Di Grassi had taken fifth at the expense of first Conway and then Frijns. This was steady progress as the Abt driver aimed to take the championship lead from his rival. With Buemi having to make his way through the field the Brazilian would be forgiven for thinking that the large gap behind meant circumstances were playing out in his favour. This was a view clearly not shared by Buemi himself as he closed gaps then lined up and passed successive rivals with apparent ease. This progress made all the more impressive by the fact that the e.Dams driver was using similar amounts of energy to the leader.
With a quarter of the race completed Sam Bird continued to steer his DS Virgin around the circuit's twelve turns, leading Prost by just over half a second. Behind them Antonio Felix da Costa was showing the pace that put him in a position to score victory last year, and he was threatening to do so again.
Lap eight saw the results of the Fanboost with Di Grassi, Vergne and race leader Sam Bird announced as winners. As if in celebration, Abt driver Di Grassi made another textbook move down the inside and into 4th place at the expense of Venturi's Stephane Sarrazin.
Race leader, Bird controlled a fluctuating gap as the cars approached half race distance. Gains by Prost in some sectors never amounted to a serious challenge as the Englishman ensured there was never a chance for the e.Dams Renault team to take the lead. In fact by lap 13 it was the French driver feeling the pressure and a decisive move by Da Costa saw him lose second place. Smiles all round at Team Aguri but consternation for Prost as the season continued to disappoint his side of the garage. But making much more progress was Sebastien Buemi who, by lap 14 and before the pit stops had climbed up to eighth and within a second of Robin Frijns in sixth place. Car and driver were in perfect harmony and his rise through the field was nothing short of meteoric.
Di Grassi now found himself behind an e.Dams car, that of Nico Prost. This would not be easy as the French driver could be used by the team to hold him back and allow Buemi to get closer. It would have to be a strong pass, but it would be a step on the podium. Prost slid through the chicane offering a chance while his team mate and championship leader was by now nearly inside the top six...
The rivals were getting closer, as Di Grassi continued to harry Prost, Buemi sailed by Frijns to take sixth.
At the front of the field however Antonio Felix da Costa was about to have his chance at a second podium finish taken away. The second place car ground to a halt due to the failure of a part on the car which cost the team a mere $2. Cruel luck after an incredibly strong performance in the first part of the race for the Team Aguri driver. Yellow flags waved to mark the spot as the leaders made for the pits, whilst Da Costa was forced to walk his way back there disconsolately.
A software issue for Prost saw him drive at a crawl down the pitlane, being pushed on occasion by the nose of Di Grassi's following Abt car, costing Prost a total of twelve seconds. This would incur a stewards investigation but was just what Buemi needed to close up even more on his title rival; suddenly the fight for the podium had been blown wide open.
Reigning champion Piquet had conserved energy with his usual skill to give himself at least the small satisfaction of having lead a lap. In reality though it would not help his cause much and it was Bird who emerged still as the de facto leader of the race ahead of Di Grassi, Sarrazin, Buemi, Prost and Conway.
Prost's day went from disappointing to dreadful as he spun at turn 4 and made contact with the wall, falling further down the order while a pitting Piquet rejoined in 14th place. Officials chose this time to bring out the safety car to clear Da Costa's stricken Aguri car having avoided confusion by allowing drivers to pit first. (A valuable lesson learned the hard way at the previous year's race) A slightly comical moment followed as Sebastien Buemi tried to impress upon a confused and radio-less Sarrazin just ahead of him that under the safety car he could go much faster. The Swiss drivers frantic radio messages showing how determined he was to make yet more progress at the restart, having already climbed an incredible 14 places into 4th.
Radio messages to Sam Bird informed him that he was good on energy and he gratefully processed this information as he bolted from Di Grassi at the earliest possible moment once the safety car went in on lap 23. The danger looming larger and larger for the DS Virgin Team was Buemi who easily out-dragged a powerless Sarrazin to get into a podium position.
With the championship rivals now running astern all eyes were on the top three. Once again Formula E was delivering a cracking race with no quarter asked or given. It was clear that of the three Sam Bird was suffering most with the handling of his car, the back stepping out wildly with ten laps to go. A spin for Conway whilst battling with Robin Frijns and Prost saw his hard work undone as he dropped to 14th but it was still a memorable impact on his debut.
Inside the last 10 laps and the top three were circulating within a second of each other, no one wishing to show their hand too early. Bird had to use supreme car control compared with Di Grassi and especially with Buemi as he fought to keep the lead, the DS Virgin looking like a huge handful. Lap 28 saw an attack for the lead by Di Grassi, countered by Bird. This cost the English driver time but actually cost his rival more as he fell into the clutches of Buemi. In a scenario that must have seemed impossible after qualifying, the Swiss e.Dams driver sold his rival the dummy then charged by into second. Although Di Grassi would try to recover, attempting to use FanBoost only to report back on the radio that it wasn't working, there was a sense that having lost his earlier momentum his goal of retaking the points lead would have to be put on ice, as he slowly dropped away from the lead battle.
Only Sam Bird now stood between Buemi and a historic win from dead last on the grid and as expected corner by corner the e.Dams machine grew ever larger in his mirrors. Despite oversteer for Bird at almost disastrous moments as the car seemed to be sliding in turns 4 and 5, he stubbornly held on to a lead that had been his nearly all day. The e.Dams car appeared on rails in comparison, but Bird positioned the car beautifully and fought back with everything at his disposal. A radio message about temperature piled even more pressure on Bird's shoulders. Thanks to energy conservation after the safety car in the second stint he was actually able to put the hammer down in response to Buemi's efforts, opening a small gap on the final lap that was just enough to prevent a last second challenge. The DS Virgin driver rounded the final corner of the Puerto Madero street circuit to claim a well deserved third Formula E victory in great style; a lights-to-flag success but with enormous pressure throughout. It was an exceptional performance and the DS Virgin team celebrated as though they had just won the championship. If they can keep this up though, Bird might yet be in the hunt...
Behind them, there was yet more action as Robin Frijns lost two places to Loic Duval (Who had a pretty low-key race) and to Mahindra's Nick Heidfeld, proving that having metal rods put through his wrist really hasn't made him any slower after a great final stint to the race. Frijns was disappointed, but Heidfeld was delighted, having a few weeks ago not been able to do much at all with his hand, and the team even going to the length of bringing Irish A1GP champion Adam Carroll along to Argentina should the German have felt unfit to take part. Rounding out the points scorers were Oliver Turvey, who despite another impressive drive felt frustrated to lose time in his pitstop, and finally Bruno Senna rounded out the points scorers. Jean Eric Vergne did respectably considering he was suffering from a nasty bout of Food poisoning, and just missed out on a point. Piquet Jnr. did not recover as well as he had hoped, but he still fared better than Simona De Silvestro, who despite some feisty racecraft, lacked pace throughout the 35 lap race distance, although she was at least able to get by 'Magic Mike' Conway at the end. She has extended her unenviable record of being the driver with the most starts in Formula E without scoring a point. (6) Jerome D'Ambrosio may have finished last, but 2 points for fastest lap was a solid consolation prize after such a huge delay at the start.
2015 Buenos Aires Race results:
1st) Sam Bird
2nd) Sebastien Buemi
3rd) Lucas Di Grassi
4th) Stephane Sarrazin
5th) Nico Prost
6th) Loic Duval
7th) Nick Heidfeld
8th) Robin Frijns
9th) Oliver Turvey
10th) Bruno Senna
11th) Jean Eric Vergne
12th) Nelson Piquet Jnr.
13th) Daniel Abt
14th) Simona De Silvestro
15th) Mike Conway
16th) Jerome D'Ambrosio
DNF) Antonio Felix Da Costa (Technical failure)
DNF) Salvador Duran (Regen brake failure)
1st) Sebastien Buemi, 80 points
2nd) Lucas Di Grassi, 76 points
3rd) Sam Bird, 52 points
4th) Loic Duval, 32 points
5th) Jerome D'Ambrosio, 30 points
6th) Stephane Sarrazin, 28 points
7th) Nick Heidfeld, 23 points
=8th) Robin Frijns, 21 points
=8th) Nico Porst, 21 points
10th) Antonio Felix Da Costa, 16 points
11th) Bruno Senna, 11 points
=12th) Oliver Turvey, 10 points
=12th) Daniel Abt, 10 points
14th) Jean Eric Vergne, 6 points
=15th) Nelson Piquet Jnr., 4 points
=15th) Nathaniel Berthon, 4 points
=17th) Simona De Silvestro, Jacques Villeneuve, Oliver Rowland, Mike Conway, Salvador Duran.
1: Renault e.Dams, 101 points
2: Abt Schaeffler Audi Sport, 86 points
3: Dragon Racing, 62 points
4: DS Virgin Racing Formula E Team, 58 points
5: Mahindra Racing Formula E Team, 34 points
6: Venturi Formula E Team, 28 points
7: Andretti Formula E Team, 21 points
8: Team Aguri, 20 points
9: NEXTEV TCR Formula E Team, 14 points
Written by Mark Child, edited by Edward Hunter.
In Association With Formula E Addicts