FIA FORMULA E CHAMPIONSHIP: SEASON 2, ROUND 5 - MEXICO CITY RACE REPORT
After already thrilling audiences worldwide this season it was "Bienvenidos a Mexico" for round 5 of the Formula E championship. In particular it was a warm and excited welcome from the fans around the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez all set to experience their first taste of electric single seater action. Traveling over 7000 km, as the fully charged crow flies, from the last race in Buenos Aries, teams and drivers were all eager to put on a show over 43 intense racing laps.
With victory at the last round, Britain's Sam Bird had proved, in some style that he was very much in the championship hunt. The DS Virgin racer had completed a flawless weekend with his third race win having also secured pole position earlier in the day. Arguably even more impressive however had been the drive from championship leader Sebastien Buemi. The E.dams driver stormed from last to within a inch of claiming a truly memorable win around the streets of Puerto Madero. For race two winner, Lucas Di Grassi, it had been a case of damage limitation as he brought the Abt car home in third. Season two has seen the Brazilian make the podium at every race but still finish behind championship rival Buemi three times out of four. Could he reverse this trend in Mexico?
Two free practice sessions demonstrated, once again, the strength of the E.Dams package. Sebastien Buemi delivered a demoralising master class with the fastest time in both, by a significant margin. Despite this being the first time Formula E had competed on a racing circuit the combination of Renault, the E.Dams team and Buemi himself at the wheel looked as impressive as ever.
So on to qualifying and, with groups decided and drivers ready, the session got underway beneath the Mexican sun....
Group one saw Loic Duval join the circuit first, before being joined by Vergne, Sarrazin and Heidfeld. As well as throwing down the initial on track gauntlet, Frenchman Duval was also first to turn the power up to 200kw and really attack. His battle with the stopwatch saw the Dragon racer record a tidy lap of 1:04.492. Close behind and travelling slightly quicker was Jean Eric Vergne, who lowered the bar with his own lap of 1:04.268. Stephane Sarrazin was unable to challenge either of the initial times setting a 1:04.583 to go provisionally 3rd. His Venturi would then fall back to fourth thanks to Nick Heidfeld completing a lap six hundredths quicker. Jean Eric Vergne it was then that set the time to beat for those in group two.
Jean Eric Vergne 1:04.268
Loic Duval 1:04.492
Nick Heidfeld 1:05.523
Stephane Sarrazin 1:05.583
The second group would see two of the main championship protagonists take to the track in search of a competitive time. Looking at the various lineups for qualifying it seemed logical that the eventual pole sitter would come from this particular batch of drivers. It was with some confidence then that championship leader Sebastien Buemi led his rivals out from the pits. A shaky start saw him lock up into turn one allowing Jerome D'ambrosio to leapfrog the E.Dams car and start his power lap first with a clear track in front. No such good fortune was to fall the way of Bruno Senna as he found himself off the circuit at the first chicane. His luck did not improve and the Brazilian would eventually stop out on track with just a low power lap and potential last place on the grid to show for his efforts. Meanwhile D'Ambrosio had taken full advantage of his track position to break into the 1:03 second bracket going fastest of all by some margin. The Belgian flag would only fly for a second though as Di Grassi shaved two thousandths off the time and then Buemi carved a further three tenths off to stamp his authority on the group.
Sebastien Buemi 1:03.667
Lucas Di Grassi 1:03.990
Jerome D'ambrosio 1:03.992
Bruno Senna 1:07.724
Nico Prost would lead the charge in group three, hoping to, at the very least, match his teammate's time and book himself a place in the final super pole shootout. Both he and Daniel Abt would take very aggressive lines into turn one but a very impressive second sector for Prost saw him slot into a strong second place, just 2 tenths off the fastest time. Strong performances in both Free Practice sessions led to the fifth fastest time for Daniel Abt. This was a slightly disappointing result and meant the German would face an anxious wait to see if any of the remaining drivers would push him out of the top five. He ended up comfortably second quickest in the group as Da Costa, De Silvestro (Qualifying a season-high position of 11th, and out-qualifying her teammate for the first time) and Turvey found their grid slots further down the field. Now all that remained was a reigning champion, as well as a three times race winner laying ready to pounce in the final group. No pressure then....
Nico Prost 1:03.877
Daniel Abt 1:04.077
Antonio Felix Da Costa 1:04.371
Simona De Silvestro 1:04.606
Oliver Turvey 1:06.166
Finally it was the turn of the fourth selection of racers to hit the track led by current Formula E champion, Nelson Piquet Jr. His two seasons in the championship have been like electric chalk and cheese with the enormous success of the first year replaced with disappointment so far in 2015/16. Sadly the year showed no signs of improving in Mexico either as his Nextev TCR crashed heavily into the TecPro barrier at turn one. This brought out an immediate red flag around the circuit as bits of barrier and carbon fibre were strewn across the track. Initial reports from Piquet himself were later backed up by circuit medical staff, driver ok - but he would have a lot of work to do from last on the grid. With the clock reset to six minutes, and fans continuing to pile into the circuit, group four was set to go once more. The winner from Buenos Aries, Sam Bird was first out and onto his lap. The DS Virgin entry, so competitive a few weeks ago had struggled here and Bird was unable to record a competitive time finishing in a disappointing 11th place. Fellow British driver Mike Conway would temporarily hold thirteenth position on the grid before being deposed by Andretti driver Robin Frijns. Local hero Salvador Duran, despite raising a massive cheer through the stadium section, could only manage to post the fifteenth fastest time.
Sam Bird 1:04.594
Robin Frijns 1:04.959
Mike Conway 1:05.108
Salvador Duran 1:05.452
Nelson Piquet NO TIME
This meant that the lineup for the shootout was unchanged with apparent favourite Sebastien Buemi going up against his team mate Nico Prost as well as Lucas Di Grassi, Jerome D'ambrosio and Daniel Abt.
First out was Abt, looking tidy around the track he set the bar at 1:04.335. A decent result, though slower than his group stage time. Jerome D'ambrosio set about quickly eclipsing this target. Time gained in sector one was never lost as he stormed round in a 1:03.705. Di Grassi would have to work hard to match the Dragon and, despite going purple in sector two his time is only good enough for a provisional P2. Next Nico Prost dug deep to try and top the time sheets. A 1:04.013 was faster than Di Grassi but he too came up short against the fastest time set by D'ambrosio. The feeling was that Buemi would comfortably take pole but as he started his fastest lap, the Swiss driver made yet another Superpole mistake. His lock up in sector two handed pole to a very rapid and very deserving Belgian, and Jay Penske was visibly delighted with a second pole of the season.
A few hours later drivers and teams waited on the grid for the race to begin. The spaces around their cars gradually emptying until they were alone with the circuit. As the cars pulled forward to their start positions thoughts turned to the laps ahead. Copious amounts of smoke could be seen pouring from the rear tyres as the signal was given to pull forward. All the drivers were acutely aware of the need to generate as much heat in them as possible. The red lights that held them back came on one by one, focusing the mind until all at once they were gone and Formula E launched its way round the modified Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. The front row got away together with the more powerful E.Dams car almost alongside as they approached turn one. Pole sitter D'ambrosio covered his line into the corner and the train of cars funnelled rapidly into the chicane with the Dragon holding a slender lead from Nico Prost. Behind the two leaders Lucas Di Grassi had effectively dispatched his team mate and now led the Abts in formation through the massive stadium section. Championship leader Buemi was unable to make up places off the line and suffered light contact from Loic Duval, the Frenchman moving up from seventh on the grid to sixth at the expense of Jean Eric Vergne who would soon start to plummet down the field. Reaching the end of the first lap a small mistake from Prost saw him fall back fractionally into the clutches of Lucas Di Grassi who shadowed him down the straight and onto the second lap. Once again though the Renault package proved its worth and Prost was able to cover his rival into turn one. The first six cars began to open a gap as D'ambrosio gained a small amount of breathing space while his pursuers regained their composure.
The problems for Vergne continued as he straight lined the chicane on lap three and found himself already down as low as sixteenth place from his third row start. Up ahead of him it was a fine showing from Simona de Silvestro who, in dicing with her teammate was giving he best performance in Formula E so far.
Towards the end of lap three a mistake from fourth placed Daniel Abt saw him slow on to the straight and Sebastien Buemi needed no second invitations. The two cars were nose to tail over the line as the E.Dams used its power and the slipstream to reel in its rival. Buemi darted out and ran round the outside at turn one to claim fourth and set off after championship rival Lucas Di Grassi. The fact that his rival was stuck behind the sister E.Dams entry of Nico Prost meant that, from a team perspective, things were still very much in control. Radio messages to Di Grassi suggested slight alterations he could make to try and find a way out of the Renault sandwich. As the cars continued to race hard, filling each other's mirrors, it was looking increasingly like accuracy and patience would be the keys to the first phase of the race. Any slight advantage that could be gained needed to be kept and then deployed at just the right moment.
The leaders continued to trade fastest laps over the next two laps, while things continued to go from bad to worse for Da Costa. Already penalised for a gearbox change, the Aguri driver found himself on the receiving end of a ten second pitlane penalty for work carried out under parc ferme conditions.
A lock up for Di Grassi at turn one saw him cut the chicane on lap eight. Fortunately for the Abt driver his off track excursion saw no time gained and he was able to maintain his small advantage over a hard charging Buemi. More importantly he held on to his podium position. Further down the field Sam Bird was maximising his DS Virgin car's potential and aiming for as many points as possible already up to 9th after a difficult qualifying. The newly liveried Aguri cars found themselves in a tussle with another British driver, Mike Conway, fighting with Duran and Da Costa outside the points. If the front wing damage caused to Da Costa's car during this exchange wasn't bad enough he would face yet another intervention by the stewards later in the race. Sometimes it's just not your day....
Fanboost results were revealed on lap 11 with Vergne, Di Grassi and local hero Duran receiving the most fan support. This would be something all three drivers could take advantage of after the pitstops and mandatory car change.
A third of the way into the race saw the leading drivers as close as ever, any gaps having disappeared and every slight error ready to be pounced on. D'ambrosio's car was as wide as it had been from the lap one as his rivals all tried to balance the arts of attack and defence. Taking a chance could potentially lose them everything in this game of high speed chess. Time and time again Di Grassi appeared ready to take that chance as he closed to within a whisker of Prost. With the lap times so consistently close a move grew less and less likely as drivers looked to the pitstops to shake up the order. For Da Costa however the stewards once again shook up his order with another penalty calling him to the pits.
With just a couple of laps until the pitstops D'ambrosio delivered a massive turn of speed setting fastest laps as he pushed to build a gap. This was the time to make moves and use all the powder, kept dry over previous laps. The Dragon racer did just that surprising Prost who could not respond immediately and saw the race leader stretch away from him. His frustration at this was then compounded as Lucas Di Grassi pounced from third place. a surprise attack that saw him lunge by the Frenchman and claim second place before the cars all entered pitlane.
Lap 23 and the leaders were all in. Rolling to a stop outside their garages, the drivers ran to their second cars to be strapped in. As the leaders re-entered the fray Buemi had made it passed his teammate and into third. It was possible this was orchestrated by the team but, regardless of this, battle could now be joined with his championship rival Di Grassi. Both still faced the prospect however of chasing down the leader of the race, Jerome D'ambrosio.
One lap later however and Di Grassi had made a decisive move. Using the Fanboost he executed a perfect overtake to grab the lead and put an obstacle between himself and Buemi. That obstacle was of course the former race leader and the Brazilian now had to maximise this opportunity to get away. In the background though the Renault powered E.Dams of the championship leader looked one way then the other to follow his rival passed D'ambrosio. The Belgian defended vigorously into turn one and protestations filled the airwaves as Buemi had his progress blocked. For lap after lap the two were tied together as Di Grassi opened up a healthy lead.
As ten laps to go approached the Dragon slid sideways. This moment was set to be pounced on as team radio frantically tried to give their drivers good advice and accurate information. D'ambrosio's team relayed the fact that Buemi would attack on the inside. A slightly late, but legitimate move to cover the line brought the somewhat inevitable contact and more vociferous complaints from Buemi to his team. Both drivers appeared rattled but the order remained unchanged: Buemi third, D'ambrosio second while Lucas Di Grassi stretched his legs out front, his lead now a comfortable 3.5 seconds
Action further back saw a daring move from Sam Bird to steal seventh place from Nick Heidfeld. Flying by but carrying too much speed the Englishman was forced to concede the place back a few metres later.
Confusion reigned on lap 35 as Buemi made a move into second. D'ambrosio was quick to point out that his opponent had cut the chicane and indeed he had. Rules of the track now dictated that this position had to be given back. This should have been simple but as the Swiss driver slowed to allow a clearly angry Belgian racer back into second the Dragon slid out wide. Prost in fourth, sensing an opportunity pushed alongside D'ambrosio and into third. Daniel Abt then also took advantage of the confusion to gain a place. When Loic Duval, in the sister Dragon, also went for the gap D'ambrosio had had enough as he then drove past and over the chicane himself to regain some, if not all, of the places taken from him. Within a lap Buemi had conceded second to him and a sense of order returned to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez....albeit an order some ten seconds behind race leader Lucas Di Grassi
The final laps were more of the same for a frustrated Sebastien Buemi. He looked for an opportunity at every corner, a chance on every chicane. With 6km left he had closed the gap again but found the same stout defending at every turn. A pitlane penalty for Nico Prost capped a disappointing day for E.dams. The unsafe release, slightly into the path of his teammate showed how many more things you need to get right to achieve success in Formula E. Just having the fastest car is not enough. Buemi crossed the line a disappointed and somewhat aggrieved third. But up front Di Grassi was 5 seconds clear for his second victory of the season, and as he celebrated with some donuts for the fans, it seemed the championship was wide open...Or was it?
Several hours after the race there was controversial news as one of Di Grassi's cars was adjudicated to have been underweight by 1.8 KG, and he was subsequently (In Draconian fashion) thrown out of the results and the win was instead handed to Jerome D'Ambrosio's Dragon Racing car; Abt chose not to protest the results for fear that it would disrupt their travel plans and mean they'd miss the freight to the next race; their hands were tied even if they did have a strong defense. Dragon racing also lost the fastest lap due to cutting the chicane, and this was instead given to the new 3rd place beneficiary Nico Prost; on a day when e.Dams had looked like their lead in both championships may have been under threat, the steward's decision ensured that they instead extended their leads in both championships, meaning that it is now very unrealistic for anyone to catch them in the remaining races. All in all, it was an embarrassing post-race exclusion which overshadowed an otherwise exciting and dramatic race.
But despite the amateur weight checks/management of his team costing him another well earned victory, (See Berlin 2015) Lucas Di Grassi still put in a champion's performance in Mexico City and will look to do the hard work all over again when Formula E moves to sunny California in three weeks for a race at the iconic Long Beach circuit. Bring it on!
2016 Mexico City ePrix Results
1st) Jerome D'Ambrosio
2nd) Sebastien Buemi
3rd) Nico Prost
4th) Loic Duval
5th) Robin Frijns
6th) Sam Bird
7th) Daniel Abt
8th) Nick Heidfeld
9th) Stephane Sarrazin
10th) Bruno Senna
11th) Oliver Turvey
12th) Mike Conway
13th) Nelson Piquet Jnr.
14th) Simona De Silvestro
15th) Salvador Duran
16th) Jean Eric Vergne
DNF) Antonio Felix Da Costa
EXC) Lucas Di Grassi
Fastest Lap: Nico Prost, 1:04.569 on lap 29
Driver's standings after 6 rounds
1: Buemi, 98 points
2: Di Grassi, 76 points
3: Bird, 60 points
4: D'Ambrosio, 58 points
5: Duval, 44 points
6: Prost, 38 points
7: Frijns, 31 points
8: Sarrazin, 30 points
9: Heidfeld, 27 points
=10: Da Costa, 16 points
=10: Abt, 16 points
12: Senna, 12 points
13: Turvey, 10 points
14: Vergne, 6 points
=15: Berthon, Piquet Jnr, 4 points
=17: De Silvestro, Villeneuve, Conway, Rowland, Duran, 0 points
Team standings after 6 rounds
1: Renault e.Dams, 136 points
2: Dragon Racing, 102 points
3: ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport, 92 points
4: DS Virgin Racing Formula E team, 66 points
5: Mahindra Racing Formula E team, 39 points
6: Amlin Andretti Formula E Race team, 31 points
7: Venturi Formula E Team, 30 points
8: Team Aguri, 20 points
9: NEXT EV TCR, 14 points
Written by Mark Child, edited by Edward Hunter.
In Association With Formula E Addicts