FIA FORMULA E CHAMPIONSHIP: SEASON 2, ROUND 6 - LONG BEACH RACE REPORT
The iconic streets of Long Beach, USA. The Monte Carlo of the West Coast. This is a destination known throughout the racing world. An American venue that has witnessed epic battles in a variety of categories and formulas since the mid seventies. A race track that, this weekend, saw the drivers from Formula E send a shockwave through Southern California as they payed a return visit to this classic circuit.
Some of the great racing drivers and driver dynasties have tasted success over the years from Andretti to Unser Jr, Villeneuve to Zanardi in everything from Formula Atlantic to Indycar. Formula One was a repeat visitor and in 1976 round three of a dramatic season saw a Ferrari 1-2 and a dominant win for Swiss racer Clay Regazzoni. Forty years after Regga's often overlooked victory, a very different racing category comes to Long Beach, with another Swiss driver looking to stage a repeat of his countryman's domination. Sebastien Buemi came into the sixth round of the championship riding high in the points, a healthy 22 points ahead of nearest rival, Lucas Di Grassi. His smiles, for media and fans alike, far more evident in the build up to race day, than in the immediate aftermath of the Mexican ePrix. As the chequered flag fell at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez the points lead was lost and his team's grip on the championship severely tested. Post-race scrutineering however had handed him a lifeline and seen his lead reestablished in dramatic fashion. A disqualification for his main competition meant that he could breathe easier, his team was fast everywhere, he had a championship winning car. Race hard here then on to Paris, one race at a time towards Championship glory.
First though, the small matter of qualifying.
First out on track, championship leader, Sebastien Buemi, his Renault E.dams looking resplendent in the Californian sun. The driver with more wins than any other in Formula E had again shown terrific pace in free practice but, for various reasons, this has not always translated into great qualifying.
The cars in group one all crossed the line after their 170kw laps with Buemi in last place behind D'ambrosio, Turvey, Frijns and Argentinian ePrix winner, Sam Bird. With power increased to 200kw, a second, more attacking lap would decide the initial qualification order. As the sectors were ticked off it became clear that Buemi would not have the pace delivering a lap that seemed lacking in aggression. His time was only good enough for P3. With a further thirteen drivers to attack the Long Beach circuit, staying in the crucial top 5 would be challenging to say the least. So at the end of the first session it was Britain's Sam Bird who soared into first place with a time of 56.8. The Virgin DS racer showed he would be a tough man to beat and had a decent gap over Robin Frijns, Sebastien Buemi, Jerome D'ambrosio and Oliver Turvey.
The green flag flew for the second group releasing Nico Prost, Stephane Sarrazin, Loic Duval and Simona de Silvestro. As they charged down Shoreline Drive and over the start/finish line Prost was the first to ramp up the power and attack. With his teammate, Buemi, vulnerable this would have been an ideal time for the Frenchman to show the skills that have seen him occupy the front row of the grid more times than any of his competitors. The times though did not reflect his ambition and capped a disappointing qualifying session for the E.dams team with Prost second in the group and fifth over all, behind Buemi. The final order for the group was Stephane Sarrazin, Nico Prost, Simona de Silvestro and finally Loic Duval who brushed the wall on his lap putting him last on the time sheet.
Group three saw reigning champion, Nelson Piquet Jr, tackle the circuit. During season one, in the shadow of the Queen Mary ocean liner, Piquet had recorded his first formula E victory. An emotional career milestone at the same track as his father's first Formula One win it was the springboard that took him all the way to the title. Season two though has been far less kind and his prospects for good results have been much reduced with his Nextev TCR uncompetitive so far. Still the Brazilian pushed to the limit and set the third fastest time in the group behind Abt and Vergne but ahead of Salvador Duran. The session was a disappointment for Jean Eric Vergne who could only set a time six tenths slower than his team mate Bird who still sat atop the time sheets. The French driver would later tweet that quite simply "in qualifying the speed wasn't there"
With one group to go the top five to be entered into Superpole were Bird, Sarrazin, Frijns, Abt and Buemi. Lucas Di Grassi, having been stripped of his Mexican victory, now saw a chance to push his main rival out of the top five and attacked the kerbs on his full power lap. His time would achieve this result but still could not dislodge Sam Bird. The Englishman's time from group one seeming more and more impressive. Stunning laps from Da Costa and Heidfeld pushed Di Grassi down to fourth over all but with Senna and Conway outside the top 10 his position in the final fastest five remained assured. The final group positions saw Antonio Felix da Costa, Nick Heidfeld, Lucas Di Grassi, Bruno Senna and Mike Conway
This meant that Superpole would be contested between Sam Bird, Antonio Felix da Costa, Nick Heidfeld, Lucas Di Grassi and Stephane Sarrazin. Somewhat surprisingly three of the five came from the fourth group and, possibly more surprising, this Superpole would feature no E.dams cars with points leader Buemi in 8th and Prost in 9th for the Long Beach ePrix.
Green flags flew as the Venturi of Sarrazin took to the track. Already a pole sitter in Formula E the French driver put in a benchmark time of 57.412. Grip seemed to be an issue for the second driver to hit the streets. DI Grassi was quick, very quick and took provisional pole by 0.142 of a second. Heidfeld, driving for Mahindra could only manage third as he hustled the car round the track, bouncing off the kerbs to record a 57.285. The shock of the session came with the next driver racing the stopwatch. Antonio Felix da Costa, driving for the Aguri team, running last years package, scored a touchdown going fastest with a 57.198. The gauntlet was well and truly thrown on to the Californian Tarmac with that lap and only Sam Bird was left to deny the Portuguese driver his first ever pole in Formula E. The Virgin driver charged hard but to no avail and amazingly Da Costa was triumphant, taking pole by 0.063.
Sadly the stewards had a sting in the tail for the Portuguese driver when it was later discovered that the tyre pressures were too low (By an agonisingly tiny 0.05 PSI) on Team Aguri's pole sitter, Da Costa had his lap times taken away and would start the race from last place on the grid.
So the Long Beach ePrix, round 6 of the championship would line up as follows...
1) Sam Bird
2) Lucas Di Grassi
3) Stephane Sarrazin
4) Nick Heidfeld
5) Robin Frijns
6) Daniel Abt
7) Sebastien Buemi
8) Nico Prost
9) Jerome D'Ambrosio
10) Bruno Senna
11) Jean Eric Vergne
12) Simona De Silvestro
13) Oliver Turvey
14) Mike Conway
15) Salvador Duran
16) Loic Duval
17) Nelson Piquet Jnr. (3 place and 10 second penalty for power unit change)
18) Antonio Felix Da Costa (Excluded from qualifying for low tyre pressures)
The race was soon upon us and a grid full of excitement, of hustle and bustle, of colour and noise was reduced to just 18 drivers, each one desperate to taste victory in 41 laps time. The cars pulled forward, generating heat in the initial burnout and all eyes were on the lights....
When the lights went out a perfect launch from row one saw Bird cover Di Grassi maintaining his lead through the first chicane. Robin Frijns pulled out and attempted a move on Nick Heidfeld which was resisted due in no small part to the Andretti driver arriving at the corner with more speed than control. The German ex-F1 driver defended all along seaside way as Frijns closed right up into the final corner. The iconic last corner hairpin at long beach gave the pursuing Dutch racer the chance he needed to close right up and blast by along Shoreline Drive.
By lap two Sam Bird was 0.563 seconds in the lead with championship leader Buemi already 3.885 behind in seventh. The high humidity in southern California only added to the pressure bird was having to endure defending from a determined Lucas di Grassi. The Abt driver was obviously keen to make amends for the post race disqualification in Mexico that cost him so dear. Further back in the pack the second Virgin DS, driven by Sam Bird's team mate Jean Eric Vergne, continued to suffer as he lost 10th place to the Dragon of Jerome D'ambrosio.
Contact between former pole sitter Antonio Felix de costa and Loic Duval at the start of the third lap sent bodywork flying into the air along the main straight. The classic Gulf branding of team Aguri filled many mirrors as Da Costa fought his way back through the field after his qualifying penalty.
Up ahead the Frijns / Heidfeld battle seemed all set for round two. The German Mahindra driver darted out from behind his rival but arrived at the corner all crossed up. Quick reactions and excellent control at the wheel saw him save the car but not position as both Abt and Buemi charged through with Prost following their example on the next lap.
With 1/10 of the race already complete Lucas di Grassi continued to hound Sam Bird. The Abt driver appeared massively quick on parts of the circuit but lost ground in others. This rapid yo yo effect was thrilling to watch and, with Buemi setting fastest lap plus the Venturi of Sarrazin keeping pace, the excitement looked set to build to a thrilling climax.
Successive quick laps saw championship leader Buemi in a position to challenge Lucas Di Grassi's teammate, looming large in the mirrors of the second Abt car. At the end of lap eight the E.dams driver showed his consummate skill pulling off a fine example of the classic Long Beach hairpin pass. With Daniel Abt now behind him, Buemi closed rapidly on Andretti racer, Frijns. This would be a fight that, on paper at least, would also go the way of the technically superior Renault package.
Eyes drawn momentarily back to the front of the race where Sam Bird still defended his lead were pulled back to the final turn and dramatic contact between Frijns and the pursuing Buemi. Dramatic not for the contact itself which was a typical, somewhat clumsy, Long beach pass gone wrong, but for the championship implications which were potentially mouthwatering. As if on cue Di Grassi pounced on Bird, selling him a dummy then taking the lead.
On lap 14 the results of the fan boost poll were announced with second car boosts for Di Grassi, Heidfeld and D'ambrosio. Their good fortune however was overshadowed somewhat by the ill fortune befalling the championship leader. Frijns was fading fast with rear wing damage but Buemi was still circulating albeit missing one half of his front wing; the picture below should tell you how that circumstance came about... With neither having stopped to exchange insurance details it would be down to the stewards to display the black and orange flag to Frijns. He responded by returning to the pits followed on the same lap by Buemi, who now also had to serve a drive through penalty for his lapse of judgement. If the championship leader had been asked to script the worst possible scenario for the race I doubt even he would have imagined it could go so wrong so fast. With still over half the race to go and both drivers changing cars it would be virtually impossible for them to complete the race. Going a lap down just added insult to injury.
Meanwhile out front Lucas Di Grassi, coming from such a low point last time out, could see the championship lead beckoning with every lap completed.
Approaching half distance Da Costa was still attacking and trying to climb higher in the points at the expense of the frustrated Vergne. Simona de Silvestro, in one of her best drives of a barren first season, was shadowing the duel ready to take advantage of any mistakes. On lap 19 the Aguri car was blocked by Vergne and a racy attempt saw the Iron Maiden attempt to put the moves on deposed poleman Da Costa but found the way blocked after some great side by side action. Wisely, De Silvestro didn't waste any energy in this battle though.
With pitstops on the horizon the leaders energy levels were now below 10%. Of those drivers in the top 10 only the Mahindra team had significantly more energy: Bruno Senna having been the most frugal with 14% usable energy still left. Di Grassi and Bird continued to circulate despite starting the last lap with only 3% energy remaining. They would pit the next lap and, sadly for Buemi, he would also be called in to serve a drive-through for the incident with Frijns. Despite the Californian sun for the Renault driver it was a case of it never rains but it pours.
Coming on to lap 22 the leaders pitted, calculations spot-on and 1% energy left in the tank. This meant that for at least one lap Mahindra could bask in the glory of running 1-2. After the stops they would return to the track in sixth and seventh. In the pit lane Di Grassi just managed to maintain the lead after near identical car changeover times for the Abt team and Virgin. With Di Grassi back in the lead and Bird harrying him all the way the race for the top step of the podium was well and truly on. Or at least it was for another lap until Bird locked up into turn five making gentle contact with the tyre barrier but dropping all the way down to P7.
From leading the race he would now spend the remaining laps trying to find a way past Bruno Senna is very wide Mahindra. With his nearest rival in the race gone and his nearest rival in the championship over a lap down things were looking pretty sweet for Di Grassi. From the prospect of having to claw back a 22 point deficit bit by bit the tables could now be turned in one fell swoop. If things were looking up in the Abt team the opposite was true for E.dams as a bad day was made worse with a drive-through for the other car, that of Nico Prost, for being under the minimum pitstop time.
Almost 10 laps to go and, disappointingly for a formula E race, quite a significant field spread. The closest on track action was the battle between Sam Bird and Bruno Senna over sixth and seventh places. The Brazilian had form in keeping faster cars behind (see the London race last season) and once again he was employing all his defensive skill despite massive oversteer and brake trouble.
Lap 34 and suddenly all thoughts for the leader of champagne and podiums would be put on hold. Contact with the wall for last years champion Piquet introduced the Safety Car into the mix. The hard won 4.3 second lead evaporated in an instant as Di Grassi saw his competitors suddenly right with him again and the prospect of easing off replaced by that of defending multiple attacks from drivers with no championship to think about. Meanwhile, the luckless Da Costa had retired from 7th with mechanical trouble; despite some truly Herculean efforts by both himself and Team Aguri, everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong on that hot afternoon in California.
The cars circulated at a reduced pace for several laps as Piquet walked back to the pits and his car was craned to safety. Lap 39 would see battle resume and tension was high as the drivers all got set to play their final cards. As it was though Di Grassi made sure no one would be in a position to rob him of another victory. The Brazilian got an impressive jump off the hairpin and led, unchallenged, down Shoreline drive. This was exactly what he needed to do. As with his race craft in Mexico he had been perfect, never panicked, always in control. While his rivals had seemingly imploded he had displayed ruthless efficiency in overtaking and then metronomic consistency once out front. After taking the chequered flag though his exuberant cries of delight at the win and the banishment of the recent difficulties showed just how much this meant. Also elation for Stephane Sarrazin, who took a long overdue first podium finish in second and is now the only driver to have scored points in every race. Mahindra managed to record their best ever team result with 4th and 5th. Further back, some intelligent and crafty driving managed to sneak Simona De Silvestro into the points for the first time in 9th, scoring points at her 8th attempt and in the process becoming the first female points scorer in Formula E. Although the Swiss Miss isn't yet fighting for the top positions that her teammate is, it's definitely a huge relief for her to finally open her account. Doing the same just behind her was a Mike Conway, scoring his first point in the Venturi from 14th on the grid. There was certainly attrition in this race, however it was encouraging to see a couple of new faces in the points who'd been threatening to score at several of the past few events. But if you thought those two were impressive, gaining 5 places each, then Loic Duval did an incredible job to gain 8 places and finish in 8th place in the Dragon racing car.
"We are back in the fight" Di Grassi proclaimed after climbing from the cockpit. On the evidence of the last two races it's a fight he can win. Buemi, walking disconsolately back to the pits, having finished 4 laps down with only 2 points from the fastest lap to take away with him, he'll have to raise his game for the next race to stop the Abt, Venturi, Dragon, DS Virgin or even Aguri teams stealing victory on the team's and central partner/sponsor Renault's home soil. Join us again for Paris in just 3 weeks time for more great Formula E action!
Also look out for our mid-season review, which will sum up the frenetic action so far and look ahead to what's to come in the remainder of this close championship battle.
2016 Long Beach ePrix Results
1st) Lucas Di Grassi
2nd) Stephane Sarrazin
3rd) Daniel Abt
4th) Nick Heidfeld
5th) Bruno Senna
6th) Sam Bird
7th) Jerome D'Ambrosio
8th) Loic Duval
9th) Simona De Silvestro
10th) Mike Conway
11th) Nico Prost
12th) Oliver Turvey
13th) Jean Eric Vergne
14th) Salvador Duran
15th) Robin Frijns
16th) Sebastien Buemi
DNF) Antonio Felix Da Costa
DNF) Nelson Piquet Jnr.
Fastest Lap: Sebastien 57.938 on lap 28
Driver's standings after 6 rounds
1: Di Grassi, 101 points
2: Buemi, 100 points
3: Bird, 71 points
4: D'Ambrosio, 64 points
=5: Sarrazin, Duval, 48 points
7: Heidfeld, 39 points
8: Prost, 38 points
=9: Frijns, Abt, 31 points
11: Senna, 22 points
12: Da Costa, 16 points
13: Turvey, 10 points
14: Vergne, 6 points
=15: Berthon, Piquet Jnr, 4 points
17: De Silvestro, 2 points
18: Mike Conway, 1 point
=19th: Villeneuve, Rowland, Duran, 0 points
Team standings after 6 rounds
1: Renault e.Dams, 138 points
2: ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport , 132 points
3: Dragon Racing, 112 points
4: DS Virgin Racing Formula E team, 77 points
5: Mahindra Racing Formula E team, 51 points
6: Venturi Formula E Team, 49 points
7: Amlin Andretti Formula E Team, 33 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