FIA FORMULA E CHAMPIONSHIP: SEASON 2, ROUND 7 - PARIS RACE REPORT
Formula E moved back to Europe for round seven of season 2. A new race, and a wonderful new venue for the teams and drivers. The Visa Paris ePrix is a welcome addition to the championship and with France being one of the largest market for electric vehicles in Europe it could be the championship’s spiritual home. So, with drivers and teams ready to take on this fourteen turn, 1.93 km track, its Vive la France!
It was April in Paris for Formula E as the cars in Group One took the green light at the start of qualifying. Five electric racers pushed the limits to end the session with a coveted Superpole slot. Yellow flags were soon flying though as Loic Duval locked up on the brakes down into turn eight. The French driver took his Dragon racing entry down the escape road avoiding contact with the wall. As he re-joined the track, Sebastien Buemi was busy setting the first timed lap of the session, albeit at low power. Nevertheless he provisionally slotted the E.Dams Renault Z.E 15 into top spot before launching himself down the straight and onto his 200kw attack. In his wake came Mike Conway and Stephane Sarrazin, both faster on low power than the Swiss driver. The order would be decided with the 200kw laps and Buemi recorded his first – a 1:02.6. This immediately looked beatable and raised the question again would qualifying be the one time title favourite’s Achilles heel? Soon after this the session was red flagged after contact between Nick Heidfeld and Mike Conway. Both drivers were unhurt and, after safely removing the cars, session one was extended by three minutes to allow the remaining drivers to complete their full power laps. This they did and an immediately worrying sign emerged for Buemi as the Venturi of Stephane Sarrazin went nearly half a second quicker.
So top 5 after Group one was:
Sarrazin, Buemi, Duval, Conway, Heidfeld
Slightly later than advertised then was Group two. The drivers hit the track with Stephane Sarrazin’s time the one to beat. This group contained championship leader Lucas di Grassi, eager no doubt, to put himself ahead of his main contender Buemi. This he duly did, bettering the time set by the E.Dams driver to the tune of nearly half a second. Buemi was once again looking decidedly vulnerable in qualifying. His position made all the more precarious by an awesome lap from local Parisian Jean Eric Vergne going quickest of all with a 1:01.7. A strong qualifying performance at home is just what the DSVR racer needed to build his confidence in a season that has so far failed to live up to his own expectations. If life was on the up for Vergne then things were very much heading in the opposite direction for Buemi. A strong lap for Robin Frijns in the Andretti pushed the former championship leader down to fifth fastest. With two groups remaining he was now clinging on to Superpole by his fingertips
The top five now read:
Group three now joined the Parisian street party and after the low power runs the serious business of full power laps. Jerome D’ambrosio was unable to crack the top 5 finishing in a provisional seventh leaving Buemi still safe. A 1m 02.339 from his team mate though saw him crashing out of Super pole. Then a spirited lap from Oliver Turvey for the Nextev team pushed him even further back. Simona De Silvestro and Bruno Senna qualified with disappointing laps leaving them 10th and 11th respectively with one group to go. Prost it was then that topped the group but the top five was as follows:
Vergne, Sarrazin, Di Grassi, Prost, Frijns
Group 4 contained just three drivers including Chinese rookie Ma Quing Hua for the Aguri team, who replaced Salvador Duran as Aguri enters negotiations with Chinese investors. Da Costa set the tenth fastest time and Ma was down in 15th. after narrowly avoiding the wall in a series of lurid oversteer moments in the last few metres of his lap. The focus though was all on Sam Bird. With his team mate at the top of the pile could he wrest him from first place. The answer was to be an unequivocal yes as the Englishman lapped 2 tenths faster to guarantee himself a place in super pole and bragging rights in the team after the group stage.
The top five going into superpole then would be
Bird, Vergne, Sarrazin, Di Grassi, Prost
Prost then was the first to attack the superpole lap and went, unsurprisingly, fastest. The Frenchman set the bar at 1:02.709. This was however slower than his time in the group stages and if it was a gauntlet it had not been thrown down very hard. Regardless, Di Grassi accepted the challenge and immediately bettered the time with a belter of a lap. His time of 1:01.932 looked like a strong contender for pole. Next out was Sarrazin, also faster than Prost but nowhere near the new benchmark. He sat provisionally second on a 1:02.550. The fight then for pole looked to be between the two DSVR drivers. Vergne went first as a few drops of rain started to fall in the pit lane. His time was quick, very quick, but the stopwatch found him to be a few hundredths behind Di Grassi as he crossed the line. It all came down to Bird he pushed the DSVR and himself to the limits crossing the line with 1:01.6 to claim his third pole of the season – only a tenth off his time from the group stage. Could he translate it now into another win for DSVR in Citroen’s home race?
1) Bird, 2) Di Grassi, 3) Vergne, 4) Sarrazin, 5) Prost
With temperatures low the cars pulled forward to take their positions on the grid. Expectations were high, possibly nowhere more so than in the DS Virgin garage. When the lights went however out it was a terrible start for Bird. The DS Virgin driver really bogged down off the line allowing current championship leader, Lucas Di Grassi, to be alongside and through into the lead by turn one. Travelling uphill from the start line behind them Nico Prost was snaking around behind his countryman, Jean Eric Vergne. The Renault powered E.Dams of Prost locked up into turn one handing the advantage in this particular to Vergne and Citroen. Still recovering from his bad start as the cars entered the short straight between turns 1 and 2, Sam Bird was left vulnerable to an attack from his team mate. An aggressive move and light contact saw Jean Eric capitalise and move up into second. The pole sitter was down two places in the space of just half a lap. While Lucas Di Grassi attempted a disappearing act on the streets of Paris, further back his title rival Buemi was also making solid progress. Going three wide at the start the Swiss driver had moved up to seventh and now set his sights on Oliver Turvey in sixth place. The big loser at the start was the Andretti of Frijns who lost 3 places to find himself only just inside the top ten, from his sixth place starting position.
Going into the second lap, as the leader continued to make good his escape, the two DS Virgin cars continued to entertain. This was a battle that would run and run as the two drivers battled for both position and personal pride. Impressing further down the order was series newcomer Qing Hua Ma in the Team Aguri entry. The twenty eight year old from Shanghai demonstrated his skill with a late lunge that saw him surge by Mike Conway’s Venturi. This progress was maintained as within a few laps he was harassing the Andretti of Simona de Silvestro in a battle for 15th place.
Out front meanwhile Lucas Di Grassi faced no such difficulties. The Brazilian was easing clear with each lap, putting distance into the pursuing DSVRs. With the battle between Vergne and Bird showing no sign of abating, the points leader was able to open a gap, setting successive fastest laps in the process.
On this Saint George’s Day the first to fall, on lap six, was in fact a Dragon. Unlike the legend though, Loic Duval’s Dragon VM200 fell to mechanical issues which saw him pull over to the side of the circuit after initially going straight on at turn 11. Due to the position of the car, race officials had no need to deploy the safety car relying instead on a Full Course Yellow. With the caution period in effect the field was neutralised and gaps maintained. This came a bit too late for Antonio Felix Da Costa who lost out at turn six to a well-timed move from Robin Frijns, the Dutchman up to eighth and still clawing back what he lost at the start.
After a lap under caution, Race Control reignited the action with drivers soon responding to being unleashed once more. Ma once again showed enormous potential as he made a successful move to get by Simona De Silvestro into P14. Closer to the front there was some aggressive defending from Britain’s Oliver Turvey. The NEXTEV TCR Driver from Penrith in England's Lake District, was resisting a resurgent Sebastian Buemi who loomed large in his wing mirrors. Some aggressive late moves kept Turvey ahead but a pass did seem inevitable.
Coming up to a quarter race distance there were squabbles over position throughout the field. The closest of which on lap 9 was Da Costa who was seeking to re-pass Robin Frijns into turn one. Frijns, the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 champion had his hands and mirrors full of the hard charging Da Costa, already a winner in season one of Formula E and fighting back from some bitter bad luck so far this season.
Soon after, and further round the lap, championship contender Sebastien Buemi found the right moment to launch an attack. Coming down the straight the blue and yellow E.Dams machine showed how infinitely superior it is to the heavy twin motored NEXTEV car as Buemi took to the outside line and was past before even reaching the braking point. Following this move Turvey, momentarily off balance, conceded a place to Frijns as well but recovered quickly enough to stop Da Costa from immediately getting past despite the Aguri driver eventually managing to do so later in the race and Turvey subsequently falling out of the points. Even with these lost places the Paris EPrix showed a decent performance improvement from NEXTEV in qualifying, but it was but a small crumb of comfort for the team dead last in the constructors championship.
The winners of the Parisian Fanboost were revealed to be Loic Duval, Jean Eric Vergne and Sebastien Buemi. As always this boost would be available in the second cars and although Duval would have no use for it, due to his retirement, it could always prove crucial for the other two in the latter stages of the race.
With a third of the race almost complete now the driver suffering most in the top five was Nico Prost. The winner in Miami last season has struggled to match his team mate in recent races and this trend sadly continued. As Di Grassi stretched his lead at the front Prost found himself falling away from the top three altogether. He was instead being harassed by Stephane Sarrazin in fifth and Sebastien Buemi in the E.Dams sister car back in sixth.
Another iconic name in motor sport began to tumble down the leaderboard on the sixteenth lap out of forty five as defending champion Nelson Piquet hit problems. Involved in a great midfield scrap with Daniel Abt and Bruno Senna he suddenly slowed up on the straight allowing his rivals to cruise by. Returning to the pits allowed him to swap cars early but put him out of contention in the race for points.
No such problems for either of his main rivals in the Season 1 championship. As Lucas Di Grassi took his lead up to just over two seconds, Sebastien Buemi moved by Stephane Sarrazin and into the top 5 for the first time. The Swiss driver would now have to close the small gap between himself and team mate Nico Prost. With team radio open would there be a not so cryptic call via team radio informing Prost that “Sebastien is faster than you”? And surely Prost would be magnanimous enough to obey, given Buemi's position in the driver's championship?
The race order still saw Di Grassi for the Abt Schaeffler Audi team in command followed by two pairs of team mates. DSVR had its two drivers now separated by 0.386 of a second as Sam Bird continued to try and squeeze by his teammate and local hero Jean Eric Vergne. This had so far proved impossible (no such e.Dams team orders at play on this occasion) and on home soil Vergne was more determined than ever to keep in front. It became clear, as the laps ticked by, that his pace did not match that of his team mate or the pursuing e.Dams cars. This only increased the urgency for Sam Bird to get by, the two going side by side on lap 22. With Buemi cleanly allowed through on his team mate and pitstops approaching the pressure in the battle for 2nd place was building inexorably.
Further back, rookie in the series Ma, was suffering with energy consumption and found himself under attack by Simona de Silvestro. The Andretti driver in turn found herself under pressure from Mahindra's Nick Heidfeld and it was the German, with more energy available who found his way through just before half distance.
On lap 24 all the top drivers headed for the pits. Di Grassi entered pit lane with a lead of over five and a half seconds. Once again this was a masterclass from the Brazilian and his team. In the closing laps before the car change over Bird had made a forceful move to unseat his team mate but it had been defended robustly. The pit stop then could be crucial in this inter team battle especially now with Buemi so close. Amazingly however, thanks to slick team work from all concerned, the top five left the pits in the same order they entered. So the podium would have to be decided on track. Seconds away, round deux.
With the leaders stopping first Bruno Senna, then Daniel Abt had their moments in the sun. Good energy conservation allowed both drivers an extra lap or two before they too had to change cars and the lead was handed back to Di Grassi.
With the new cars both DSVR drivers were able to make hay and pull a gap on Buemi in fourth. This was the battle to watch in the second half as it seemed that, once again, no one had an answer to Di Grassi, now 6.5 seconds up the boulevard on lap 26. Team radio to Bird a few laps later indicated the British driver’s strategy was one of energy conservation. This plan would enable him to attack hard with a few laps to go. After so many laps following it was perhaps the last roll of the dice as, despite locking up on occasion, the French resistance up ahead in the shape of his team mate had proved unbeatable.
Nearly ten laps to go now and Sebastien Buemi started piling on the speed once more setting a series of fastest laps. The Swiss driver was, all of a sudden, up to seven tenths of a second per lap faster than his DSVR quarry and he began once more to look really menacing. His rapid pace soon saw him darting around behind Bird, reminiscent of his performance in Argentina. With the laps running out the Swiss driver employed his Fanboost coming down the straight but despite the advantage there was no way through. Frustration was growing and gaps between the three drivers competing for the last two spots on the podium were shrinking as Vergne locked up again into the braking zone at turn one. All through the top ten there were close battles but this was the one holding everyone’s attention as Buemi danced around in the rear view mirrors of his British rival. Bird’s position was made even more difficult thanks to a radio communication with 6 laps to go try and save even more energy….
Lap forty would see this particular enthralling contest resolved but not in the way the fans or the DSVR team would have liked. Braking super late so as to offer no way through, Bird found himself positioned on the crown of the road and locked up going straight on. A fantastic spin turn saw him quickly rejoin but the damage was done as he lost three places re-joining in sixth. Cheers from the e.Dams team as Buemi finally reached the podium to limit the damage in the title race. To add insult to injury for Bird soon after his excursion, thus far fairly impressive newcomer Ma went into the wall at turn 18 bringing out a safety car. The impact was such that it soon became clear the race would finish at slow speed behind the BMW.
The ending was then, in one sense, anticlimactic. A late lunge might have seen Lucas Di Grassi denied victory if the race had gone green again. This would however have been cruel misfortune as it cannot be denied that once again Lucas and his team were a class above everyone else. A second win in a row (three if you include the win in Mexico from which he was disqualified) has seen people have to re-evaluate the order in this year’s title race. A championship that many were already giving to Buemi and E.Dams after race one is being pulled point by point away from them.
Although he limited the damage and, as Buemi said, after the race, “It's not the end of the world” the 11 points with which he now trails his rival might make all the difference in the world come the final rounds in Battersea Park, London.
We'll be back with another report from Berlin, Germany in just under a month's time for the next race on 21st of May!
Written by Mark Child, edited by Edward Hunter.
In Association With Formula E Addicts