FIA FORMULA E CHAMPIONSHIP: SEASON 2, ROUND 8 - BERLIN RACE REPORT
As the teams all rolled into the latest ePrix, things had changed. However, some things stayed the same. The location for one was different; ("It's Berlin Jim, but not as we know it..." -Ed) The circuit at Templehof Airport is currently being used to house refugees during the current migration crisis, so in it's place we were treated to a street circuit at Alexanderplatz in downtown Berlin. Just like last season however, Lucas Di Grassi arrived leading the championship but he would no doubt be hoping for a very different outcome when the teams departed. Another difference came in the form of Rene Rast, the German driver taking over at Team Aguri whilst Antonio Felix Da Costa was on DTM duties. The former LMP1 driver hoped to fit in well after a lot of simulator work and find similarities in the energy management from that series. Once again Germany was round 8 in the championship but unlike last season there would be no round in Moscow to follow it with the championship taking a six week break before the teams would contest the final in London. Staying the same for season three though would be those drivers in the top two teams e.Dams and Abt who both announced the re-signing of all their drivers just before the Berlin event. What would also no doubt be the same would be the frantic action on track that Formula E always provides.
With qualifying underway it was championship leader Lucas Di Grassi who hit the Berlin streets first knowing that a strong time would pile more pressure on his rivals. His time though was not fast and despite declaring himself “very pleased” with a time of 58.183 the fact that Oliver Turvey was able to go half a tenth faster in the NEXTEV TCR should have raised alarm bells. With Frijns slotting into third and Sarrazin, after a long wait in the pits, then demoting him the order after Group One was:
Turvey, Di Grassi, Sarrazin, Frijns
Group two saw Nico Prost was first on track in Group Two and it was immediately apparent that this second set of cars was noticeably quicker. The drivers, all trading purple sectors and fastest times on their full power laps, were lowering the bar considerably. The E.Dams driver was momentarily at the top, despite a mistake at the hairpin, before being pushed back by Abt and Bird. Also pushed back and out of Superpole was Di Grassi – a fact underlined by Jean Eric Vergne who went fastest of all in his DS Virgin. Newcomer Rene Rast in the Aguri put in a creditable 58.756, only just over a second slower than the top time. So the top five now read like this:
Vergne, Abt, Bird, Prost, Turvey
Defending champion Nelson Piquet took to the track in Group Three and initially set a time good enough for fourth place. This was knocked back to P5 thanks to a strong lap from Nick Heidfeld in a good showing for Mahindra to go second overall. It was noticeable that, at this point, all the drivers from the first group were now out of Superpole. With Buemi out in the final group it was unlikely that Piquet would keep his slot in the top five. It was, however, good to see him smiling again after a season that has not been up to the champion’s high standards. Jerome D’Ambrosio came third in the group, followed by Simona De Silvestro and Mike Conway – all well outside the top five however, which now read like this:
Vergne, Heidfeld, Abt, Bird, Piquet
The final group took to the circuit now with all eyes fixed on the times of one man. With Lucas Di Grassi pushed out of Superpole early on there was an open goal for his main rival, Sebastien Buemi, to aim at. A top five time would ensure his progression to the shootout but this had not proved to be a strength for the swiss driver in recent races. Ghosts of recent qualifying sessions are put firmly to bed this time though as the Swiss driver goes purple in sector one and holds his advantage to the line. P1 and a definite Superpole slot for the E.Dams driver. More surprising was the driver just behind him. Showing superb commitment and an attacking style, Bruno Senna qualified second fastest in the group stage. Elation could be seen from the Mahindra garage with now both their cars guaranteed a top five grid slot for the race. Loic Duval struggled home with tyre issues to record the 11th fastest time and Ma the 18th. The final top five then was:
Buemi, Senna, Vergne, Heidfeld, Abt
Superpole saw Abt take to the track first with a good solid lap until he went deep int the final corner. This meant his final time was slower than that of the group stages. The bar though was set at a 57.852. Nick Heidfeld was immediately faster in sector one but blew his chances by making contact with the wall and damaging his suspension. The German could only limp home in second, with a time of 59.085. Vergne starts the lap off strong and has a significant advantage by the end of sector two. He carried this to the line to dip below 58 seconds with a 57.811 and provisional pole. Unchartered territory for Bruno Senna this season as he starts his Superpole lap and it shows. The Brazilian’s lap is messy and he has to slot into third place nearly hitting the wall at the end of his run: 58.303. Finally Buemi and surely it was his pole to lose. Starting from top spot would bring welcome championship points and put the maximum of nine places between himself and Di Grassi. The first sector shows just how strong Vergne’s lap was though as the Swiss finds himself down on the time. The E.Dams driver pushes the limits but one small mistake could see him start in fifth. Crossing the line he records a 57.827, fractions of a second off pole but enough to give Jean Eric Vergne his fourth pole position
Super pole results were as follows:
1st) Vergne, 2nd) Buemi, 3rd) Abt, 4th) Senna, 5th) Heidfeld
Post-qualifying both Mahindra cars were found to have incorrect tyre pressures and lost their times so Senna and Heidfeld would start from p15 and P16, with D'Ambrosio and Sarrazin's cars receiving the same punishment for the same offences. This promoted Sam Bird and Nelson Piquet Jnr. into 4th and 5th.
As the cars lined up on the grid Lucas Di Grassi admitted that his P8 start was “not what we dream of.” Formula E has proven though that, unlike some other series, drivers can make a real difference and what you see on the grid is not always what you get come the chequered flag. Sebastien Buemi, second in the championship but with his best qualifying performance since Putrajaya would be hoping to make the most of the gap between himself and his main rival. The start, he acknowledged, would be “critical” as he aimed to convert the seven place grid advantage over Di Grassi to a points advantage in the title race. The cars all had a significant amount of track to cover before reaching the start line on the half-warmup lap. (This was all except Sarrazin, who Venturi opted to start from the pits at the very last moment.) The polesitter taking the outside grid slot, staring down towards the first sharp hairpin bend at turn one.
As the lights went out it proved to be a fantastic start from the e.Dams driver; Sebastien Buemi easily out dragged pole sitter Jean Eric Vergne, then made use of his favourable inside line at the hairpin to take the lead of the race by the exit of turn one. The two leaders nearly touched but gave each other just enough racing room. Behind them the drivers were all well behaved and made it through the first corner with no major damage or early retirements. Lucas Di Grassi reacted well and was able to put both Nextev TCR entries in his mirrors climbing from 8th place to 6th. This was an important first move for the Brazilian and kept himself in contention as his main rival looked to escape at the front.
However if the script had been supposed to read “Buemi takes the lead and pulls away” no one had sent a copy to Jean Eric Vergne. The DS Virgin driver, experiencing something of a renaissance in recent weeks, mirrored Buemi’s move on the very next lap. Fresh from his second place on the streets of Paris he was braver on the brakes and reclaimed the lead going on to the second tour.
Further back there was damage to one of the Mahindra cars. A day that had seemed full of promise now saw Bruno Senna returning to the pits after just one lap. Off the start an altercation with the Team Aguri drivers saw the Brazilian swerve to avoid Ma but unable to miss series newcomer Rene Rast. The result was front wing damage for Senna and rear wing damage for the rookie who continued to drive round before he too was called in for repairs. (By the black and Orange "meatball" flag, used by officials to indicate that a car is too damaged to continue and must pit for repairs.)
Also suffering was Bird who found his wing clipped by Daniel Abt. The resulting end plate wobble would have repercussions for the Englishman within the next few laps. A rejuvenated Nelson Piquet, well inside the top 10 for Nextev TCR, would also come under scrutiny as he too experienced front end damage. The black and orange flag would get a significant work out on the streets of Berlin.
Jean Eric Vergne temporarily set the fastest lap but was showing no signs of escaping from the pack. Indeed he was usurped moments later by Daniel Abt who went even faster in third place, the German relishing the chance to impress on home soil. As the early laps ticked by it became clear that Vergne was something of a cork in the Formula E bottle with his pursuers eager to get by and stretch their legs.
By lap 5, as the cars rounded the fountain in the middle of the Strassburg Platz, they were nose to tail. Something had to give with fights developing up and down the electric snake. As it turned out there was not much longer to wait as Buemi pounced on lap six. Not using the favoured passing point at turn one this time he shadowed the leader round to turn 10 before making his move. It was clean and decisive and the E.Dams driver was soon pulling away from the pack.
Pole sitter, Vergne then found himself under pressure from Daniel Abt who tried an opportunistic move round the outside at the hairpin. This move was rebuffed as the ABT Schaeffler FE01 slotted back into third, no doubt frustrated by the rapidly disappearing Buemi already several car lengths out in the lead.
Without the speed to chase down the leader, Vergne committed to a defensive race and drove the widest car he could as Abt and the chasing pack darted this way and that in his mirrors. With a sixth of the race complete the pack consisted of Vergne, Abt, Bird, Prost and then Di Grassi all fighting for second as Buemi turned in a succession of quick laps to extend his lead to 1.7 seconds.
Defending champion Piquet found his race compromised by the stewards who showed him the black and orange flag. By lap 9 he was forced to accept this and pulled his car out of the race to allow the team to deal with his car’s mechanical issues. More significantly for the race, and the championship, was the very same flag being shown to Sam Bird.
Impressive racing from Frijns saw the dutch driver handbrake turn his way up into 8th at the expense of Loic Duval as eager fans were treated to great action up and down the field.
By lap 11 Daniel Abt finally made an aggressive move to free himself from the Jean Eric Vergne train. Smoke pouring off the brakes he went deep on the inside at turn one leaving no way back for the Frenchman. This temporarily ignited the prospect of a Vergne- Bird rematch but it was not to be as despite his protestations over the radio and his team arguing their case Sam was forced to make pitlane repairs to his wing. He would emerge in 14th, effectively ending his outside chance at the championship in season 2.
A feisty drive from Simona De Silvestro saw her up into seventh with a good move to get by Loic Duval. Often too aggressive the former Indycar put in a good performance, having already done battle with her team mate Robin Frijns in the early laps of the eprix. Another driver impressing was Nick Heidfeld. After the heartbreak of qualifying, the Mahindra driver was cutting his way through the field from the very back. By lap 14 he was 10th, by lap 18, 9th with a particularly skilful pass on Mike Conway, inside at turn one then holding his nerve, and his line, in the drag race up to the chicane. The German ex-F1 star continued his great recovery drive next taking Loic Duval for 8th place then Simona De Silvestro for 7th before the pitstops.
Championship leader, Di Grassi was still stuck at the back of the leading group with chances to overtake having been thin on the ground since his impressive start. This meant that a strategy of energy conservation was now his best bet at jumping those around him. Indeed with 4% more energy available than his team mate, and with pitstops approaching, the 31 year old was on the verge of being able to charge hard for an extra lap as his rivals were forced in.
Meanwhile next to face the immovable Vergne had been Nico Prost. Team mate to the race leader, but once again not able to compete with him, the E.Dams Renault driver discovered that the number 25 remained a hard guy to pass. Looking every which way, Prost shadowed his compatriot for lap after lap of downtown Berlin. Evidence of the pressure he was creating finally came on lap 22 with more front wing damage to a DS Virgin entry. As with so many others, the pole sitter would soon become yet another victim of the now infamous black and orange flag. So late in the stint though, and with three laps to adhere to the rules, Vergne’s penalty might be negated as he would be up and running in his second car within that time. Things, though, would not run that smoothly and the apparent get-out-of-jail-free-card would be squandered just two laps later. In defending the chicane once more from a frustrated Prost, the Virgin entry was too late on the brakes, missed the apex and bounced heavily over the kerbs. The resulting impact took care of what remained of the front wing and allowed Prost to claim third place.
The leaders made their way down the pitlane at the end of lap 24 as Lucas Di Grassi powered on down the straight. He had one lap to put his nearest rivals under pressure. In the pits Sebastien Buemi pulled his car in first and, with typical Swiss efficiency, traversed from one E.Dams Renault to the next as the clock ticked by. A few seconds behind him Abt, Prost and the walking wounded Jean Eric Vergne did the same. No pit lane time violations meant the leaders were soon back out on the track. The big gamble now came in the form of Lucas Di Grassi as he entered and made his way down to the Abt Schaeffler garage. Entering in the lead the hope was that the championship leader could leapfrog one or maybe two of his rivals. The plan was a partial success as he found himself initially in third but an already up to speed Prost pushed him back to fourth. Jean Eric Vergne though was now quite some distance back in fifth, his pace in qualifying not having translated to the race. Vergne’s team mate, Sam Bird got some time with the race leader but it was sadly just to fall a lap behind him. The winner from round four at Buenos Aires was still able to put on a show with an impressive move to get by Jerome D’Ambrosio at turn one.
Sebastien Buemi, having lost the pole position earlier in the day, was enjoying a nine second lead. His performance was another of the masterclasses from both team and driver that had many pencilling his name into the championship record books after the first race.
For his main rival, Lucas Di Grassi, the situation was more difficult and yet in some ways it was also beautifully simple. He was in fourth place, running behind Nico Prost with his team mate up in second. A pass on Prost would see both Abt cars on the podium with the potential to significantly limit the damage in the championship. So close to the end of the season it was possible team orders could also see him as high as second place.
As the race for second got closer, Nick Heidfeld tried a move on Robin Frijns for sixth place. The Mahindra driver who, along with Buemi and Sarrazin, were winners of the FanBoost, made use of the extra power but was not close enough to make the move stick. Sarrazin was close enough to the Andretti of Simona de Silvestro however and with his extra charge made a move into ninth. Unfortunately for him the Venturi driver added cutting the chicane to his FanBoost and so was obliged to give the position back. De Silvestro had suffered significant damage to her front wing in the incident, and was fortunate not to incurr the black and orange flag that hurt the races of Rast, Piquet, Turvey, Bird and Vergne.
With just ten laps to go the points situation was delicately poised. A victory for Buemi and fourth place for Di Grassi would the lead of the championship change hands. This would be compounded further if the E.Dams driver could hold on to the fastest lap and its accompanying bonus points.
Lap 40 and Di Grassi made his move. Having gone wide around the outside at turn one previously he faked the same move before diving up the inside of Prost and claiming third spot. This was a brilliantly executed move, which drew applause from the Abt team, and looks of some concern from within e.Dams. The mood was not improved by Bruno Senna taking the fastest lap for Mahindra and with it valuable points away from E.Dams and Buemi.
A dramatic twist or spin started just a couple of laps later as the Dragon of Loic Duval slid into the barrier after losing the rear. This came at the same time as a potential penalty flashed up on the screens for Lucas Di Grassi. Apparent speeding under the yellow flags was the crime and it could, if deemed guilty have massive championship ramifications. Di Grassi suffered atrocious luck in a post race investigation in Berlin last year when his front wing was found to be illegal and he was disqualified from victory; once again his points and his championship lead were in jeopardy.
Just four laps to go and the stricken car of Loic Duval was considered to be in too dangerous a position. Hearts sank in the crowds as the Qualcomm BMW safety car took to the track, picking up the leader. It seemed that for the second race in a row there would be no last lunges or final lap attacks, the race winner being in effect chauffeured to the chequered flag. Efficient work from the marshalls and track workers however saw the car onto a low loader and out of the way with laps still remaining. The safety car continued to lead the pack but with 3 laps to go its lights went out and the drivers were informed of a restart on lap 47. Two laps of action to decide the Berlin Eprix!
Buemi expertly controlled the restart, making the jump away from his rivals. All the drivers survived turn one with the exception of Team Aguri driver Ma Qing Hua who locked up and went wide. The call everyone had been waiting for came shortly after with Abt being told to let Di Grassi through to take second place. The obvious place for this to happen was down into turn one, next time by. It seemed as if the plan was being adhered to as Abt was seen momentarily gesticulating for his championship leading team mate to take the inside. Di Grassi though was not informed that his German teammate would be letting him through was not close enough to make the move. Stern faces in the Abt Schaeffler pits gave the impression that they were not in control of the situation between their two drivers. The move was, no doubt, more difficult thanks to the laps under safety car. A fumble or miscommunication between the drivers could see Nico Prost steal a podium position, or worse see both cars lost in an embarrassing accident. The Brazilian said afterwards that he was set to overtake Abt using his higher energy balance due to staying out a lap later, but this was scuppered by the safety car which meant that everyone could run flat out to the end. He also made it very clear that he was so against the concept of team orders that he would rather lose the championship than resort to them, and was not at all upset that his teammate did not heed instructions; infact he was completely supportive of him. What could have been a much bigger controversy (Indeed, it was initially misinterpreted by TV pundits as such) was diffused very quickly by the two drivers post-race.
Buemi had no such concerns and drove the final lap as precisely as he had the previous 47. Swinging into the final turn he waved to the crowds as he claimed his third win of the season and his sixth in his Formula E career. Behind him the final chance for the Abt switch came and went as Daniel Abt claimed a well-deserved second place. For the German driver to claim a podium on home soil was clearly a huge achievement, a fact underlined by his cries of joy over team radio. Also providing cheer to the locals was "Quick Nick" Heidfeld in the Mahindra, who put in a mighty drive, putting on some superbly judged overtakes and managing energy brilliantly to climb from 14th to 7th by the flag.
The lack of either pole position or fastest lap for Buemi and no penalty for Di Grassi means the two head to London for the season finale separated by just one point. The final two races will take place at Battersea Park over two days and for the second year in a row we will see a new champion crowned after the very final round. I don’t know about you but we can’t wait!
Drivers' Championship after Round 8
1st) Lucas Di Grassi: 141 points
2nd) Sebastien Buemi: 140 points
3rd) Sam Bird: 82 points
4th) Jerome D'Ambrosio, 64 points
5th) Nicholas Prost, 62 points
6th) Stephane Sarrazin, 59 points
7th) Daniel Abt, 50 points
8th) Loic Duval, 48 points
9th) Nick Heidfeld, 47 points
10th) Robin Frijns, 45 points
11th) Jean Eric Vergne, 37 points
12th) Bruno Senna, 26 points
13th) Antonio Felix Da Costa, 20 points
14th) Oliver Turvey, 10 points
15th) Mike Conway, 5 points
=16th) Nelson Piquet Junior, Simona De Silvestro and Nathaniel Berthon, 4 points
=19th) Jacques Villeneuve, Oliver Rowland, Salvador Duran, Ma Qing Hua and Rene Rast, 0 points
Teams Championship after Round 8
1st) Renault e.Dams, 202 points
2nd) ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport, 191 points
3rd) DS Virgin Racing Formula E Team, 119 points
4th) Dragon Racing, 112 points
5th) Mahindra Racing Formula E Team, 73 points
6th) Venturi Formula E Team, 64 points
7th) Amlin Andretti Formula E Race Team, 49 points
8th) Team Aguri, 24 points
9th) NEXTEV TCR Formula E Team, 14 points
Written by Mark Child, edited by Edward Hunter.
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