FIA FORMULA E CHAMPIONSHIP: SEASON 2, ROUND 9 - LONDON SATURDAY RACE REPORT
Great Britain! Birthplace of the Beatles, home of James Bond. Where a Welsh dragon roars, a Scottish thistle looks resplendent in the highlands and an English knight plays cricket right up until tea time. (You may notice Mark has a very stereotypical view of the world... -Ed) A melting pot of history, art and culture, this island, the largest in Europe, was the final destination of our high speed magical mystery tour, as Formula E returned for a dramatic double race climax in the heart of London.
In this atmosphere, electrified in recent days by political manoeuvring, (But let's not talk about that any further...) Formula E would brought its own brand of power to deliver a positive charge to London over two days. Battersea Park would once again be the setting, the impressive backdrop for championship deciding action. For the second consecutive year, Sebastien Buemi arrived at the final event with a great chance of taking the title. The twenty seven year old had lost out by one point after a spin in the final race in season one, denied by a determined Nelson Piquet Jr and a very wide Mahindra, driven by Bruno Senna. One year later and Buemi would have to face another Brazilian in the shape of Abt Schaeffler Audi driver Lucas Di Grassi. Following his third place finish in season one Di Grassi has been a model of consistency over the first eight races. Only disqualification from victory in Mexico blotted an otherwise perfect copybook of podium finishes at every race. The loss of those 25 points (Through no fault of his own) ensured a finely balanced title showdown as Di Grassi took just a one point advantage to the streets of London. The sad news of course is that this will be the last race at this great venue, and maybe the last here in the UK if a new venue cannot be organised, although CEO Alejandro Agag has strongly hinted that it will.
In other news the Team Aguri name started it's last weekend, although this is due to a buyout from Chinese Media Capital, who wish to rename the team Techeetah for season 3; it's more of a metamorphosis rather than a departure, but still the loss of a big Japanese motorsport name with a huge amount of F1 and Formula E history is sad to see, but change is inevitable and nothing lasts forever.
Anyway, enough bad news....on with the action!
An exciting qualifying session was in prospect, with so much on the line. All eyes were drawn immediately to group three which would see the two championship protagonists go head-to-head for a top grid slot. Add to that the small matter of sixteen other drivers charging hard around Battersea park, and the prospect of a rain interrupted session and the tension would only increase. The first group got the green light at 12:10.
Jean Eric Vergne was first out and was soon starting his banker lap at 170kw, followed by Frijns, Ma and Prost. A steady lap from Prost was beaten by Vergne as the drivers prepared to attack at full power. Flags were soon flying as Ma took his team Aguri entry down the escape road compromising his session. Within seconds of this the yellow flags were exchanged for reds as Vergne lost control at the chicane and slid into the wall. A disastrous start for the Frenchman, four times a pole sitter in Formula E, now almost certainly relegated to the back of the grid. Most affected by the stoppage was Dutch racer Robin Frijns who had been unable to record a lap at full power. An extension to the session allowing his number 27 Amlin Andretti entry to complete a lap restored the balance and resulted a second place finish in group one. Good news for him but elsewhere a few drops of rain began to fall.....
The second group would feature one of the three home racers in Oliver Turvey, as well as Bruno Senna, Simona Di Silvestro and last year's Battersea polesitter Stephane Sarrazin. It was Turvey who emerged from the pit lane first and, after an improvement in form for the Nextev TCR team, could provide a welcome boost for the team with a competitive time. The track, now rapidly succumbing to the rain as umbrellas shot up in the stands, was still dry. At the moment. Just about.
Simona began her lap with an off track excursion, going straight on but keeping it out of the walls and Bruno Senna nearly ended his chances at Chelsea Gate as he locked up and swung his car like a pendulum at the last corner in a save that beggars belief. The first driver on a quick lap, Turvey sets an impressive 1:23.969 to go second overall. The Englishman would now have to wait and see how his rivals would compare. As it turned out though he would have to wait longer than anyone expected as red flags flew once more around the track. Another crash, another French driver, as this time Venturi's Sarrazin found himself coming too close to the Battersea barriers. There was a sense of deja vu among the teams as rain continued to disrupt qualifying just as had happened a year ago. With cars spinning in the rain the top five from group one look more secure in claiming all the Superpole times. With the circuit now properly wet, even extra time for Di Silvestro to complete her lap would almost certainly no change at the top of the time sheets. An aquaplanning spin into the wall and a resulting third red flag made sure of it.
Depending on your point of view these conditions were either perfect or a nightmare scenario for the championship contenders to take to the track in. Lucas Di Grassi and Sebastien Buemi were joined by Loic Duval, Jerome D'Ambrosio and Antonio Felix da Costa kicking up rooster tails of spray as they struggled for grip. With the drivers all getting a feel for the conditions Buemi started his quick lap. The E.Dams driver was obviously significantly slower than those in group one but priorities had no doubt changed. Now the job was to put himself ahead of Di Grassi on the grid, the Abt driver circulating about a minute further back. Crossing the line the former formula one driver recorded the eighth quickest time. This time was soon shown to be too slow as first Duval, then Di Grassi and finally D'Ambrosio posted faster laps. Not the outcome the E.Dams Renault team were after.
With the sun now beating down on the London circuit and a dry line appearing, the drivers in this final quintet would easily outperform those in the previous group. It was clear from the outset though, with Mike Conway over three seconds down in sector one alone, that the track was not going to offer up anything like the grip afforded to those first drivers. Conway, Nick Heidfeld, Sam Bird, Daniel Abt and Nelson Piquet would be challenging each other for the tail end of the top ten only. A novel experience came early on - another red flag. Mike Conway's attempt at rejoining the track by spinning the car back around was just too close to the wall. One down, and after a slight delay, the other drivers hit the track for another run. The dry line becoming clearer all the time saw Daniel Abt pip Sam Bird for sixth place and fastest of the runners on a wet or drying track. Nick Heidfeld's cautious lap took him to eighth confirming what had been known for sometime that Superpole would be between those drivers from group one: Nico Prost, Oliver Turvey, Bruno Senna, Robin Frijns but not Jean Eric Vergne who had been unable to get his damaged car back to the pits, thus he was consigned to start 5th in.
First out for Battersea Superpole was Robin Frijns whose car snapped out of shape on the straight, proving how difficult the conditions still were. Despite locking up he set the benchmark at a 1:29.500. Next out was Bruno Senna looking to end his year on a high his lap was instantly quicker. The Brazilian was tidy and rapid round the narrow track to lower the time by nearly two seconds to a 1:27.758. Turvey was third out and already guaranteed his best qualifying position of the year. Not as fast as the Mahindra of Senna his 1:28.284 was a good performance for Nextev at the track that saw them win the drivers title in season one. Finally Nico Prost took to the circuit to defend his group stage top time. A lock up on the out lap could have derailed his chances altogether but the Frenchman kept his car out of the wall. Sector one saw him 0.4 ahead, down to 0.199 through the second sector. A perfect final few turns saw the son of "the professor" show he had done his homework by going 0.3 faster and claiming pole position with a 1:27.192. To make 80's/90's motorsport fans' dreams complete he would line up next to Bruno Senna. Prost and Senna back at the front....who could ask for anything more!
The trees overhead, leaves rustling in the breeze and dappled sunlight hitting the tarmac, Formula E stood ready to ignite the passions of fans who gathered all round the park to watch. Expectations for a great race were high, tensions were high and, as the drivers were left alone on the grid, the excitement in the air was palpable. The red lights came on one by one then, as fast as they arrived, they blinked out and the drivers launched down towards turn one. Wheel spin for Senna saw him out-dragged by Prost, who's Renault power got him off the line effectively and into turn one comfortably ahead. A glance to the left coming down towards the Prince Albert turn, Prost covered the line and kept Senna behind, the Brazilian now right with him. Behind the leaders Sam Bird attempted a move on his team mate but this was rebuffed with some aggressive defending. A late move to cover the line by Vergne brought back memories of previous battles between the Virgin DS drivers. The championship contenders had each made up a place at the expense of a Dragon racing entry and now sat in ninth and eleventh across the line as Prost led the field onto the second lap.
German driver Nick Heidfeld had his mirrors full of the Abt Schaefer car of points leader Lucas Di Grassi as the cars kicked the leaves up along the straight. A move early on showed the nose to Heidfeld, but the veteran of 183 Grand Prix starts would not succumb so easily leaving Di Grassi to fall back in line. With cars bouncing over the curbs the first decisive move would come from Buemi who sliced his way inside Duval to line up now behind his main rival. Responding directly to this came a great pass from Di Grassi, the 31 year old putting a strong move on Heidfeld at the final corner. The rivals now eighth and tenth.
With Prost's lead up to 1.4 seconds all eyes were on the train of cars behind as Buemi made short work of Heidfeld using his Renault's superior performance. This move put the title rivals line-astern again, increasing the pressure on both to be quick but also not risk too much in attack or defence. One strategic benefit for the Brazilian was the placement of his team mate. With Daniel Abt directly in front it was no surprise when the drivers switched places on lap five piling more pressure on E.Dams to get by a very wide rear gunner. This was important as with the fastest lap, Sebastien Buemi was now the virtual points leader.
The battles continued to rage around the track, the Battersea park layout emphasising the speed as the cars bounced over the curbs. Buemi looked one way then the other for a shot at getting by Abt while up ahead Di Grassi tried to put the Virgin team mates behind him. This was made all the more risky as he had to avoid getting involved in their on track squabbling. At this early stage it was noticeable that Buemi was ahead in the energy stakes with 2% more battery life and a faster car....
In the interest of balance the voting public had chosen to split the fan boost equally between the title rivals. Both would benefit, along with Nick Heidfeld after the pitstops from an extra boost. None of which helped at that moment as Di Grassi tried a move down the outside of Sam Bird but has the door shut firmly. Aggressive defensive driving from Abt saw a warning from race control as the tension in the Frijns fourth place freight train increased lap by lap. By one third distance nothing had changed with the cars traveling like an electric snake round the confines of the circuit. Buemi was hungry to get by Abt, Di Grassi keen to put a move on Bird and Sam himself eager to force his way past his team mate in front of the home crowd. Those trackside were treated to frenetic action with lunges and lock ups aplenty.
Lap twelve saw the next significant move as Di Grassi backed out of a move on Bird at the chicane but a few corners later was able to prise the door open just enough get through at the final set of corners. This put the him now two places ahead of his rival who was still trapped behind the effective rear-wingman of team mate Daniel Abt. Frustration was now growing rapidly over E.Dams team radio.
With all the excitement going on behind it was easy to forget the superb drive being put in by Nico Prost. The French driver was now 5.7 seconds ahead of Senna and pulling away every lap with, even more impressively, significantly more energy left available than the Brazilian. This enabled him to carry on round for another lap as the drivers in second and third peeled off and headed for pit lane at the end of lap 16. Problems for Sam Bird saw him drop back just before stopping and, approaching the end of lap 17, Buemi forced his way past Abt meaning that as the cars entered pit lane the rivals were together again.
Prost retained the lead in comfortable fashion but, once again, attention was on the fight further back and it came as no surprise when Di Grassi and Buemi emerged together, seemingly inseparable on the track today. With all the cars back out the top eight was now Prost, Senna, Turvey, Vergne, Frijns, Di Grassi, Buemi, Abt with hardly any gaps between the drivers fourth to eighth. Great tension and now a great race to the flag in prospect. As if that wasn't enough drama the weather gods added another ingredient to the mix as rai started falling in the paddock. Not one to miss an opportunity Di Grassi dived through on Frijns and fifth place as the heavens opened....quickly followed by Buemi who pushed the Dutchman down another spot.
With all the close racing something had to give and on lap 20 that something was triggered by Daniel Abt as he tried to move round the outside of Robin Frijns to add to the Andretti driver's woes. The resulting contact saw Abt spear back across the circuit and hit Frijns again before ending his day nose first into the wall. The safety car was deployed adding another twist and closing up all the gaps on track.
On lap 24, with the safety car back in the pits and the field released, Prost got a great jump to maintain his lead down the straight. With no way to help his team mate the only team order for him to worry about was winning the race and not relinquishing the lead at all. Everyone behind was perilously close and none more so than Vergne and Di Grassi with the Abt driver desperate to make a move but also desperate not to end up out of the race like his team mate....not with so much on the line. On lap 26 he through caution to the wind and through his car up the inside into a rapidly shrinking gap. For his fans it maybe looked like they were watching their hero throw the title away but miraculously both cars made it round the corner with only minimal damage to Di Grassi's front wing. Memories of the last round and the spate of black and orange flags came to mind but before this could become an issue the pod detached itself relatively harmlessly and the cars continued in the same order as before. A desperate Buemi used his fan boost to try and find a way through but, despite a car advantage the door was always shut. Behind the Swiss driver though Antonio Felix da Costa made his way past Bird and, with nothing to lose, add even more to the list of things that Buemi didn't need.
The points for fastest lap were now being traded freely lap after lap with Di Grassi himself, Sarrazin and Piquet having a turn at holding them. Meanwhile the battle between the title contenders showed no signs of settling down as lap after lap saw Buemi pull easily alongside on the way into the chicane. A fast approaching wall on the outside however saw him repeatedly have to back out or risk losing the championship then and there. Several times the E.Dams nose and front wheels were ahead but found no way to complete the move increasing the anger in the Swiss drivers cockpit. Thanks to the safety car the drivers could push flat out with, on lap 29, Vergne quite literally pushing Turvey from behind. Two laps later the Englishman was out and into the wall just as his compatriot, Sam Bird, put a spanner in the works by moving ahead of Buemi. It was debatable whether or not this move was legal given the yellow flags for Turvey's accident, or whether he could have seen them whilst moving alongside and through on Buemi. Regardless, with just two laps to go it gave Di Grassi a good buffer as Sam continued to close the door on a gesticulating Buemi.
A perfect restart and consecutive fast laps had re-established Nico Prost's lead. His drive had been faultless and on lap 33 came round the final turn to take his first win since Miami in season one. Having a podium with both Prost and Senna on it was a magical result for the organisers and fans alike and this was exactly what they got as Bruno gave Mahindra a great day in London. Jean Eric Vergne completed the podium for Virgin at the team's home event.
As for the title rivals a one point gap at the start of the day had now become five points in Di Grassi's favour. No one can write either of these great drivers off, all that is sure is that one of them will be able to write their names into the racing history books come this time tomorrow....