Formula E: Jean-Eric Vergne holds off Lucas di Grassi to win Punta del Esta ePrix; extends lead on Mahindra’s Felix Rosenqvist
Techeetah’s Jean-Eric Vergne claimed a pole-to-flag win after fending off pressure from Audi driver, Lucas di Grassi for almost the entire race duration.
The Punta del Este ePrix went from not being on the calendar to offering a thrilling Formula E race. Thank you, to the authorities of the city of Sao Paulo, for requesting their ePrix to be shifted to Season 5!
Techeetah’s Jean-Eric Vergne, also the championship leader, claimed a pole-to-flag win after fending off pressure from the reigning champion and Audi driver, Lucas di Grassi for almost the entire race duration. Vergne added 28 points (25 points for win + 3 for pole position) to his championship tally and extended his lead on Mahindra’s Felix Rosenqvist to 30 points.
Qualifying and Super Pole
The Super Pole session of qualifying was a bit of an anti-climax after the slowest of the five drivers was promoted to pole position after the session. Vergne inherited pole position despite lapping nearly three seconds slower than the other four drivers. This was Vergne’s third pole position of the season.
Thanks to the FIA’s strict stewarding, the fastest driver of qualifying, Di Grassi, was awarded a penalty for exceeding track limits, as were Alex Lynn (originally second) and Oliver Turvey (originally fourth) for hitting the bollard installed at the Turn 10/11 chicane. The FIA must be applauded for their consistency in stewarding; they had warned the drivers against hitting the bollard pre-session.
Mitch Evans, who clocked the third fastest time in the Super Pole session and could have inherited Di Grassi’s pole position, was demoted to 16th for ‘discrepancies in weight distribution’ which could have been due to the battery change between the practice sessions.
Mahindra Racing’s drivers Rosenqvist and Nick Heidfeld had a qualifying session to forget. Formula 1 veteran Heidfeld crashed out in qualifying, while Rosenqvist could only manage 14th place.
The Punta del Esta ePrix saw a fantastic battle between the Audi works team and Renault’s customer team, Techeetah. It is imperative to state this upfront because the openness and unpredictability of Formula E is what makes it a great series to follow.
The race was also a battle between a driver fighting to win his first-ever Formula E title (Vergne) and the reigning champion (Di Grassi) whose botched title defence means that he is only targeting race wins for the rest of the season. "We have nothing to lose, so we can be as aggressive as we want," said Di Grassi pre-race.
Vergne made a good start and then spent the entire race fending off charges from the Brazilian. It was a fantastic display of defensive driving from Vergne, while Di Grassi needs to be credited for his aggressive and fair attacks while they fought for the lead. The pair nudged and made contact while racing for top honours towards the end of the ePrix but nothing that could be classified as unfair or dangerous driving.
"Hey Siri, what does wheel-to-wheel racing look like?" #PuntaDelEsteEPrix pic.twitter.com/mX7EG0lRxS
— ABB Formula E (@FIAFormulaE) March 17, 2018
Vergne’s race-craft was flawless and he won the race — his second win of the season — in a car that wasn’t the fastest on the track. The Audi Formula E car was the class of the field — Di Grassi topped the second practice session and had set a new lap record. Could Di Grassi have won the race had he not been penalised for hitting the bollard on his qualifying lap? The Brazilian did express this possibility and the disappointment of losing out on pole position.
Di Grassi’s second place finish means that the Brazilian is now Formula E’s most successful podium finisher with 21 podiums to his name. Renault’s Sebastian Buemi, who was classified as non-finisher thanks to car breakage after touching the barriers, is second with 20 podiums. Incidentally, Buemi won both the previous editions of the Punta del Esta ePrix. Before suffering from race issues, Buemi was charging up to the sharper end of the field, but social media chatter did question if he overtook Techeetah's Andre Lotterer — who also went backwards in the race after hitting the barriers — under Safety Car conditions.
Sam Bird (DS Virgin Racing) joined the Vergne vs Di Grassi battle with three laps at the end to make it a three-way fight for the lead. It was unfortunate that Bird had to drop off from the fight on the last lap due to battery issues else we could have seen a different combination on the podium. In fact, Di Grassi ended the race with zero percent battery — that’s how much on the limit (in terms of speed and battery consumption) the race was.
Bird’s teammate, Alex Lynn crossed the line in sixth — his best ever Formula E finish, while Mitch Evans (Jaguar Racing, started 16th) and Rosenqvist (Mahindra Racing, started 12th) ended up racing consistently, performing proper pit stops and overtaking cars to finish fourth and fifth respectively. While losing more points to his immediate rivals (Vergne and Bird), Rosenqvist held onto second place in the championship.
Audi’s other driver and the winner of the Mexico City ePrix, Daniel Abt, could have scored a double podium for the German manufacturer had it not been for a forced second pit stop to tighten his seat belts that came loose mid-race! Clearly, the entire grid is yet to figure out a foolproof mechanism to deal with the new pit stop rules. As for Audi, after a not-so-promising start to the current season, the team scored maximum points in the championship in the last two rounds. How far will their late-season resurrection take them in the championship standings?
Had to give up P3 after all 4 of my seatbelts just opened up on track for whatever reason. My life is more important to me. #AllTheWayABT ⚡️😩 pic.twitter.com/06Au2xMod1 — Daniel Abt (@Daniel_Abt) March 17, 2018
In the Team’s Championship, Mahindra Racing too held onto second place in the standings (100 points), but lost ground to Techeetah (first place, 127 points) and DS Virgin Racing (third place, 93 points). It was surprising to see Mahindra Racing not be able to replicate the same form and pace they had in the previous race in Mexico City.
Heidfeld has scored three consecutive DNFs and has managed to score points in only two out of the six ePrixs held this season. The team will need him to pull his weight in the remaining races of the season if they wish to hold onto second place, let alone fight with Techeetah for first position.
It isn’t just the Drivers’ Championship that is witnessing the reigning champion not being able to defend his crown. In the Team’s Championship, the reigning champions Renault are also having a season to forget. The team scored nought in the Punta del Esta ePrix and remained a lowly fifth in the championship standings. This isn’t how the Renault team would have liked to sign off their last season in Formula E. Next season, the team will be renamed as Nissan.
After displaying their next-gen car at the Geneva Motor Show a fortnight ago, Formula E also announced that the races next season will run 10 mins shorter. Additionally, it was also revealed that cars would have two strategic modes to use throughout the duration of the race. It seems that both these additions for next season are to make up for the loss of a mandatory mid-race pit stop and retain the element of strategy to the series.
Firstly, from Formula 1 surveys we know that for the fans, pit stops are a crucial element of the sport. While going non-stop from lights-to-flag could be fun, would eliminating pit stops altogether keep fans further away from the otherwise interesting and entertaining series? Or will Formula E be working to introduce Formula 1 style tyre-stops in the future? Either way, for next season, fans will have to contend with ‘energy strategy’, which means that different drivers will have different pace at different times in the race. Secondly, the shorter race time could mean that the drivers would be able to drive on higher power throughout the (shorter) race distance.
However, with the introduction of the ‘strategy mode’, Formula E will stop awarding the ‘fastest lap of the race’ and instead award the ‘most energy efficient’ driver of the race. The organisers haven’t revealed how this metric would be calculated though. But hats off to Formula E for attempting to introduce new metrics in the world of Motorsport. The big question is, will the fans be interested in catching up?
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