Formula E’s first race around the Autodromo Miguel E. Abed featured redemption, disaster and showed the margins teams have to work to over a Formula E race weekend.
Let’s start out here by saying that Formula E is really, really tough, as a championship. Just 17 staff members for each garage (plus some auxiliary people working remotely) is not a lot to run a world-class racing team with two cars, over a gruelling one-day format.
This season, in particular, has been costly. Having to choose your setup direction ahead of a race weekend leaves teams not a lot to play with if they get it wrong, especially with so many of the rounds this year (all but Monaco) being double-headers at the same track. With big gaps in the calendar, there’s time to prepare but once you’re on the ground it’s a case of having to nail every session, every decision and – as two big teams found during Saturday’s race – every piece of paperwork perfectly.
That’s not unique to Formula E. It’s how world championship racing works and it can bring glorious weekends where everything goes right and an underdog team gets an unexpected result. Or disastrous ones, where bad luck turns to worse. Racing has always thrived on the heartbreak that lets heroism have its day but in a championship where the racing is as purely fun and thrilling as Formula E, the technicalities can feel much more acutely brutal than in one that seems more decided before you enter a session.
But here we are. Halfway through a double header. What happened over that first race?
Practice makes… something
FP1 was early in the day and the track was still visibly wet from overnight rain. That made the conditions treacherous, with a few accidents and a couple of mechanical failures leading to substantial red-flagged periods. The track, inevitably, developed and there’s very little point trying to tease much out of the times in Formula E practice sessions.
You can, however, see where problems are occurring. An early warning that Sebastien Buemi was set for a bad day was his car stopping on track in first practice. Alexander Sims had a similar problem – and lost a lot of running, as did everyone to a red flag while his car was retrieved.
Second practice is a short affair at any Formula E round but felt especially brief in Puebla as teams focussed on qualifying speed, without much regard for race runs, during their final frantic moments to get used to the track. Without having been told about the full modifications to the circuit – which had walls added to it to make the format more Formula E-like – before arriving, there was a frantic scramble to work out the best lines as the track itself changed considerably.
And well, the attack mode placement was always going to be a bit of a doozy. Taking advantage of Puebla’s layout, the activation zone was in a loop off turn eight, rejoining the track alongside a wall on a short straight to turn nine. Cars would be flowing fast through the corner – and on the edge of grip, tyres handling the lateral loads of curving corners that Formula E just doesn’t normally deal with.
It is what it is and it’s the same for everyone. One of the drivers’ favourite adages and one that’s been all over the shop, this weekend. If you’re one of the championship leaders, you’re in group one and it’s the same for everyone in that group: you want to keep the lead, you want to set the perfect lap, you want to time it to get the edge over your competitors. Of course.
What you don’t want to do is what happened in group one, which is end up in a traffic jam where cars are racing on their qualifying lap, horribly compromised and much slower than track evolution would have accounted for. The fastest group one time was Antonio Felix da Costa’s 1’24.881 – nearly 1.4 seconds back from the time that Pascal Wehrlein, from group two, would top the group stages with.
Group qualifying very occasionally privileges the very last cars out, like in Valencia on a drying track. But in Puebla it was group two who dominated, only one car from group three making it through to Super Pole – Max Günther with an excellent lap.
Wehrlein was in his element, taking pole by five tenths of a second and collecting the points for both group stages and Super Pole. Albeit he did seem like he wasn’t that keen on collecting the recycled sea plastics trophy for the achievement.
Race of contrition
Lots of things happen in a Formula E race. That’s sort of how racing should be, y’know; exciting.
It’s what creates the opportunities that make Formula E so competitive. Opportunities, in sport, are places where other people missed ought, though and in motorsport that can feel brutally unfair when it’s things that happen ‘off-pitch.’
So we start the race. There’s Pascal Wehrlein; he leads from the start, he executes Attack Mode perfectly, he negotiates two safety cars, he preserves his energy despite the Porsche being far from the most efficient car on the Season 7 grid. He does everything right and he loses the win because Porsche haven’t filed the right paperwork to say what tyres he’s using.
Feels – my god – so super, incredibly bad, man. No one thinks Wehrlein didn’t race well enough to take a win, no one thinks his engineers didn’t execute the strategy and his mechanics put the car together right and the team do almost everything they needed to. But in motorsport you have to use the car elements, including the tyres, that you say you are going to use; and you have to make sure you say what you’re using correctly. Porsche didn’t and, like when Daniel Abt was stripped of Audi’s first win in Season Four over a similar error about barcodes, they paid the price in disqualification.
Nissan e.dams did, too – their day had already taken a twist for the unfair after Oliver Rowland’s radio equipment failed and Sebastien Buemi had a powertrain failure that incurred him tens of grid place penalties and a drive-through, though, so they weren’t robbed of points let alone a podium. Rowland had started second, however, so there’s heartbreak in more than one garage tonight.
Alongside that, three drivers whose luck has been a very frail thing this year ended up in the wall. Nick Cassidy, Jean-Eric Vergne and Sam Bird all ended their races squished painfully into the wall out of turn eight – where the Attack Mode activation zone exits – through no real fault of the people who pushed them into it or definitely themselves. Visibility is a problem with the Gen2’s enclosed wheels and sometimes tracks really bite. Which doesn’t make it fair – and there may well be changes to Attack Mode procedures for race two.
More mysteriously, BMW’s pace simply seemed to disappear after the end of the second safety car period. From running in podium places they slipped back to fifth for Dennis and and twelfth for Günther. The easiest assumption is that tyre and brake temperatures couldn’t be managed behind the safety car but with periods under caution a near-certainty in Formula E, they’ll be frantically looking into it ahead of tomorrow’s round.
Comparatively, it was a very good day for Audi, who took a 1-2 finish after Wehrlein’s disqualification. A decent day, too, for Mahindra despite each of their drivers being involved in accidents, as they took a double points finish.
Formula E twists on a turning circle much smaller than Di Grassi’s post-race celebration donuts so whichever team can regroup best and face the freshly rain-washed tarmac tomorrow will have this in hand before the penalties have even settled.