Did ABT gain an advantage?

Current E Berlin 2015 Formula E Elevated shot of Lucas di Grassi on track in quali

What to make of the disqualification of Lucas di Grassi from today’s race after his car failed scrutineering checks?

In parc ferme after his victory, officials found irregularities with his front wing, “which had been modified to include internal metal reinforcing rods…six of the eight holes in the wing had been sealed…the front flap and gurney LH220 has a filler layer added.”

The Audi Sport ABT team has stated that the modifications were nothing more than the results of repairing the wing and that the changes offered no performance gain. The team tweeted that they would not appeal the decision so as not to be unsporting. But others are wondering where sporting comes into the equation for a car that breaches the regulations of a spec series. 

There are two ways to look at this (and we must state clearly that we have not seen the wing in question, nor any of the data that the stewards may have had to hand when making their decision).

Firstly, if the modifications were intended to enhance performance, they didn’t do a great job, given that di Grassi did not start from pole position. To gain the lead, the Brazilian pounced when Trulli locked up going into the second corner. The pole sitter ran wide and di Grassi cut inside neatly to take the position. Trulli clearly did not have the race pace to run at the front, and he dropped rapidly down the order. In the process, he slowed up di Grassi’s immediate competitors, allowing the then championship leader to drive away from the field.

Nothing in that performance stood out as particularly remarkable. It was a cool, calm and controlled drive from di Grassi, but leaving the pack behind owed more to Trulli acting as traffic than a super powered car. Indeed, we’ve seen both Sam Bird and Nelson Piquet disappear from view as if they were in entirely different cars, in much more spectacular fashion, and nothing was deemed amiss there. 

So was the penalty to disqualify di Grassi unduly hard?

There’s a flip side to consider. Berlin proved particularly tough on tyres, had a very abrasive surface and lots of different sorts of corners. It was just the sort of place where a stable front aero set up could give a slight advantage. Could the metal rods in the end plates have stopped the wing assembly from wobbling to give di Grassi a fraction more front end grip at the team’s home race?

The answer is not black and white. “The front wheel fairings are really flimsy, considering they’re meant to be for crash protection,” says Current E technical editor Scarbs. “They’re just a skin of carbon fibre and easily broken. The team may have been trying to save money by repairing the components instead of ordering new parts off the shelf.”

Those parts are pricey: the front fairings are reportedly around £1000 to replace, and each flap around £400. “But the ABT team isn’t one of those short on budget so it raises eyebrows,” says Scarbs. “Plus, if the rods have been added to both sides, it does seem a little suspicious (a repair would surely just involve one side).”

“I’d be surprised if was an intentional cheat,” says ITV Formula E analyst Marc Priestley. “There are potentially some very small aero gains to be made from what I’ve read, but any advantage would be negligible. But they all know the rules – and if they don’t, they should do.”

“I don’t think the cars are very aero sensitive but you can’t be mucking about with wing profiles, even with the best of intentions,” Scarbs agrees. “If it was only on one side it could well be a repair, but you can’t add filler to aero parts in a spec series. It can alter the profile, even slightly, and it shouldn’t be done. Modifications simply can’t be made in a spec series, so the question of an advantage is almost irrelevant (although all the teams will be left asking how modifications must be disclosed to the organisers and what exactly counts as a modification). The bottom line is, ABT should have known better. And if they did, why didn’t they say anything?”

The disqualification means that di Grassi has been embroiled in controversy for two consecutive races, after a qualifying spat with championship rival Piquet at Monaco. Di Grassi will be particularly irritated that the penalty has handed his compatriot the championship lead.

The team has accepted full responsibility. “After making necessary repairs, some of the parts were no longer in their original form as specified by the regulations,” team boss Hans-Jurgen Abt stated in a press release issued by the team. “In Formula E, the cars and all spare parts are transported around the world in boxes. The team doesn’t have the time or opportunity at the various tracks to carry out repairs with the same precision as at home in our workshop. This is a situation that affects all the teams and we must find a mutual solution in the future.”

Other drivers were quick to offer their support to di Grassi, including Sebastien Buemi, who has now leapfrogged di Grassi in the drivers’ championship. 

There is no doubting that both di Grassi and the ABT team will be back in Moscow with renewed vigour. That should add spice to the final three rounds of the inaugural season. Forget mild korma: this season is going to finish as the full vindaloo. 

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