The 2016-17 Formula E campaign has so far been a frustrating one for Sam Bird. Four races in; two podiums, two non-scores. By his own admission, season three is proving to be a “mixed bag”.
The DS Virgin Racing driver’s hopes of landing the first title fight blow looked to be in good shape early on in Hong Kong.The DSVR boys finally had a car that was competitive, after spending the second season carrying a significant weight penalty compared to the Renault and ABT cars.
Reigning champion Sebastien Buemi had only qualified fifth and season two runner-up Lucas Di Grassi was out of position down in P19 on the grid. Bird, having secured fourth in qualifying, made up ground at the start and sat third during the opening phase of the race.
Things looked even rosier when race leader Nelson Piquet hit the barriers, trying to avoid Bird’s teammate Jose Maria Lopez, who was already embedded in the wall. Those manoeuvres allowed the Brit to snatch first place. However, having controlled the first stint, Bird’s race fell apart during the pit stops. A technical issue in his second DSV-02 car cost him an entire lap and robbed him of potential victory; he ended the race outside the points in P13.
Buemi took the win in Hong Kong before going on to tot up a hat-trick of victories with triumphs in Morocco and Argentina. Bird followed Buemi home in second place in Marrakesh but struggled in qualifying in Buenos Aires and lined up in P10. Desperate to recover ground on Buemi and pole sitter Di Grassi, Bird sustained right-rear suspension damage in a collision and was forced into an early retirement. A podium finish followed in a topsy-turvy race in Mexico, while Buemi finished out of the points.
“It’s been mixed,” Bird explained of the season thus far in a chat with Current E. “Hong Kong really should have been a win, without the pit stop issue. We were leading and I firmly believe we could have and should have won that one. We would be 25 points further up the road and then it would be a three-horse race at the moment in the standings, with myself, Lucas and Seb. I had one to forget in Buenos Aires with a clash on lap two, which broke my suspension. Then two podiums, so it’s been a mixed bag so far. I need to put that right.”
Despite closing the gap to Buemi and Di Grassi in the drivers’ standings, the 30-year-old remains more than 40 points behind the Renault e.dams driver, in fifth place. Although Bird says his current position in the championship does not reflect the high expectations Virgin has, anything really can happen in Formula E, and the Brit believes a momentum swing in his favour could throw the title battle wide open.
“There’s an awful lot of races to be won,” he said. “If I win one now and Lucas and Seb both have a bad one then you are almost right back in it. You never say never. Fifth at the moment is not where we want to be, I don’t believe it’s particularly acceptable to be down there. I need to work hard in order to move forwards. There’s some great names in front and some really good names behind, so I need to keep pushing, I need to keep learning, evolving, getting faster and getting better with the team to ensure that we score big points in the future.
“You never know in this category, I think it’s very exciting. That’s what’s great about Formula E. [In F1], there are two teams that can now fight for wins but there are 10 teams that can fight for a win in Formula E, which is what makes it really great for the spectators.”
It is worth noting that Bird, Buemi and Lopez are all likely to miss the season’s penultimate race, the double-header in New York, due to clashing WEC duties, meaning they would only contest six of the remaining eight races of the season. That won’t be a problem for di Grassi, however, who lost his Audi WEC drive when the marque said goodbye to the sport at the end of 2016.
While his immediate focus remains on the second half of the current campaign, Bird and Virgin already have one eye set on next season. In the past months, the three-time Formula E race winner has begun preparations for 2017-18, spending a number of days testing the team’s season four-spec powertrain in France.
“Testing is going very well,” Bird said. “We’ll continue that in the coming months and see what kind of speed we can get up to for season four. Early impressions are positive but we need to just see what other people are doing as well. The big, big year – the big change is season five – but we’re working very well towards season four. We’ve done a good amount of running so far with no issues, we’re happy with what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done.”
Bird resumes his Formula E championship fight-back at the Monaco ePrix on 13 May. Keep your eyes peeled for further content appearing on Current E in the build-up to race-day, including a circuit preview with Bird.
Staff writer: Lewis Larkam