Condensed matter: BA preview

Spacesuit-Media-Dan Bathie-FIA-Formula-E-Marrakesh-ePrix-November-2016-Michelin bridge

The 20-strong Formula E grid will hit the (real world) track in anger for the first time in 2017 this weekend as the all-electric series rolls into Buenos Aires again.

The capital of Argentina is one of just two cities to have appeared on all three season calendars (the other being Berlin) while Puerto Madero is the only track that has hosted Formula E every year since the series began. It’s a firm favourite among the drivers, fans and photographers (as our snappers at Spacesuit Media will tell you) as it holds more resemblance to a “proper” track layout than many of the other street circuits in Formula E. And unlike the few purpose-built racetracks that Formula E has visited, such as in Mexico, the Buenos Aires location really suits the nature of the Formula E cars.

Yet this will be the last Formula E race at Puerto Madero. As of season four, it is unlikely that any first season track will survive. Sure, that could be spun as a good thing (Formula E is going on a world tour, hitting more and more cities as the years go by etc) but stability is a necessity in motorsport. Date equity is key for championships and host cities. F1 locations are strong because they can count on an influx of people at a certain time of year and Formula E could do with some of that. (Plus we weren’t blown away by The Grand Tour’s hopping around…)

The deal with Buenos Aires is not that the city doesn’t want Formula E. Puerto Madero is set to undergo a great deal of development, including sizeable changes to the road system in the area with the installation of a new underpass system. With this going on, Formula E would only add to the looming logistical nightmare of keeping city streets functioning among the construction chaos. As a result, going back in 2018 is not really an option.

The rumours are that Buenos Aires wants to have a race that works a bit like Mexico’s, incorporating part of the F1 track and the facilities there. Argentina has not hosted a grand prix since 1998, but the Autodromo Juan y Oscar Galvez still welcomes national level touring car championships. The only issue is that it’s about a 30 minute drive away from Puerto Madero. If Formula E wants to be racing near landmarks and in the very heart of the city, moving there would go in the opposite direction. In Mexico, of course the track is right in the middle of the city. 

In other calendar shenanigans since the paddock last convened in Marrakesh, there has been quite a bit of movement. Berlin has moved back to Tempelhof after the city senate voted against the race returning to the centre of the city near Alexanderplatz due to disruption. Rumblings of a new race in Hamburg coming in at the last minute to make up for Brussels’ likely cancellation lack real grounding, it seems.

The big thing to stress is that cities are not falling out of love with Formula E. They’re simply trying to work around all of the pressures that come with any town planning or city management. All of the cities that have hosted Formula E have been hugely enthusiastic, and the queue to bring the series to a new location is going out of the door and around the block. The series’ appeal is so, so strong but it’s just a case of planning things right. It’s unfortunate that Formula E is facing these calendar problems, but they’re not self-induced. The product itself continues to capture the attention of governments, both local and national, all over the world. Let’s hope that we can see a bolstered calendar for season four as a result.

Soapbox rant over. On to the racing.

The season so far has been all about Sebastien Buemi. Two races, two wins, plenty of overtakes and, frankly, sheer dominance. He’s already 22 points clear of perennial rival Lucas di Grassi in the drivers’ championship, while Renault e.dams has double the score of anyone else. And we’re not even three races in.

So does that mean it’s game over in both championships already? Far from it. Buemi is set to miss the New York double header later in the due to clashing commitments in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Toyota, so will be scrambling for points from that perspective. Also consider that the crushing pace we’ve seen in Hong Kong and Marrakesh was also there at the start of season two and, yet, the title went right down to the wire as the rest of the field reeled Renault in. A strong start this may be, but it doesn’t mean that the story has already been written in season three. It’s not just a battle for second.

One man who has taken the fight to Buemi more than most so far this season is Sam Bird. The DS Virgin Racing driver was in contention at the front in Hong Kong before an error in the pits cost him time, while his pace in Marrakesh was mighty as he fought through to second place behind Buemi. Bird also has history in Buenos Aires, taking one of the most stunning victories of his career here last year after fending off a charging Buemi in the closing stages. He’s certainly one to watch this weekend.

The majority of eyeballs in Buenos Aires will be on the other DSVR racer, though. Jose Maria Lopez is something of a national hero when it comes to motorsport, being Argentina’s first FIA world champion since the great Juan Manuel Fangio, with a trio of WTCC crowns with Citroen. When the French manufacturer announced it was pulling the plug on Formula E, the logical step was for “Pechito” to link up with DS, a Citroen sub-brand. The seeds for the move were sown last year when Lopez appeared in Buenos Aires as a guest of DS, and nearly ended up racing when Jean-Eric Vergne came down ill. JEV recovered (and demanded that he be allowed to race, in a bizarre story that no one has really gotten to the bottom of) so there was no home favourite, but there will be this time around.

Wherever you go in the city, there are billboards promoting Formula E, usually bearing Lopez’s face. DSVR has been in town all week long attending events, with Lopez pulling long, long days for various appearances all over Buenos Aires. There is a real buzz about the place. It’s great for the series.

Spacesuit-Media-Dan Bathie-FIA-Formula-E-Marrakesh-ePrix-November-2016-Demo run

Other tidbits of info…

  • French oil and lubricant company Total will make its first FE appearance this weekend after a new deal with DS Virgin was announced earlier in the week. Total recently lost its two major F1 teams, Red Bull and Renault, to rivals ExxonMobil and BP/Castrol respectively.
  • According to motorsport.com’s Sam Smith, a number of staff from the now-defunct Manor F1 operation will be in Buenos Aires this weekend, having quickly found fresh employment following the closure of the team last month amid financial strife. We know at least of those guys, who was an engineer with Team Aguri in season one before moving to Manor.
  • Formula E’s recent shifts in ownership continued earlier this week when the FIA announced that Chinese firm CMC Capital had taken a stake in the series. The Current E team will be taking many steaks of our own in Argentina this weekend (wait, what do you mean that’s not the same thing?).
  • NextEV has a couple of staffing changes for the weekend ahead. It’s Gerry Hughes’ first weekend as official team principal, having been in a caretaker role in Marrakesh following the passing of Martin Leach. Christian Silk has recently joined the team in the role of chief race engineer below Hughes.
  • Faraday Future Dragon Racing has teamed up with Argo Group as a new partner from Buenos Aires onwards. Argo Group is a Bermuda-based insurance company, and you can see their full run-down on the decision to link up with Dragon here.

Much more to come across the course of the weekend!

Luke Smith

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