It might only be seven races old, but the first Formula E season is not short on dramatic stories. Berlin is poised to add another explosive chapter to the tale, says the sport’s presenter and pit lane reporter, Nicki Shields.
The first season has been an incredible journey so far. It’s crazy that we’re coming up to the eighth race already! In five weeks, we’ll be done with the first season and looking forward to preseason testing and the new powertrains that will be introduced in season two.
The support for this championship has been resounding from the very beginning. We’ve seen the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Prince Albert of Monaco, Roger Penske and Emmerson Fittipaldi all on the grid (among many others) and FIA president Jean Todt has attended three races. It’s been an honour to speak to them all throughout the season.
For those who are new to the sport, here’s a brief recap of what’s happened to date.
Who, what, where and when
The first race was in September, in Beijing. Everyone was finding their feet and everyone was playing the nice guy. That’s changed now, with the drama over the first eight races and now that the heat is really on.
Lucas di Grassi won the first race for the Audi Sport ABT team. Nick Heidfeld, at Venturi, and Nico Prost, son of Alain Prost and driver at e.dams-Renault, collided in a huge last corner crash. Both drivers walked away unharmed, though Alain Prost said at the time that it was “the most disappointing moment in my career.”
The second race was in Putrajaya, a purpose-built city in Malaysia. It was really hot and humid, and the teams and technical partners were worried that the powertrains would overheat. In the end, the cars were fine and Sam Bird, the British driver at the Virgin Racing team, disappeared up the road in an amazing display of speed, energy management and intelligent driving. Sebastien Buemi, of e.dams-Renault, and di Grassi made it to the podium after starting at the very back of the grid.
The racing then moved to South America for the third race, next to the beach in Punta del Este, Uruguay, and the fourth, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Jean-Eric Vergne was the surprise announcement of the Punta race, jumping into the car for Andretti with no previous experience and sticking it on pole. Sebastien Buemi won that race in the end, with Nelson Piquet close behind for the China Racing team (which has subsequently been renamed NextEV TCR).
Argentina was just mad. Several drivers led the race in the closing laps, before crashing, suffering suspension failure or serving drive through penalties. In the end, Amlin Aguri driver Antonio Felix da Costa picked up the win.
Two races in the US followed. Nico Prost finally converted his pace into a win in Miami, though he was hunted down in the closing laps by Scott Speed, driving for Andretti.
In Long Beach, Piquet had an emotional win when he was victorious 35 years to the weekend after his father won his first F1 race at the same track.
Two weeks ago, Formula E arrived in Europe for the final stint of the maiden season. Monaco was the venue. The track lived up to its reputation, causing chaos with a first corner pile-up and making it very difficult for drivers to overtake. Buemi became the first driver to win from pole position and the first to take a second victory.
The most exciting thing about the championship at the moment is that we probably won’t know who the winner will be until London in June. Consistency is key. There have been six different winners in seven races, with only one driver managing to repeat the feat. All of the top drivers have had retirements or other issues along the way.
Emmerson Fittipaldi said to me on the grid in Miami, “A Brazilian will win this championship”. Sure enough, di Grassi is the man at the top with four rounds remaining (Berlin, Moscow and a two-day spectacular in London). He’s has had a couple of tough races but he’s got his form back, and he’s bagged a pretty incredible five podiums in seven races. If he continues to do as well as he has done, he has to be the man to beat.
Just behind him in the standings is another Brazilian, Piquet, who has clearly mastered the critical battery management side of things. He’s been on the podium in four of the last five races. It was great to see him tell it like it is in Monaco, when he thought di Grassi had impeded his fast quali lap. Di Grassi is still very controlled and “media savvy” with his answers – very polished. I’d like to see more of his personality come across.
It’s a team game
The French outfit e.dams-Renault is looking extremely fast. They’ve had four poles out of seven races. Had it not been for Prost’s grid penalty in Putrajaya resulting from the Beijing incident, that stat would be have been five out of seven. The team has 160 points and is in the lead by quite some way. Trulli, at the other end of the table, has just 12 points.
You get bonus points for fastest laps and pole positions, which adds up to an additional 55 points available over the season. That’s more points than two race wins. So far, only Buemi has converted a pole position into a win, so there are clearly points to be picked up there.
The only British driver is Sam Bird, who drives for British team Virgin. He was unstoppable in Malaysia and was widely expected to clinch the Monaco race. In the end, he was very close to a podium but simply qualified too far back to have a shot at the top step. That’s something he’ll be looking to rectify in the closing rounds.
Poor Venturi: they’ve had a lot of misfortune, penalties and retirements, which means their place second from bottom in the standings is far from a true reflection of the quality of the team and drivers. Monaco was a bit better for them, so let’s hope the trend continues in Berlin, which will be a home race for Venturi’s German driver Nick Heidfeld.
Trulli is the team at the very bottom. I know they were very angry in Long Beach, where Charles Pic crashed into the side of Jarno Trulli (watch the 360 degree on-board footage here). But something in that team doesn’t seem to have quite clicked yet.
It’s a shame about the Mahindra boys, Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna. They’ve disappeared as the contenders they seemed to be at the start of the season. In Beijing, Chandhok looked to be on for a podium finish and in Malaysia, Senna had fourth place on the last lap and was challenging for third before he crashed out. They’ve had some bad luck but, even when they run a complete race, they don’t seem to have the pace. That’s a surprise, given the experience of the drivers and of technical partner Carlin. It’s true both drivers have had mechanical failures which you could argue weren’t their fault – but the drivers at the top of the standings have all had issues, too, and managed to bounce back.
Every circuit has had its own charm and challenges, but each and every one has delivered. There haven’t been any major operational problems – apart from, perhaps, the delay in completing the Miami circuit. But even then, it was ready in time for the race to meet its allocated TV slot.
I’ve been bowled over by just how much work has gone into preparing everything – from hospitality to the stands to the eVillage, plus all the work done to help engage with audiences and the mass of social media content produced by the series organiser, teams and drivers alike. Overall, everyone has been blown away by how Formula E has managed to up the ante at every venue. It just keeps getting better and better.
It was interesting to see what the response was like at the first European race in Monaco. The series has struggled to build momentum with European audiences because of some long gaps between races and the time zones.
(The races are always at 4pm local time to suit local audiences, rather than moving the race time to try and satisfy European TV schedules. The one exception to the 4pm rule was in Malaysia, where the race start was moved two hours earlier to avoid the late afternoon monsoon rains.)
Having five races in a two months and at times more amendable to European audiences should help bump up viewers here. Plus, Monaco was heaving with people, which is a very good sign for the remainder of the races on this continent.
Battle for Berlin
Berlin will be different in several ways. Firstly, and most obviously, it’s not really a street circuit, but instead a track built on an airport apron. Street circuits are usually about racing right on the edge – there is no margin for error otherwise you’re straight into a wall. However, in this case there are run off areas, so the drivers will be able to push themselves further without the worry of such unforgiving consequences. (That should also reduce the chances of a safety car although it will encourage risk taking.)
Secondly, the layout is very twisty, with 17 turns. That should provide plenty of overtaking which we missed out on in Monaco. There are several different types of turns, too, which the drivers will enjoy after some of the more right-angled corners we’ve seen at previous tracks, which were dictated by the layout of the streets. Daniel Abt told me that he’s spent a lot more time in the simulator for this track than at previous events, as it’s been much harder to learn.
Berlin is a hugely important race for the championship contenders. This is where we sort the men from the boys. There are still 100 points up for grabs for race wins over the final four races.
It’s now that the drivers who have been consistently quick – such as Bird, D’Ambrosio and Vergne – need to bag some valuable points. If we see another podium with di Grassi, Piquet and Buemi, it’s going to be very tough for the others to catch up.
All eyes will be on ABT – both the team and the driver (Daniel Abt) – and Heidfeld, all of whom are racing at home. Daniel Abt looks likely to win his first Fanboost, which will be interesting – he’s struggled with energy management at previous races, so how will Fanboost affect his strategy? At a circuit like this, the extra power may make much more of a difference than at previous events.
Further spicing things up, the whispers have started in the paddock about seats for next season. One team in particular looks like it will be incredibly strong in terms of driver line up, although next season the focus could be diverted away from the driver to the powertrain (with eight teams having been confirmed as constructors).
Lastly, here’s an interesting point to ponder ahead of the race on Saturday: the current championship leader, Lucas di Grassi, has never qualified on pole nor picked up a fastest lap, unlike his rivals in the top five. Will consistency and a slightly more careful approach triumph over speed and aggression in the final rounds? You’ll just have to tune in to find out.