DS Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird was victorious in Buenos Aires last year against all expectations. Yet, the British Formula E racer is not banking on any easy ride this week when the electric racing series returns to the Argentinian capital for the third (and possibly final) time.
“I’m not going there thinking I’m going to win just because I won last year,” Bird tells Current E. “I’m excited to get back there. It’s a circuit I’ve been strong at in the first two seasons. I’m confident but not over confident.”
The Buenos Aires track is beloved of all the drivers and is one of the paddock’s favourite venues. The fast straights, combination of flowing and twisty corners, city backdrop and packed grandstands make the event one of the highlights on the calendar.
In season one, the race turned into a manic destruction derby, with several drivers crashing out before Antonio Felix da Costa took the win. In season two, Bird put on a masterclass, holding the lead in the closing laps in a heavy, tail-happy car and managing in the process to keep Sebastien Buemi in a vastly superior machine behind him. It is the only race to return a third time in Formula E and Bird will have participated in every one.
“You have to respect the circuit itself and the competitors I’m up against,” he says. “I’m facing 19 drivers who are extremely competitive and world class – nine other teams who are world class – and want to beat me, my team mate and DS Virgin Racing.”
Bird has started brightly this season, with the revamped DS powertrain working well. A technical glitch in the season three opener in Hong Kong cost him valuable places, while Marrakesh showed strong progress compared to last season. “So far this season, I’ve been the one to take it to Seb [Buemi],” Bird says. “I think Hong Kong was a missed win. Marrakesh – I was disappointed with second place.”
In Formula E, the powertrain is homologated for the season, so there are no mechanical updates that a team can make. What they can do, however, is tweak the operating software and the car set-up. Here, both Bird and DSVR will benefit from having raced in Buenos Aires twice before: they will have a far more accurate idea of energy and power management than those new to the track.
“When I got off the podium in Marrakesh, there were some things that were bothering me – our car, how it was working and so on,” Bird tells us. “We had a meeting that evening. The guys took the things that Pechito [Jose Maria Lopez] and I said. We’ve worked hard on those aspects: the mechanical handling of the car and some of the fundamental programming, such as power output. I believe we’ve made some strides forward. We’re in better shape than in the first two races – though every other team will be thinking the same of course.”
Bird is pulling double duty this year again, twinning his time in Formula E with a Ferrari works drive in the FIA WEC series. He says the preparation for each race is much the same in both teams, despite the different technologies, race distances and circuit types.
“In terms of preparation, we’re a race team, as are Ferrari,” Bird explains. “Prep is taken just as seriously. We do simulation before the race so that we understand what is required at that circuit. When I go to Maranello [in Italy, for Ferrari], I’ll go on the GT simulator and work on the balance of the car. When I go to Satory [in France, the DS Performance base for DSVR] we’ll fine-tune the balance of the car, we’ll work on energy numbers, we’ll work on race simulations [for energy management].”
There are still question marks for drivers who race in both series given two potential schedule clashes. Bird doesn’t shirk the question when it arises. “For the Prologue [WEC] and Mexico [Formula E race], I don’t think there’ll be an issue. I believe I’ll be able to make the Mexico race and I thank Ferrari. The other clash is a much bigger issue. I’m praying we’ll be able to resolve this issue.”
As to when we might expect to know when Bird will have to make a decision, it seems the waiting game is in play. “No set date,” he says. “Maybe a couple of days before.”
Joining DSVR as reserve driver is Alex Lynn, after missing out on a race seat with Jaguar’s Formula E team. Lynn could well see track time this season, given that Lopez also has a WEC drive this year. That could rule out both DSVR main drivers for the New York double-header in July, which could damage hopes in both drivers’ and team’s championships.
It turns out that Lynn and Bird have history. “I used to be his driver coach when he was racing in Formula Renault,” Bird reveals. “He’s very talented, an extremely competitive young guy. He didn’t get a full chance to show his potential in F1 but I believe he’s now in a great place with our team.”
The third Buenos Aires Formula E race takes place on Saturday 18 February 2017. The race will be shown live on Channel 5 in the UK; and we’ll have reports from our trackside team as always.