Formula E Beijing ePrix: Debuting with a Bang
The following post was originally written for The Lowdown Blog and was geared towards a motorsport audience. Most of the analysis is gear toward that audience rather than a tech crowd. However, I felt the first race of an all-electric motorsport series was worth posting about here.
The first ever race for the first ever international all-electric motorsports series got off with a bang. I mean that in both a literal and metaphorical sense too. For all the worries about the potential issues with Formula E, they put on a pretty good show despite the pit stop and car change nonsense. However, the race started and ended with literal bangs thanks to a Turn 2 incident on Lap 1 and a final turn incident on the final lap.
The result was that 24 laps and 19 corners of a race lead for Nicolas Prost was thrown away with one dangerous move that took him out of the lead and nearly injured Nick Heidfeld. That let Lucas di Grassi through to ink his name in the record books as the first ever Formula E race winner.
Prost led the race from the pole and started off his season with three bonus points for being fastest in qualifying. That speed carried over to the race as he led the vast majority of the race.
Prost wasn’t able to get away from the field, though. Every time he started to pull out a lead, the field would slowly claw him back in. He never had a lead of more than a few seconds but he couldn’t manage that gap and the battery level remaining in his car at the same time. The result was that early stint leads would vanish at the end of each of his two stints.
When he came in for his car change pitstop at the midpoint of the race, he was leading a six-car train that ran nose to tail. However, he quickly reestablished a massive advantage with a pitstop that was just onside of the minimum pit lane time of 1:45. The only other driver and team that seemed to have the measure of the unique pit stop procedure was Nick Heidfeld and Venturi Grand Prix. Heidfeld was able to leap into second place with a short pit lane time.
Thanks to being just on the happy side of the pit lane delta, Prost was able to resume with a multiple second lead. Just as in the first stint, Prost faded as the stint went on. While he was able to eventually stabilize the gap to just under one second, Heidfeld wasn’t to be denied.
With a monster run out of Turn 19 on the final lap, Heidfeld slipstreamed up to Prost’s bumper and pulled to the inside for a pass. Prost went moronically defensive and swerved to cut-off Heidfeld in the braking zone. The collision ended both drivers’ days. Prost’s suspension was toast. Heidfeld was sent spinning into the “sausage kerb” on the inside of Turn 20 which launched him roll hoop first into the TecPro barrier and catch fence. It was a scary scene for a moment before Heidfeld got out unharmed and quickly chased down Prost to explain his displeasure with the move.
Meanwhile, Lucas di Grassi, who started second and ran there until Heidfeld got by, was the unsung lucky hero. With the commentators talking about Prost and Heidfeld battling to make history, it was the Brazilian who came out of nowhere to score the historic first win in Formula E.
Following di Grassi’s Abt Sportsline entry home was Franck Montagny, the sportscar ace who was piloting one of the two Andretti Autosport cars, crossed the line in second after putting in the drive of the race from 8th on the grid. Daniel Abt looked set to complete the podium before a 57-second time penalty was assessed for violating the minimum pit road delta time. That promoted Sam Bird into 3rd for Virgin Racing.
Charles Pic was 4th in the other Andretti car which gives them the lead in the Teams’ Championship standings after one race. Karun Chandhok might not have gotten a proper shake in F1 but appointed himself quite well here by rounding out the top five. The two Dragon Racing boys, Jerome d’Ambrosio and Oriol Servia, finished 6th and 7th, respectively. Nelson Piquet Jr. took a break from NASCAR to finish 8th. Heidfeld’s teammate, Stephane Sarrazin, finished 9th. And Daniel Abt rounded out the top ten after that penalty.
A car problem meant that Takuma Sato missed the points paying positions but he was able to score two points for setting the fastest lap of the race. That means he sits 11th in the championship standings out of the twelve points scorers.
It’s not often that I get to talk about kerbing but this race provides me a great opportunity.
I can see the point of the so-called sausage kerbs. They’re high enough that they prevent a driver from cutting a corner but also punish anyone from trying to cut too closely. As we saw with Heidfeld on Saturday and in GP3 practice in Belgium, these sausage kerbs also act like ramps for cars that are out of control going across them.
While I doubt that anyone designed these cars or circuits thinking that flying head-first into a barrier or catchfence was a likely hood, it’s clear that Heidfeld was probably inches from the first race in Formula E’s history being a tragedy. Before the series gets to Malaysia for Round Two, the FIA or series director must ban the use of sausage kerbs and an alternative, if there’s a safe one, should be implemented. I’d rather the FIA act on it because they can eliminate them for all open-wheel series and put the FIA Institute on the case to find an alternative. It’s better for everyone to now be preemptive rather than reactive.
One interesting thing to note about this race was the speed or lack thereof. In race trim, the cars weren’t too bad. They got up to about 170 km/h and the average speed of the pole lap was about 120 km/h. It’s not lightning quick but it still makes for a race that’s quick enough to still be interesting.
What was embarrassing was every time the cars weren’t at full song. The formation lap went by at a glacial pace as the cars were conserving power to use in the race. The safety car period saw the same demonstration of supposedly advanced electric race cars moving at walking pace. I watched the race again and timed out Prost’s formation lap at five minutes. FIVE MINUTES. Pole was less than two minutes. No one is going to stick around for a five-minute formation lap. Shorten the race by a lap so we don’t have to see this embarrassment again.
There are a few other things that need working through. The graphics package is light blue with white text that is impossible to read. The graphics package also included a little team colour accent next to each car number similar to Formula One. The problem was that the accent didn’t really identify the team too well. For example, the black and red liveried Mahindra Racing had a green accent, chrome and red Virgin Racing had a purple accent and black and chrome Dragon Racing had a slightly lighter purple.
And the race stewarding makes Formula One look like the height of professionalism. Three drivers were handed 57-second time penalties for having too fast pit stops as they didn’t serve a drive-through during the race. The world feed commentators only informed us of one penalty and none of the penalties were denoted by an on-screen graphic. Maybe the teams were notified but the fans sure weren’t.
The next round of the FIA Formula E Championship is in two months. It’s a ten-race season that takes us from last weekend through the end of June so there will be a few lengthy gaps in the season. At this rate, I’m not even sure I’ll remember this series exists when we get to Malaysia in November. As with other Formula E races, the Malaysian race will be on a street circuit. Next time, it’s a trip to Putrajaya, Malaysia’s seat of government, for the Putrajaya ePrix.
I’d say that Nicolas Prost’s first race performance would make him a favourite for the next race but he was given a ten-place grid penalty for his actions in the final turn. I would let him take that weekend off to think about his actions.