Formula E Punta del Este ePrix: Survive, If You Can
The following post was originally written for The Lowdown and is geared towards a motorsport audience. Most of the analysis is written for that audience rather than a tech crowd so it may not necessarily be for you. That being said, an all-electric motorsports world championship is kind of a big deal so we’re continuing our coverage of Formula E.
Say what you will about all-electric racing technology that’s been rushed to the race track, spec cars, one-day race weekends and cramped little street circuits, Formula E knows how to put on a show. Once again, Formula E showed that you don’t need 700 horsepower to put on a show. All you need is low downforce and drivers willing to fight for position.
In a race that saw the safety car make its way onto the circuit four times for various incidents, it was Sebastian Buemi who survived the crashes and mechanical troubles that plagued the field to win his first Formula E race.
The race started with Jean-Eric Vergne leading the race from the pole in his first Formula E race. Even though you can’t teach speed, you can still teach how to do a good start. Being stuck on the dirty side of the gird, JEV was passed clean into Turn 1 by 2nd place starter Nelson Piquet Jr.
The race was bogged down with four safety car periods, three of which came in the first stint of the race. On Lap 4, Sam Bird caused the first safety car period when he launched his car over the kerbs at Turn 2. Running over the sausage kerbs at Turn 2, he hit the wall and was out of the race. While this bunched up the field, JEV couldn’t take advantage of the negated gap. Despite the fact that he had the advantage of the Fan Boost, a technical glitch meant that he couldn’t use it.
After the second safety car period for Felix da Costa hitting the wall, Vergne was finally able to get by Piquet at the Turn 8 hairpin. JEV was able to pull away quite quickly from Piquet but both of them had a problem. Each of them were going through power much more quickly than the rest of the field. Vergne and Piquet both had 10% battery less than the field by the conclusion of the second safety car period.
Vergne and Piquet both came in for their car swaps at Lap 15 but if having to pit early for a car swap wasn’t a big enough a disadvantage, they also fell victim to an ill-timed safety car. Stephane Sarrazin hopped a kerb and broke his suspension on landing. The safety car was called so Sarrazin’s car could be cleared and the rest of the field dove into the pits for car swaps.
Nick Heidfeld came out in the lead from the pit stops but ran into two problems. First, he had to serve a drive-through penalty for using too much power during his first stint. After that, he had to come in for violating the minimum pit road time for his car swap. That allowed Sebastian Buemi into the lead with JEV behind him.
Just when it looked like the race was safely Buemi’s, a fourth safety car was called to recover Matthew Brabham after a crash. That allowed for a two-lap shootout to the finish. JEV pushed Buemi into a couple of cut chicanes but couldn’t take advantage of those mistakes. It wasn’t because a penalty wasn’t called. It was because Vergne’s front suspension broke driving down the back-straight which resulted in his race ending.
That allowed Sebastian Buemi to cruise to his first Formula E win. Nelson Piquet Jr. finished in second though he should have won the race. Buemi should have been forced to cede the position to Vergne but in JEV’s absence, standard sporting regulations for motorsport holds that a time or drive-through penalty would be enforced. A five-second penalty would have dropped Buemi to 4th but he held the win. Finishing third was Lucas di Grassi who scored his third podium in three races.
Jarno Trulli converted a strong start and his inability to be passed (and pass) into a 4th place finish. Jaime Alguersuari made up for teammate Bird’s non-finish with a 5th. Bruno Senna scored his first points in 6th. Nicolas Prost finished in 7th after his own drive-through penalty for exceeding the maximum power allowed. Jerome d’Ambrosio is one of three drivers to score points in every race after finishing 8th. Di Grassi is one. The other is Oriol Servia who was in 9th. Nick Heidfeld’s two penalties didn’t stop him from finishing in the points as he rounded out the top ten.
For the second time in three races, the series’ use of sausage kerbs is causing problems. While they aren’t causing massive accidents the likes of which very well could have injured or killed Nick Heidfeld, they were responsible for the safety car periods during this race.
I can somewhat understand why they’re there. In a tight street circuit with very little room on the exits of the corners, drivers trying to execute a pass will be forced to the inside of the specified boundary of the turn. This creates an advantage for the car squeezed inside since the car on the outside has nowhere but a concrete wall to be squeezed to.
The problem is that the cars are either losing control and hitting the sausage kerb or being forced onto them by the cars they’re trying to pass. When these cars hit these sausage kerbs, they’re launching the cars in the air. We saw Sam Bird hit a kerb and then the wall. Stephane Sarrazin flew off a kerb and broke his suspension on landing. And the same fate as Sarrazin befell Matthew Brabham.
The sausage kerbs are turning these cars into electric-powered missiles when they hit them. There’s a reason why their use is very limited in Formula One and IndyCar. They’re just not safe. Eliminate the sausage kerbs. Use more aggressive alligator kerbing on the inside of the turns to upset those cars without sending them airborne and add speed bumps to the inside space of a chicane that the sausage kerbs are supposed to be protecting.
Also, if you’re going to run a series exclusively on street circuits, the suspensions have to be a bit more sturdy. Two cars broke suspensions from landing off of sausage kerbs. JEV’s front suspension broke with victory in sight. You’ve got narrow, bumpy tracks with concrete walls making up the whole calendar. A suspension package that can deal with bumps and argey-bargy isn’t nice to have. It’s a need to have.
One of the disappointing things about this race is the number of drivers randomly drafted in for this race.
Andretti was going to run Toro Rosso refugee Jean-Eric Vergne in their #28 car. He would have been the third different driver in that car this season after Charles Pic and Matthew Brabham. When Franck Montagny pulled out on the day before the race for health reasons, Brabham was drafted back in. That means that Andretti has used four drivers in three races.
Elsewhere, Amlin Aguri drafted in Salvador Duran to replace Katherine Legge who was in Daytona to test the Delta Wing as part of off-season testing for the United SportsCar Series. China Racing has to replace their Chinese driver Ho-Pin Tung with Antonio Garcia. Tung was busy running a 12-hour endurance race in Abu Dhabi.
The problem is that just cycling through drivers for the sake of changing drivers and allowing drivers to pull out because of conflicts makes Formula E look like an afterthought. Now, there isn’t much that Formula E can do because they can’t really control team decisions. It’s the teams making themselves look bad because they’re making the series look like an afterthought.
Great racing will only help a series so much. The drivers will help a series just as much as the on-track action. Sure, it’s only five cars that have swapped drivers during the season but that’s five cars out of a twenty car field or a quarter of the field. The teams have to make keeping their usual drivers in the cars which will make the series look like more of a big league series which will attract sponsors and make the series financially sustainable instead of just environmentally.
The next round of the 2014-15 Formula E season is in four weeks’ time. The first race of calendar 2015 will see the series make its second stop in South America. This time, it’s a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the Puerto Madero Street Circuit for the Buenos Aires ePrix.
After the last race, I pegged Lucas di Grassi, Sam Bird and Nicolas Prost as the three drivers at the head of the field. Three rounds into the season, di Grassi is the only one of those three who has had his luck hold to the point where he was able to finish all three races. Now, you can add Jean-Eric Vergne to the list of contenders for upcoming races… if he can figure out how to keep the battery alive a little longer.