Formula E Buenos Aires ePrix: A Race No One Wants to Win
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.
When Formula E was announced and the race format detailed, everyone thought that the series’ biggest challenge would be the battery life of the cars. After the championship’s fourth round in Buenos Aires, it looks like the longevity of the suspensions will be the biggest curveball thrown at teams and drivers.
What started as a fairly straight forward race quite quickly degenerated into chaos when the safety car came out after the race’s first suspension failure. After that point, there were four leaders who ascended to the top in a cloud of debris with the final one being Antonio Felix da Costa who scored his first Formula E race win.
The race started off as normally as you’d expect. Sebastien Buemi started the race from the pole and led away from the lights. Things were fairly straight forward for the first 15 laps of the race as Buemi led but couldn’t break away too far from the field.
The race’s complexion changed completely when Karun Chandhok’s race was prematurely ended by a rear suspension failure that spun him into the wall and ended his day. That prompted the safety car to be deployed and the race was close enough to halfway that the field dove into the pits to make the necessary mid-race car swap.
However, despite a lot of practice at safety car procedures, the race director still managed to screw it up by gettting a bunch of mid-fielders stuck between Buemi and the safety car during the pit stop cycle. That resulted in a lengthy delay in getting the race restarted.
When the race did resume, all hell broke loose quite quickly. At the same chicane that ended Chandhok’s day, Buemi clipped the wall on the way in. That broke his front suspension and sent him into the wall. That promoted Lucas di Grassi to the lead but he suffered the exact same failure that Chandhok did which sent him into the wall and out of the race.
That promoted Nick Heidfeld to the lead. Continuing the theme of no one will survive after a few laps on the point, Heidfeld got dinged for a drive-through penalty for exceeding the 50 km/h pit lane speed limit. Series officials waited something like 15 laps to make that announcement but a penalty is a penalty.
That left Antonio Felix da Costa as the highest remaining survivor of this race. While everyone behind him was busy playing bumper cars for a podium position, da Costa was able to be the big survivor of the day. I’d say that he was the big winner but there were no winners, only survivors.
Da Costa’s win makes him the fourth driver in four races to win a race. He does only climb to 6th in the points standings as a result of missing the first race in Beijing. Nicolas Prost somehow managed to get to 2nd after Jaime Alguersuari, Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Abt were all argy-bargied out of the way by each other. Nelson Piquet Jr. was the other big beneficiary from the podium battle collisions as he scored his 2nd straight podium.
Speaking of Alguersuari, he managed to hold onto 4th. Bruno Senna started in 19th but managed to make his way up to round out the top five. JEV was looking good for second late in the going but seemed to lose most power to fall to 6th. Sam Bird was on course for a podium before a penalty for exiting pit lane while it was closed dropped him to 7th. Nick Heidfeld’s drive-through resulted in an 8th. Oriol Servia hasn’t scored a top five this season but his 9th makes him the only driver to score points in all four races this season. And Stephane Sarrazin rounded out the points in 10th. He would have finished 11th but Salvador Duran was excluded from his 8th place finish for exceeding maximum power usage.
The first scandal in Formula E’s short history broke in the week prior to the Buenos Aires ePrix. Franck Montagny’s absence at the last ePrix wasn’t because of illness as his team had stated. He was under suspension for a positive drug test.
He was selected for a drug test after the Putrajaya ePrix and tested positive for a derivative of cocaine. Montagny told French newspaper L’Equipe that, “In my head, I knew immediately. I knew it was over.”
Montagny has been placed under suspension until such time as the FIA hands down their official sanctions. He also expects that his career could be over as a result of the violation. The FIA’s anti-doping regulations are contained in Appendix A to their International Sporting Code. The Article on sanctions is written in legalese but it appears that Montagny could face either a two or four-year ban from competition based on this incident.
He’s a good driver and can probably make a go of it in sports cars when he returns from suspension. First, though, he did the crime and must do the time.
While the Montagny story didn’t have to do specifically with this weekend’s ePrix, there was controversy at this weekend’s race. Maybe I just find it controversial but there were definitely issues that need addressing in the two-month break before the Miami race.
The biggest problem is the fragility of the suspensions. While it’s all well and good that the cars aren’t indestructible when hitting the walls and can occasionally bounce off them in qualifying, the last two races have been marked by lead cars retiring because of suspension failure. Jean-Eric Vergne’s challenge in Punda del Este ended on the penultimate lap with a suspension failure while Lucas di Grassi had a rear suspension failure that sent him into the wall in Buenos Aires. Karun Chandhok suffered the exact same failure in the exact same spot only a few laps prior.
While motorsports will never be 100% safe, that doesn’t mean that a car with a known flaw that endangers those driving it and other competitors on the grid should be allowed on the circuit without the problem being addressed. The SRT 01E that is the series’ spec car has a well-established suspension problem that is sending cars into walls and endangering twenty drivers.
If this isn’t addressed in the ludicrously long two-month break, the drivers should strike at the next race and refuse to participate. After all, this is only a second or third job for most of them. It’s not worth their lives.
The safety car and penalty procedures also need some examination. Jean-Eric Vergne was leading that race for a while except that he wasn’t because no one knew who the leader was. In Formula One, if the leader isn’t behind the safety car, everyone is allowed to pass it before the leader is the first in line. Nobody told that to Formula E’s unnamed race director.
Formula E also suffers from Formula One’s inability to timely enforce rules. Nick Heidfeld had the race won until a speeding penalty that was announced some dozen laps after the infraction happened. Sam Bird would have been disqualified in an F1 race for running the red light at pit out but only got a drive-through here. Somehow, Salvador Duran fell victim to a penalty for exceeding maximum power when the spec car’s ECU (or equivalent) should have taken car of that for him. The officiating is another gong show that’s an embarrassment to motorsports. It’s more than the musical chairs of drivers that’s making this series an afterthought.
Is it just me or does anyone else have a hell of a time reading the on-board graphics?
The amount of information thrown at you all over the place in confusing, unintuitive and large ways makes it impossible to watch the race, and not just because the graphic takes up nearly a third of the screen. Remaining power is thrown at you twice. There’s throttle position and power output thrown at you separately despite being effectively the same. The speed is a little band running around the left side of the circle graphic. G-Force is hard to read. I don’t know what mapping is but it’s there. Meanwhile, driver name and position are tucked at the bottom with no idea of where they are relative to everyone else. It’s more distracting than helpful.
Also not helping things was the fact that the commentators didn’t have circuit data or map available to them to see how the safety car and pit stop situation looked on track. As a result, they had no idea what the standings were until everyone cycled through a few timing lines before they could say who is leading the race. And that doesn’t include them talking over the team radio broadcasts that the commentators are doing because they aren’t getting notice of unlike their F1 counterparts.
These are all the sorts of things that one could simply chalk up to being a new series. But between the car and officiating issues I noted before and their presentation issues, Formula E still has a ways to go before being able to be widely considered a world championship.
Speaking of coverage issues, poor Bob Varsha. The man is the best race announcer in America but is relegated to doing bumpers for the world feed on a budget broadcast.
Here he is throwing to commercial as Di Grassi hits the wall and the Fox Sports director cuts him off anyway.
It’s going to be a long time before we talk about Formula E again. With the Buenos Aires ePrix in the books, that’s the second of four legs of the season completed. Before we start the third “leg” of the 2014-15 Formula E season and the fifth round of the championship, we have to wait two months. The next round is the Miami ePrix on March 14th.
Based on how this race went, it looks like we have a clear top three runners in the series. Lucas di Grassi and Sebastien Buemi may not have finished in Buenos Aires but were on pace to at least podium if not win the race. Sam Bird could have capitalized if not for his drive-through penalty. Each of them should be considered favourites for the next round, assuming they don’t forget how to drive these cars during their two-month layoff.
While the idea of an open-wheel race in Miami is nothing new, most of the drivers will be new to racing in Miami. The only driver who has raced in Miami is Oriol Servia who ran the two Champ Car races in 2002 and 2003. It probably won’t give him an advantage but that’s a fun piece of trivia for you.