A ten-place grid penalty for championship leader Sébastien Buemi and pole position for his rival, Lucas di Grassi, set up a fascinating scenario for the penultimate race of the Formula E season: the drama that followed did not disappoint.
Di Grassi had a good start, covering the line quickly and preventing Stephane Sarazzin, who also got away quickly, from stealing the lead. Buemi, meanwhile, dropped like a stone through a crowded midfield. Plenty of cars made contact, but a knock from Robin Frijns damaged Buemi’s steering setup. With his steering wheel no longer angled in the same direction as his tyres, the Renualt driver was forced to change how he held the wheel in order to compensate. Not an ideal start.
Elsewhere, Mitch Evans made a move down the inside which put him up into 4th, although he couldn’t hold the position for long. Jean-Eric Vergne moved up into 5th and Nick Heidfeld into 11th, a positive start after such a disappointing qualifying session.
The race would go on to feature a number of overtaking manoeuvres taking place perilously close to the barriers. Early on, Felix Rosenqvist forced Sarrazin to be very defensive in one such attempt, but the Techeetah driver held firm and kept his place.
If Buemi’s plan had been to make up places quickly, no-one around him had read the script. For too long he found himself unable to make a move on the driver ahead for fear of losing a place to the car on his tail. Nose-to-tail, the Swiss driver would usually have carved through the field, but he looked cautious and out of place in the early exchanges.
At the front, meanwhile, Di Grassi had nothing but empty track ahead of him, and soon build up a lead of almost 3 seconds, keeping his pace consistent despite effectively driving out entirely on his own.
A number of battles for position began to develop throughout the field. Tom Dillman had been defending against Heidfeld, but a late move from the Mahindra driver left Dillman out of shape and open to an opportunistic move from Daniel Abt just a few corners later. Abt would then go on to pass Heidfeld after their own short battle.
Two notable gaps had opened up: firstly, several seconds between Di Grassi and Sarrazin, and also between third-placed Rosenqvist and Vergne. The latter looked intentional: JEV was setting some of the fastest lap times, but still had 5% more usable energy than the race leader with 11 laps gone — excellent energy management that suggested Techeetah would run a longer first stint before swapping cars.
Their plans soon went out the window when a botched attempt at defending from Loic Duval saw him squeeze Heidfeld too hard, jamming him into the barriers. Duval was able to spin around and rejoin the race, but would be awarded a drive-through penalty. Heidfeld attempted to return to the pits to fix his broken suspension, but the wheel supports gave way before he could make it, prompting a full course yellow.
Di Grassi immediately pitted, knowing that the FCY would help him to preserve his commanding lead. His car swap was incident-free. Step forward Buemi and Abt.
On pit entry, Buemi was right on the tail of Daniel Abt. He clearly felt that the German driver, and team-mate to Di Grassi, was slowing him down deliberately, gesturing for him to move faster and complaining on his team radio. But the confrontation didn’t end there. Buemi was then released in his new car just as Abt was pulling alongside from the garage immediately behind. Buemi therefore had to put his foot down to get in front, but couldn’t risk breaching the minimum pit stop time. So he then had to quickly break, just ahead of the pit exit, causing Abt to bump into the back of the car.
Again, Buemi’s radio gave us an indication of his frustration at Abt; his anger would have been more fairly directed at the pit crew, who released him unsafely. By now though, he was rattled and letting his emotions dictate.
When the track went green again, Di Grassi continued to hold on to his commanding lead. Buemi, in a car built from the wreckage of his crash earlier in the day, now had a clear target — to make up as many places as possible, and reduce Di Grassi’s points advantage by as much as possible. Turvey was his first target; once past him, Evans was the next man in his sights, now behind Renault team-mate Nicolas Prost.
The two DS Virgin cars suffered faults in qualifying preventing them from setting competitive times. By now, though, they had worked their way up into 8th and 9th positions; and it looked they could improve further. Sam Bird was rapidly gaining ground on Abt. But then José María López lost control and drove into the wall — and the safety car was deployed.
The whole field was now bunched up again, and with excess energy it looked like we would have a sprint to the finish. Di Grassi, now under real pressure from the Techeetahs, used his FanBoost to pull away on the restart and protect his lead. Prost gave way to Buemi to move him up into 5th, but Daniel Abt proved he was not done influencing teh race yet, and was quickly behind Buemi once again to pile on pressure.
A mistake from Rosenqvist meant he picked up damage to his front suspension, and became an awkward rolling roadblock. Buemi could get past, though, and was now starting to look increasingly threatening. With three laps to go, there were now two key battles on track: Vergne, a man desperate for a race win, putting Di Grassi under pressure at the front, and Buemi challenging Sarrazin for third.
A heart-stopping final lap almost saw an incredibly determined Buemi in the barriers, going wheel-to-wheel with the Techeetah driver. But it wasn’t enough, and he crossed the line in fourth.
Back in the pits, there were extraordinary scenes as a furious Buemi began shouting at Antonio Felix Da Costa, in the mistaken belief that he was to blame for breaking his steering on the first lap. When he discovered it was the other Andretti driver, he repeated his tirade at Frijns, only to then find Daniel Abt and admonish him for his behaviour in the pit lane. Meanwhile, Lucas Di Grassi was a picture of calm, and now the man to beat in the title race.
Update: Following post-race scrutineering, Buemi’s second car was found to be 3kg underweight, resulting in a disqualification. The team didn’t have enough time to weigh the car once it had been re-built, but will not appeal against the decision.
- Lucas di Grassi (Abt Schaeffler Audi)
- Jean-Éric Vergne (Techeetah)
- Stephane Sarrazin (Techeetah)
- Daniel Abt (Abt Schaeffler Audi)
- Sam Bird (DS Virgin)
- Nicolas Prost (Renault)
- Mitch Evans (Panasonic Jaguar)
- Robin Frijns (Andretti)
- Felix Rosenqvist (Mahindra)
- Tom Dillman (Venturi)
DSQ: Sébastien Buemi (Renault)
- Lucas di Grassi – 175 points
- Sébastien Buemi – 157 points (-18)
Image: Nicolas Prost © Formula E