Opening laps don’t get more chaotic than this!
The BMW i Andretti Motorsport team had a Saturday to forget in Marrakesh, with both drivers giving away the chance of a 1-2 victory as they locked up and sent each other off the track.
Formula E returned to Marrakesh this weekend, to the semi-permanent street circuit with its wide, open first sector and tight, technical chicanes and final section.
‘Attack Mode’ – the new feature this season where drivers can drive through a certain part of the track to gain a temporary energy boost – was placed in a much more accessible location on the outside of the long left-hand turn three, and the few short-to-medium length straights allowed drivers to flex this extra power to gain real advantages.
Sam Bird put his car on pole for Envision Virgin Racing, and lead into the first corner before being challenged by the late-braking Jean-Éric Verge, who spun to avoid Bird and fell to last place.
António Félix da Costa chased down his BMW teammate Alexander Sims before passing in turn one in a moved that seemed coordinated by the team.
Da Costa and Sims, in second and third respectively, then chased down Bird as a team, showing the intimidating potential of a successful team strategy.
Da Costa attempted the pass into turn four, which pressured Bird off track, going straight through the corner and giving the position back to da Costa. Sims was quick to capitalise on the vulnerable Bird, and overtook into the next corner.
The BMW team had proven its colours last week, as da Costa took victory in Saudi Arabia. It was clear that this was know BMW’s race to lose, as the last-placed team of the 2017-18 season charged out to a 4.6 second lead.
They were chased by the Envision Virgin Racing pairing of Bird and Robin Fijns, while Jérôme d’Ambrosio positioned himself in a solid fifth behind the two team-pairs.
The Virgin cars began to lose a bit of speed and fell to the back of a four-way battle for third, perhaps the most engaging battle of the entire race. d’Ambrosio, Lucas Di Grassi, Frijns, and Bird squabbled, before Frijns and Bird activated attack mode together, stormed past di Grassi and broke away with d’Ambrosio.
The chasing pack evaporated the previous 4.6s lead held by the BMW pair, coming to almost within a second of Sims before he attempted an overtake on his teammate.
Da Costa seemed surprised or unprepared for Sims’ challenge and locked up, and Sims did the same as he saw the door close. Both drivers drove straight off the track at the left-hand turn seven, and da Costa hit the wall and retired from the race, causing a safety car.
Da Costa told Motorsport.com that he “denied the team a win”.
“I’m sorry – that’s a mistake and a mistake coming from me only.”
The safety car period left a one-lap dash to the finish, with the top five all racing line-to-stern into the penultimate corner. The dramatic images from d’Ambrosio’s real camera showed Frijns ready to pounce inches away from his exhaust.
D’Ambrosio took the victory, his first in Formula E despite having driven in all five seasons, and he was jubilant alongside his Mahindra Racing team.
The main points to note from the weekend are the strategic implications of ‘attack mode’, as well as the emerging dominance of BMW, should both drivers make the finish line in future.
‘Attack mode’ proved its value to the series, forcing teams into different strategies and prompting a mad dash to the finish after a safety-car period, exactly as it had last time out in Ad Diriyah. It will be interesting to see how teams react to races without safety cars, as leading drivers will be forced to lose time in final laps to meet the requirement of using the mode twice per race.
The sheer pace of the BMW cars, coupled with Da Costa’s win last week, show the potential dominance of the team in the 2018-19 season. Once again, the DS Techeetah pairing of Jean-Éric Vergne and André Lotterer proved the strength of their outfit, but were again forced to make their way up through the pack instead of fighting for the lead.
Audi, Nissan, and HWA, preparing for Mercedes branding in 2019-20, wil be pining to compete at the top against fellow manufacture BMW and not be beaten by any non-manufacturer teams.
F1’s Felipe Massa finished last in 18th, while Stoffel Vandoorne and Pascal Wehrlein both retired after suffering damage from early clashes.