Will Formula E's defining rivalry get another chapter? - The Race
Formula E

Will Formula E’s defining rivalry get another chapter?

Jun 17 2021
By Sam Smith

When Lucas di Grassi smashed the wall in the second Rome E-Prix back in April, after contact with old adversary Sebastien Buemi, it was telling that not the merest hint of a flashback to previous battles between the pair that flickered.

The entirely avoidable incident ended di Grassi’s race immediately and ruined Buemi’s. But this latest clash between the two felt more like a haphazard wrestling slugfest than two heavyweight champions trying to land blows on each other in another prize fight.

The fact that Buemi barely bothered to address di Grassi’s inevitable post-race affronts, which included the line, “he (Buemi) was just slow. He was slow all weekend and he was slow also in that specific race,” told its own anti-climactic tale.

The whole incident also appeared to encapsulate the dimming of their respective potencies this season so far. The statistics bear this out conclusively.

Buemi has had his most disappointing season to date. With just 11-points on the board from seven races, the Nissan e.dams driver has just two drivers below him (Norman Nato and Tom Blomqvist) in the overall points table at present. A fifth and 10th place in Rome is the only time he has troubled the scorers.

His season has been a story of irascible performances that are so opposite to the usual consistent peaks associated with Buemi.

Sebastien Buemi (che), Nissan E.dams, Nissan Imo2

Even in season four (2017-18), when the Renault powertrain advantage had long since been swallowed up and overtaken by its competitors, Buemi delivered results above and beyond the call of duty to earn a brilliant fourth position in the final standings.

Now, such heroics appear beyond him, or so the first seven races would suggest.

They tell a story of missed opportunity and some misfortune on occasion, such as at Valencia when he was torpedoed by an errant Andre Lotterer. But on the whole, the qualifying magic we once came to expect just hasn’t been there.

This has been highlighted by a general sense of the erratic. Compared to team-mate Oliver Rowland, Buemi has seldom delivered in qualifying, something which he has previously been able to excel at.

Sebastien Buemi (che) Nissan E.dams, Nissan Imo2 Retires From The Race

Five to two down against team-mate Oliver Rowland in the all-important qualifying stats, Buemi has not been on terms with his most direct opponent this season and that is a major surprise, especially as there have been so many small mistakes with big outcomes.

Should it continue then it might also be a little awkward in the context of the Nissan e.dams internal make-up for next season. While Buemi has a lucrative contract, which runs to the summer of 2022, his team-mate Rowland is believed to be negotiating an extension, although is considering his options as well.

Rowland’s deal is thought to be much less commercially rewarding at present but it is he who is bringing home the performances and the points right now and has three times the points that Buemi has managed to muster.

Whether Buemi’s difficulties are just a natural dulling of the brilliant glow that’s illuminated Formula E for so long, or perhaps more realistically a combination of sporting and technical small factors affecting his performances is hard to know right now. Either way, he needs to halt the slide fast even just for his own robustly high standards which he has always been intensely fastidious upon.

A few weeks ago the clock ticked through to May 25. In so doing it became two years since Lucas di Grassi and the Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler team last won an E-Prix.

Lucas Di Grassi (bra) Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler, Audi E Tron Fe07

A year is a long time in politics, or so they say. In motorsport, it is an age to go unfulfilled in the winner’s circle, especially for a manufacturer that expects success.

Di Grassi’s history in Formula E since then has been one of consistency, especially in meagre qualifying performances. These have been offset slightly by many brawny and brilliant races through the field but it’s not been enough.

“The big dogs still have plenty of bite and despite being poles apart in character and manner they still have this peculiar habit of mirroring each others form at the best and the worst of times.”

In the 21 races held since Berlin in 2019 he has finished 19 of them and scored points in 16! That is a remarkable series of results but unfortunately for di Grassi, only two of those 16 points scoring events have involved him taking part in podium protocols.

It has all constituted in a highly frustrating period and one in which the fractious side of di Grassi has bubbled to the surface on more than one occasion. At the same time, and to his huge credit, he has also never given up and has excavated some thrilling fightbacks, notably in Monaco when he took a point from a lowly 17th grid start.

Ultimately though the reason why he has been rooted to an average grid start of 15th, the second-worst on the whole grid, is why he is 19th of the 24 drivers in the points table right now.

Lucas Di Grassi (bra) Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler, Audi E Tron Fe07

It would be easy to say di Grassi is far from the force he was in the first three seasons of Formula E but the nuances of qualifying especially make it difficult to judge. What is easier to assimilate is that the Rome weekend in April was by far the most encapsulating of both the Brazilian’s occasional ill-luck and his often overly aggressive outlook.

The fire is still there, evidenced by his reaction to the still unexplained technical failure that stopped him while in the lead partway through the first Roman encounter.

The volley of fury from the cockpit that day caused team principal, Allan McNish to “pull the radio headset off when he was on the radio shouting because I’ve been there and in those situations many times before.”

While these frustrations appear to be with no end for Audi, the constant reminder that at least one of its powered cars is atop the points table and delivering podium positions is there in front of them in the hue of royal purple.

Robin Frijns’ Envision Virgin Racing Audi is way ahead in terms of qualifying performance and only once (for the second Diriyah race) has been in what can be termed a more advantageous qualifying group.

For two of Formula E’s historically most successful drivers their accruing of further points, poles and wins might be receding ineffectiveness. But the big dogs still have plenty of bite and despite being poles apart in character and manner they still have this peculiar habit of mirroring each others form at the best and the worst of times.

Lucas Di Grassi (bra) Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler, Gets Into His Car

If the former of those spells is to come back to them they have to find form quickly throughout the entirety of an E-Prix day, especially for di Grassi who as it stands does not have a seat for 2022. He claims to have many options but there are those that dispute this in the paddock right now.

Should the qualifying spell be broken and the Brazilian not have to cut through the pack then only fools would bet against him not reviving a big result.

Should he do so, it would only be natural for Buemi to be somewhere in his vicinity at the same time so the good old times can roll again.

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