Two down, four to go. The six Berlin races that will decide the 2019/20 Formula E Championship title are one-third done already.
There’s been a very emphatic shift in the title fight balance, but that’s not the only big storyline.
Sam Smith delves into events at Tempelhof so far.
Antonio Felix da Costa
This has been sheer dominance the like of which Formula E rarely sees.
Sebastien Buemi’s performance in the first half of the 2015/16 season is about as close as we can compare to what da Costa has achieved so far at the Berlin residency.
He has a confidence so assured that it feels inevitable that he is going to be fastest every time he hits the track and a first title should now be achieved at a canter.
Da Costa dialled into every session and each of the races perfectly.
Word is that the difference is solely down to da Costa
Did he go a bit rogue in Wednesday’s race and force DS Techeetah team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne onto the ropes? Maybe a little, but nothing that Vergne would not have done himself had the boot been on the other foot.
The old trope of Formula E being chaotic and unpredictable now feels tired when da Costa hammers home his advantage.
He has harvested something special in the five months since Marrakesh. But just how is he deploying it all to such devastating effect?
Word is that the difference is solely down to him. None of the woolly paddock gossip of some software trickery that allows Techeetah to push incredibly hard from the very start of the race without compromising its energy targets significantly.
It could be the combination of the quirky Michelin tyres and the unique surface of Tempelhof combining to produce a very narrow performance zone that da Costa is hitting. His rivals are less suited to it and they can’t switch on the tyres as effectively.
Whatever that magic ingredient is, da Costa is making the most of it. Perhaps the two seasons across 2015-17 when he struggled with elderly equipment at Andretti Autosport has quarried an inner strength that he is now exercising.
Then there is the owl-like presence of new team manager Nigel Beresford, who brings racing experience that money simply cannot buy.
Operationally DS Techeetah is stronger this season and with a bullet-proof tech team led by Leo Thomas and the powertrain gurus at DS Performance, the surfing mad da Costa is riding one major wave of confidence, skill and success at the moment.
His nearest challenger needs to score an average of 17 points in each of the last four races with da Costa non scoring. That’s effectively coming second, or perhaps third, with pole positions in every race while da Costa has nightmare upon nightmare.
Nissan e.dams arrived in Berlin in a curious limbo-like state, somewhere between occasional podium contender and sharp-ended midfielder.
Modest points had been collated against a backdrop of a fresh start to its Gen2 technical evolution after the infamous ‘Twin-MGU-gate’ technical controversy of last season.
In Berlin it began much the same as it had in the first leg of the 2019/20 season: there or thereabouts, and getting a reasonable points haul with Buemi in seventh after an unobtrusive but traction impacted run.
Those rear tyre issues were licked for Thursday’s race and a buoyant Buemi even talked of challenging da Costa had it not been for the misfortune of an ill-timed attack mode deployment just before a full course yellow flew.
“In terms of pure pace we were not too far I would say. It feels like a win today,” he said.
“We basically had huge issues with the rear tyres [on Wednesday]. After three laps, we had no more rear tyres and I couldn’t really keep up with the other guys.
“Today we changed completely the philosophy of the set-up to try to save the rear tyres more and it’s somehow paid off properly.”
The coming races will be high on expectation for Buemi and Oliver Rowland – the latter has to start delivering big points to match the major promise he has shown since being thrust into action as Alex Albon’s replacement ahead of last season.
Envision Virgin Racing
It was an upbeat purple-clad squad that left the imposing confines of Tempelhof on Thursday night after gathering the third best points haul of the day.
It was hard-fought too, as both Robin Frijns (for once this season leading the Envision charge) and Sam Bird ducked and weaved their way through the classic bully boys of Edoardo Mortara, Lucas di Grassi, et al to move up the order to join an Audi 3-4-5 battle royale in the closing stages.
— ABB FIA Formula E World Championship (@FIAFormulaE) August 5, 2020
This added to the fine third place for Bird on Wednesday when he drove a typically well-judged run but rued slightly a lost chance to despatch Andre Lotterer’s Porsche towards the end of the race.
The team is in something of a transition due to the fact it will say an emotional farewell to Bird next Thursday.
It is a situation that, in fact, will bring the best from the ever professional Formula E ever-present driver. This is because of Bird’s compelling desire to claim one more victory, to add to the nine he has already secured with the team.
Envision still heads powertrain suppliers Audi in the standings by eight points, which will be a key target to maintain in the final races.
Nyck de Vries
The Mercedes driver has been a revelation in his rookie season and in Berlin he has so far presented a microcosm of his team’s quick but fragile season to date.
A slightly nutty attempt at community service by pushing his own car out of the way was not appreciated by race director Scot Elkins or subsequently the stewards, but there was still something endearing about the Dutchman’s ‘can do’ attitude however misguided.
— ABB FIA Formula E World Championship (@FIAFormulaE) August 6, 2020
Some of his defensive manoeuvres on the track though are equally unappreciated by his peers and this was evident particularly in Wednesday’s race.
Still, the pace and the qualifying speed are effervescent and there is little doubt that de Vries’ fourth place on Wednesday was further evidence that he is on the cusp of a major result.
He’ll loath the term ‘super-sub’ as much as he hates Spurs as an Arsenal fan, but Alex Lynn can shake off that tag should he continue to deliver the kind of qualifying performance he did to take third on the grid yesterday.
A few laps at a Bedford Aerodrome shakedown last week is hardy the greatest of preparations but Lynn has found the tight-knit Mahindra team a refreshing change from the often disorientating confines of former employer Jaguar. He has also pulled some major shifts at the team’s Banbury based driver-in-loop sim to ensure he can grasp another big chance in Formula E.
Despite the qualifying heroics yesterday, Lynn’s race was disappointing and he freely acknowledged this to The Race – explaining that a conservative early strategy had “bitten us in the backside a bit”.
“It compromised the race a little bit in the first few laps, but after that I’d say that pace was OK, but strategically we got outmanoeuvred a bit.”
Lynn, effectively on audition for a 2020/21 race seat, has had a strong start, particularly when considering the lack of practical familiarity he has with the present Mahindra package.
Spare a thought for Lotterer.
One time convivial team-mate of Vergne at DS Techeetah, he often had at least parity with, and on occasion the beating of the double champion.
A year on from his inevitable defection to Porsche, he is building something exciting with his old LMP1 colleagues.
Defying the odds on a 38-year-old triple Le Mans winner duking it out with the freshest talents on the block, his commitment in qualifying is breathtaking.
In Berlin on Wednesday Lotterer delivered. He did so after a stealthy ascent which initially duped many, me included, into thinking that Porsche’s pace had disappeared.
Truth was that it was focusing on cracking its long run pace. It worked on Wednesday.
Lotterer drove a superb race and took a fine runner-up position, mirroring the miracle of Diriyah and Porsche’s unforgettable debut podium.
The form didn’t really carry over to Thursday as much and perhaps that was a legacy of Porsche’s lack of data on certain vehicle dynamic quirks in Formula E, especially on a surface such as Tempelhof that it is racing on for the first time.
Still, if you take points on a mediocre day, it can’t be that bad. For a rookie team, that bodes well for the final four races.
Can a driver delaminate in front of your very eyes?
Vergne appeared to over the last few days, although it was far from 100% his own fault.
Caught short by da Costa’s rapid pace, Vergne struggled to respond. A degree of paranoia and frustration dovetailed corrosively on Wednesday.
That was when a supposed pace plan was cast aside and it gave da Costa a clear run to the flag, while Vergne languished in a spiral of incident as the chasing pack swallowed him whole.
On Thursday Vergne had a look in his eyes. It was the same you could see at New York last July, when after a shambolic Saturday, he rocked up on Sunday and did what he had to do to claim another title with clinical effect.
But it didn’t work this time. Another fractured race garnered a mere point and Vergne will be scrabbling to gather himself and regroup and hold some dignity to what has so far been an underwhelming campaign with race winning equipment.
BMW i Andretti
BMW is putting a brave face on it but its ambitions to a least challenge for the teams’ title this season are in tatters.
A disqualification, a team error that cooked a battery and an impetuous shunt for Maximilian Guenther have conspired to hand DS Techeetah a black and golden baton that has been gratefully accepted for it to sprint home for a second consecutive title.
Crucially, the second Diriyah race apart, BMW has not had both Alexander Sims and Guenther in the same sphere of big points opportunities, or when it did it was squandered.
The first Berlin weekend was supposed to be when BMW stepped up to the title challenge but instead it has collated two points from two starts and faces a major fight to chase for a runner-up position.
If BMW’s midweek horror show made many flinch, Jaguar’s insipid display perplexed most observers to the point of shock.
Mitch Evans has been a consistent threat this season and on occasions – Mexico City and Marrakesh – the clear class of the field.
So how can a drop off so severe happen so quickly?
The jury hasn’t even convened yet because Jaguar was just as perplexed yesterday.
It appears to have been not only been caught by the Audi powered machines but also by Nissan, Mercedes and one Porsche. That’s nine cars!
Can Jaguar all of a sudden really be a midfield also-ran?
From the Berlin reverse evidence, yes it is, and the evidence is there for all to see because it has slipped to seventh position in the teams’ standings, exactly the same position it finished last season in.
Evans’ stablemate James Calado had a written off Wednesday due to technical issues and then had to serve a penalty for a battery software infringement.
He is unlikely to see the season out, as Tom Blomqvist, holed up in the teams simulator this week, is set to replace Calado – who will bid Formula E farewell as he heads for the World Endurance Championship paddock at Spa next week.
There was a brief flash of optimism on Thursday afternoon as Felipe Massa attacked the Tempelhof track and qualified a respectable 10th. It was much needed.
A decent if not spectacular lap, Massa built a strong platform for the race.
He was doing a good job and pressuring Lynn for 11th position when it became clear a software glitch had erroneously given Massa and the team unreliable energy data.
It was clear he was not going to make the finish and with a lap to spare his day was done and he parked his car.
Two points from seven races in a car in which team-mate Mortara has delivered 36 doesn’t look good for Massa.
A day before he had ended his race in the barriers while battling with Stoffel Vandoorne for ninth place.
A curious braking episode was mentioned by the driver but team principal Susie Wolff described it as “a difficult first race for us with Felipe crashing out when he was set to finish in the points”.
Massa has the capability to get strong points but he’s running out of time to achieve it. If he is unable to then his position in Formula E will become even shakier for next season.