When the Formula E circus arrived at Tempelhof Airport for the double-header Berlin ePrix, there were few who would have bet against Sébastien Buemi running away into the lead and adding another two ePrix victories to his season three tally.
But instead the weekend saw Buemi forced onto the back foot almost immediately, as his Renault powertrain appeared to suffer a serious lack of drivability around the Tempelhof circuit compared to the likes of Mahindra and DS Virgin. Buemi was fastest in first practice but only a scruffy ninth in the second session, and when qualifying for race one came around he was not only knocked out in the group stages but lined up well off the mark in fourteenth position.
His woes were compounded when title rival Lucas di Grassi went on to claim his second pole position of the season, thus taking three points out of Buemi’s lead before the first race had even begun.
When the lights went out it looked as though it was only a matter of laps before di Grassi took another bite from that lead to the tune of 25 points for victory. The Brazilian was unopposed off the line thanks to second-placed starter José María López faltering and slipping back down the order, and with free air ahead of him set about stretching his legs ahead of Mahindra’s Felix Rosenqvist and Nick Heidfeld, who duly assumed the remaining podium positions at the start.
But although di Grassi was able in the early stages to lead by over two seconds, he was forced to back off as high battery temperatures and tyre wear began to affect his ABT Schaeffler-Audi. As the race approached its midway point, di Grassi’s lead over Rosenqvist had been reduced to nothing, and on the lap before they entered the pits the Swede went around the outside of Turn 1 to assume the lead of the race.
Rosenqvist then held on to that lead for the remaining laps, even extending it to two seconds by the end as di Grassi continued to struggle with the handling of his ABT, and at the end of 44 laps crossed the line to take his and Mahindra’s maiden Formula E series win. Di Grassi held on to second and edged another eighteen points closer to Buemi, and Nick Heidfeld finished third to complete Mahindra’s first-ever double podium.
Initially, Buemi looked to ward off di Grassi’s advances in the standings by making a supreme recovery drive from fourteenth to fifth, netting him ten points. But after the race it was found that all eight tyres on both his cars were below the minimum pressure and Buemi was excluded from the results. With grip and degradation playing such a key role in the race, there’s little doubt that these lower tyre pressures gave Buemi a huge helping hand in passing half the field—though quite how a team as well-oiled as Renault e.Dams allowed such a costly mistake to occur is something of a mystery.
Sam Bloxham/LAT/FIA Formula E
This left Buemi with it all to do in the second race, with the possibility looming over him of losing not only points but even the championship lead to di Grassi. But any signs that the defending champion was feeling the pressure had apparently disappeared overnight. In the second round of qualifying Buemi looked his usual self again as he planted his Renault on the front row of the grid—despite there being nothing he nor anyone could do to stop Saturday’s winner Rosenqvist from storming to Sunday’s pole.
Nevertheless, that front row start turned out to be all Buemi needed to return to the top step of the podium. Although Rosenqvist remained out in the lead from lights to flag, a strategy stumble in the Mahindra garage saw the Swedish driver almost collect his teammate as he exited the pits, and the resulting ten-second unsafe release penalty meant Buemi had only to keep sight of Rosenqvist’s gearbox to inherit his victory.
Unfortunately for Buemi, however, he and Rosenqvist were also joined on the podium by Lucas di Grassi—the Brazilian had a quiet but profitable second race, rising from seventh on the grid to third at the flag, although he was too far adrift from the front to pick off another position from Rosenqvist’s penalty. Di Grassi’s double podium means that, even with Buemi’s 25 points on Sunday, the gap at the top of the standings has dropped to 32 points, and that could well be enough to change the lead of the championship when Buemi misses the next round in New York.
Rosenqvist also benefited enormously this weekend, not only in taking his first win but in scoring more points in Berlin than at the previous six races combined, and he has surged from sixth to third in the championship. With four races left to go it would take something spectacular for the rookie to form a title bid off the back of his maiden ePrix victory, but there’s no doubt now that he will continue to be a serious contender for seasons to come.
DS Virgin also had an encouraging weekend in Berlin—despite missing out on the podium, both Bird and López made it into the Super Pole shootout on both occasions and converted those starts into two double points hauls for the team, López leading them home with a fourth- and fifth-place finish respectively.
By contrast, Techeetah had an off-colour weekend at best as its cars suffered the same drivability issues as the factory Renault machines. Jean-Éric Vergne could only manage two lower points finishes from his dual Super Pole appearances, whilst new signing Stéphane Sarrazin was unable to get to grips with his new car in time to score points, and took a best finish of eleventh on Saturday.
With the usual form-book shaken up in Berlin, the Formula E title race now heads into the unknown as it prepares to close out with inaugural races in New York and Montréal. There will be many questions over the coming weeks as to whether Renault’s Tempelhof form was a temporary blip, or if Mahindra and ABT can get close enough to the front to spoil Buemi’s party—but whilst we wait for answers, we can at least be sure that the fight for the 2016–17 Championship is still far from over.
James Matthews, Deputy Editor