Zurich ePrix: Di Grassi wins as penalties shrink Vergne’s title lead

Lucas di Grassi ended his season four win drought by rising from fifth to first in Sunday’s Zurich ePrix, while title challenger Sam Bird finished second to slash Jean-Éric Vergne’s championship lead by almost half.

Lucas di Grassi, Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler / Courtesy of ABB FIA Formula E

The race began in mixed-up fashion, with Techeetah’s Andre Lotterer starting well from second to threaten maiden polesitter Mitch Evans off the line. But although Evans managed to defend from Lotterer and drop him back into pressure from third-placed Bird, the Jaguar driver was unable to pull clear of the cars behind as he struggled with rising battery temperatures.

This brought di Grassi right onto the back of the podium pack, once the Audi driver dispatched with Jérôme d’Ambrosio for fourth place. By lap 13 di Grassi had passed Bird at the hairpin—taking advantage of the Briton’s battle with Lotterer ahead to close in on the pair—and three laps later did what Bird was unable to and took second from Lotterer.

With Evans’ battery issues continuing out in front, di Grassi was quickly onto the gearbox of the Jaguar—and on lap 18 the outgoing champion made his move on the run to Turn 1, and breezed past into first place.

Once in the lead di Grassi continued to build a gap to those behind him, and at the end of lap 39 crossed the finish line 7.5s ahead to take his first and Audi’s third win of the 2017–18 season.

Jean-Éric Vergne, Techeetah / Courtesy of ABB FIA Formula E

But while last season’s champion enjoyed his best Formula E weekend since last year’s Montreal finale, current championship leader Vergne suffered huge losses at the Zurich ePrix.

Coming into the weekend with a mathematical chance of clinching the title, Vergne qualified near the back of the grid in 17th while his only remaining rival Bird was set to start from the second row.

Vergne made good progress in the early stages and before the halfway stage had already got his Techeetah up into the lower points. But on lap 17 Vergne came together with Felix Rosenqvist while taking eighth, sending the Mahindra driver into the wall at Turn 1 and triggering a full course yellow to remove the debris.

Felix Rosenqvist, Mahindra Racing / Courtesy of ABB FIA Formula E

This proved to be the defining moment of the race, as shortly after the halfway pitstops it was announced that Vergne—along with Lotterer, Evans and Sébastien Buemi—had been given a drive-through penalty for speeding under the full course yellow.

These penalties drastically altered the order. With fewer than ten laps remaining, Lotterer, Evans and Buemi dropped from second, third and fourth respectively, while Vergne was once more put outside the points after his trip through the pitlane.

Worse still for Vergne, the penalties for those in front meant that Bird was elevated to second place, where the DS Virgin driver finished to add another 18 points to his championship challenge.

Jérôme d’Ambrosio, Dragon Racing / Courtesy of ABB FIA Formula E

D’Ambrosio completed the podium in third, his and Dragon’s first podium since the 2016 London ePrix, while Lotterer held on for fourth.

Buemi recovered from his penalty to take fifth, one place higher than he started, after using his FanBoost to pass Evans in the closing stages—Evans lost a further place to Nick Heidfeld before the end, and finished behind the German in seventh. António Félix da Costa and Oliver Turvey were promoted into the lower points by the penalties ahead and a retirement for Nico Prost, and finished eighth and ninth respectively.

Meanwhile, Vergne fought his way back into tenth place to take the final point of the day. The Frenchman had been set to add another point with the fastest lap, until his Techeetah teammate Lotterer take that honour away in the final stages.

Vergne’s low finish and Bird’s podium mean the gap at the top of the standings is now down from 40 to 23 points with only the double header in New York—which Bird dominated last season—left to go.

Formula E: 2017 Montreal ePrix Preview

The end of the 2016–17 Formula E season is upon us. In a few days time, the chequered flag will fall at the second round of the Montréal ePrix, and the champion of season three will be crowned.

Alastair Staley/LAT/Formula E

Mathematically speaking, there are still four drivers in contention for the title going into Montréal—Sébastien Buemi, Lucas di Grassi, Felix Rosenqvist, and Sam Bird. But as anyone who has followed this season will know, it would take something truly special to see three of those four drivers come out on top come Sunday.

Bird, who was propelled into the top four by his double victory in New York, would need to score every available point this weekend—both wins, both poles and both fastest laps—with Buemi scoring none at all if he has any hopes of taking the season three title. Nor does Rosenqvist have much more margin for error, sitting just four points ahead of Bird and 53 behind Buemi; in fact, this pair will be more concerned by Nico Prost, who at twenty points behind them will be a major threat for third overall.

Di Grassi has the best chance of sneaking through to the title, having both arguably the second-fastest car on the grid and only a ten-point deficit to overcome. However, that gap will likely feel more like a gulf psychologically, considering the opportunity he missed in Buemi’s absence to take the lead of the championship in New York. There is still time for di Grassi to turn things around, but it would take a level of performance the Brazilian has frankly yet to show this season.

Alastair Staley/LAT/Formula E

In the teams’ championship, the top spot is unsurprisingly safe in the hands of Renault e.Dams. ABT Schaeffler Audi, however, will have their hands full fending off Mahindra for second place in what has been by far the Indian team’s best season yet; with just twelve points separating the two squads, another podium for Rosenqvist or Nick Heidfeld could be enough to lift Mahindra to an outstanding best-of-the-rest come Sunday evening.

DS Virgin could move up to take third, providing Bird or José María López can build on the team’s dominant New York performance and recover the 29 points by which they trail Mahindra. The series’ two Chinese teams, Techeetah and NextEV, look set to finish fifth and sixth respectively—an impressive result considering the former is in its debut season and the latter finished last year in last place.

Behind them, the US outfits Andretti and Dragon Racing are locked on thirty points apiece and will both be desperate to break that tie. António Félix da Costa will be especially hungry for points, having yet to score since the season opener in Hong Kong whilst his teammate Robin Frijns sits in twelfth with double the Portuguese driver’s points total.

Steven Tee/LAT/Formula E

But as well as each other, Andretti and Dragon will need to keep their eyes on Venturi and Jaguar, who lurk just two and nine points behind respectively. For Jaguar, the opportunity to finish their first season in Formula E as high as seventh will be a major inspiration for the team, and in particular for Mitch Evans, who has acclimatised to the series quickly in his rookie season and scored the lion’s share of his team’s points.

Jaguar will no doubt need Evans, and Adam Carroll too, to have a strong weekend in Canada if they are to finish above Venturi at the very least. Like Jaguar, the Monegasque team enjoys its own pairing of points-capable rookies in Maro Engel and Tom Dillmann, and Engel especially will be someone of whom the lower midfield teams will be very wary: pumped up from his maiden DTM win in Moscow last weekend, the German should have all the necessary momentum to hunt down those few points his team needs to beat Andretti and Dragon.

Sam Bloxham/LAT/Formula E

Although the sharp end of the two championships looks to be a foregone conclusion in Buemi’s and Renault’s favour, 2017’s inaugural Montréal ePrix still has plenty of room to spring a few surprises. Stay tuned to ThePitCrewOnline for all the action and updates across the weekend.