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A look back at the Formula E season that kicked off and concluded amidst the global lockdown
The past few months brought about many teachings, none as important as the phrase ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ A prime example was the ease with which motorsport adopted the virtual route. However, the FIA-ABB Formula E Race At Home Challenge stood apart from its peers, as from its very conception it played the role of a full-fledged racing series, with athletes across two distinct grids battling it out in a points-based format, with proceeds from both races going to the UNICEF.
The (physical) season got off to a fine start with the double-header (November 22-23, 2019) at Diriyah where the first e-prix saw Envision Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird who took the win, with Tag Heuer Porsche’s Andre Lotterer coming in a close second and Mercedes-Benz EQ’s Stoffel Vandoorne in third place, while the next race saw BMW iAndretti’s Alexander Sims take the victory, with Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler’s Lucas Di Grassi taking second place, and Mercedes-Benz EQ’s Stoffel Vandoorne coming in third.
This was followed by the Santiago e-prix, where BMW iAndretti’s Maximilian Gunther took the win, followed by DS Techeetah’s Antonio Felix Da Costa and Panasonic Jaguar Racing’s Mitch Evans, who took the pole position, rounding off the grid. The fourth e-prix, at Sanya (China), was postponed as a precaution against the Coronavirus epidemic. Hence, the next race was held at Mexico City, where Evans took the win, edging out Da Costa, and Nissan E.Dams’ Sebatien Buemi took the third spot.
Da Costa, however, was vindicated at Marrakesh, where he took both the pole position as well as the win, with Gunther coming in second and Da Costa’s DS Techeetah teammate Jean Eric Vergne rounding off the podium. The next race, set to be held on April 4, 2020 in Rome, was called off as a consequence of the ongoing health emergency in Italy. This was swiftly followed by a joint decision from the Formula E and FIA to temporarily suspend the Formula E season.
After about a month’s gap, which no doubt may have consisted of the organisers keeping a keen eye on both the trend of the disease now officially considered a pandemic, the Formula E racing action was back, However, this time around we had a brand new format. Christened the ABB Formula E Race At Home challenge, the race now featured all the teams and drivers from the ABB FIA Formula E championship as well as a selection of the world’s fastest gamers in two distinct grids, the Driver grid consisting of the stars of the Formula E Championship competing head to head, and the Challenge grid, formed in part by open online qualifiers, featuring a selection of the fastest gamers and influencers on the esports scene. Through the medium of the races, the Formula E manufacturers, drivers and fans will be raising funds for UNICEF during the coronavirus crisis.
Now, considering the races themselves, we could draw parallels between the Race At Home challenge and the Virtual F1, which had already started on March 22. However, while the Virtual F1 was based on only race victories, the Race At Home challenge consisted of point-scoring rounds.
The online events use the Race Royale format over 15 laps, where the last driver in the end of each lap is eliminated. The pressure will build until only 12 will remain, leaving a single-lap sprint to the finish line. Finally, the season would consist of seven rounds going around leading to a double-header grand finale, held on the weekend of June 6-7, which had double points on offer for the winner and the honour of being the first Race At Home champion. Additionally, in the Challenge grid, the grand final race winner would also win a chance to drive a Gen 2 Formula E car, along with a place in the BMW Sim M2 CS cup finals in Munich.
Going head to head
The first round of the ABB Formula E Race At Home challenge took off on April 25 at the Hong Kong Central Harbourfront Circuit after the test run at Monaco. Being that it was the first time for many racers going through this level of virtual competition, crashes were common. That said, the damage setting here was set at 80 per cent, as opposed to the 25 per cent it was during the test race at Monaco. Lastly, it bears mentioning that being electric, racers here weren’t starting heavier (as there’s no fuel to consider) and weren’t in any need of regeneration (due to the overall low length of the race) which meant they could mostly go flat out all thorough, or as long as the tyre degradation setting (also switched on) would allow.
At the end of round 1, BMW iAndretti Motorsport’s Max Gunther was the winner, with Envision Virgin Racing’s Nick Cassidy in second place and Mahindra Racing’s Pascal Wehrlein in third. The next race, the only one held at a fictitious track (Electric Docks, a 3.2km circuit made up of 18 turns) where Gunther continued his winning streak, the German driver celebrating his second points win of the series and cementing his position as the leader. Envision Virgin Racing's Robin Frijns finished in second place, with Geox Dragon's Nico Mueller in third.
Round 3 went underway on May 9 at the Circuit de Monaco (the Monaco street circuit), where Formula E has raced since its inception five years prior. Here, both the racers who qualified fastest in their respective grids (Mahindra Racing’s Kevin Siggy in the Challenge grid and Pascal Wehrlein in the Drivers’ grid) also took the respective race wins. Round 4, back at the Hong Kong Central Harbourfront Circuit, had the added element of rain. Both the winners from previous round’s qualified second over here. However, while Siggy came in third here (with Tag Heuer Porsche’s Lucas Mueller winning and BMW iAndretti’s Joshua Rogers coming in second), Pascal Wehrlein repeated his feat in the Drivers’ grid, with Mercedes-Benz EQ’s Stoffel Vandoorne in second and Panasonic Jaguar Racing’s James Calado in third.
Past the halfway point, the competition was heating up, especially in the Drivers’ grid. Despite starting on Julius Baer Pole Position for the third time, Vandoorne finished second, with Nissan E.Dams’ Oliver Rowland taking the lead. Over in the Challenge grid, Kevin Siggy once again claimed a pole-to-flag victory, with Petar Brljak in second and Lucas Muller in third. However, what soured the competition were Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler’s Daniel Abt’s actions in the Drivers’ grid race, where he had professional e-racer Lorenz Hoerzig act as a stand-in for him throughout the race. This led to both Abt as well as Hoerzig disqualified from participating, with Abt also ordered to make a compulsory €10,000 donation to charity.
The next round, at the Brooklyn street circuit, saw both Vandoorne and Siggy stamp their authority with facile pole-to-flag wins. While Nissan E.Dams’ Jan Von Der Hyde and Tag Heuer Porsche’s Joshua Rogers were second and third respectively in the challenge grid, Pascal Wehrlein and Oliver Rowland came in second and third, respectively, in the Drivers’ grid race. The very next race, the first one of the double-header, double-points finale, saw the tides turn. Held once again at the Brooklyn street circuit, it saw Wehrlein and Mueller (both flying the Mahindra Racing colours) displaying sensational pole-to-flag victories.
The last race, however, came as a massive upset to both. Mueller qualified second behind Siggy, and despite his best efforts was unable to pass the polesitter throughout the duration of the race. However, his plight was better than Wehrlein, who got caught in a freak accident in corner 4 of the very first lap, causing him to not only spin out and drop all the way down the grid, but also sustain continued damage to his car, which meant he could only manage an eighth-place finish.
Finally, Stoffel Vandoorne and Kevin Siggy were declared the FIA ABB Formula E Race At Home champions. in a As mentioned, Siggy’s win also got him a drive in a real Gen-2 Formula E car, as well as a place in the BMW Sim M2 CS cup finals in Munich.
All in all, this virtual Formula E season had all the thrills (and even some drama) associated with the average on-track racing series. Speaking of which, the calendar for the 2020-21 season for the Formula E has been announced, and after all the excitement witnessed so far, we can’t wait for some tyre-smoking action to resume.