Punta del Este returned to the Formula E after a one-year gap and it meant the return of one of the most stunning locations on the calendar.
Located near the beach and featuring a track that runs almost parallel to the beach, it was also a challenge for drivers and teams to get right.
And the stunning backdrop, the fast-flowing circuit with high-speed chicanes and a couple of slow corners did not disappoint when it came to on-track action.
Penalties, an early safety car, a nose-to-tail battle that lasted for the entire race, two comeback drives through the field which included a stunning overtake – the race had it all. It did also have a farce when it came to knowing the starting grid, with it not known until half an hour before the race.
The farce of the starting grid was soon forgotten as racing got underway on the Atlantic Ocean coastline, with Techeetah’s Jean-Eric Vergne leading from Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler’s Lucas di Grassi.
Di Grassi was heading into Punta del Este on the back of his first points of the season in Mexico City, picking up a ninth place and a bonus point for fastest lap. Crucially, though, it was a weekend where di Grassi was not heading into the race with a penalty awaiting him.
It was also a weekend where Audi were able to implement the fix they had for the issues troubling di Grassi at the start of the season.
It was arguably di Grassi’s first chance to show his true pace in the Audi, although team-mate Daniel Abt had proved on two occasions the pace of the car when he took wins in Hong Kong and Mexico before an off-track infringement meant the Hong Kong victory was taken away from him.
And prove his pace is exactly what di Grassi did in Punta del Este.
He was second in groups qualifying, behind Vergne, and topped the Super Pole Shootout session. Four drivers out of the five in Super Pole were penalised (di Grassi, DS Virgin’s Alex Lynn and NIO’s Oliver Turvey for track limits and Jaguar’s Mitch Evans for a weight distribution error), meaning Vergne was on pole despite being slowest in the five-car shootout.
After all the penalties were applied, di Grassi lined up second on the grid. He was directly behind Vergne, who got a superb start from pole position to lead the race.
But di Grassi did not allow Vergne to pull away at the front, keeping him in check throughout the entire race.
The largest gap between the two drivers throughout the race, using data provided at the end of each lap, was 2.044 seconds. This came after the pit stop, where di Grassi had to wait for Vergne to pass his garage before he was available to leave after the mid-race car swap.
Within four complete laps, that gap had come down to 0.505s, di Grassi closing the gap with each lap before it stabilised to around 0.3 seconds.
Vergne was able to increase it slightly to half a second before di Grassi closed in again. Only this time, di Grassi was going for the overtake that would secure him the race win. Heading into Turn 17, the pair were side-by-side with the Brazilian on the outside.
Vergne defended in typical fashion, hard but fair, as the pair battled for the win and was able to keep the place heading into Turns 18 and 19. Di Grassi wasn’t done yet, though, with the pair making slight contact in the final corner.
It enabled di Grassi to get alongside Vergne on the run to Turn 1 but, once again, Vergne put his car in exactly the right place to prevent di Grassi getting through. There was more contact at Turn 1 but both were able to continue. It would finish with Vergne taking the win and di Grassi second.
But as these two were battling hard for the win, DS Virgin’s Sam Bird was closing in and joined the battle for the lead briefly. Although he was unable to make an impact on the top two, it was part of an impressive comeback drive for the Brit.
Bird admitted to Just Electric that he needs to improve his qualifying lap. Bird said: “It was a poor lap, just nothing super about it; so I need to improve that, raise my game again, get back into the Super Pole, do the job we know we can do, and then we can race at the front”.
While qualifying at the front helps to fight at the front, it a series where anything can happen it isn’t a necessity. Bird found this out the hard way in Punta del Este, by fighting his way through the field from 10th place to claim a podium spot.
Bird is in the drivers’ title fight, although Vergne is starting to pull away. But in order to stay in the group hunting down Vergne, the British driver cannot afford more qualifying sessions where he ends up mid-pack. Sometimes it is possible to climb through the field; sometimes you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time and your race is over.
It was a good recovery drive from Bird, but there was another comeback drive that was arguably even better.
Step forward, Evans.
The Kiwi put his Jaguar I-Type 2 in Super Pole but was thrown out of qualifying for a technical infringement (the car’s weight distribution was out from 37.5% to 39.5%) – meaning he started in 16th place.
Evans gained two places on the opening lap before steady progress through the field; by Lap 13 Evans was up to ninth and 11.4s off the lead. Even this would have been a decent come back, to secure points, given the strength of the top 10 at this point: Vergne, di Grassi, Lynn, Abt, NIO’s Oliver Turvey, Bird, Maro Engel, Felix Rosenqvist, Evans and d’Ambrosio.
But Evans’ comeback wasn’t finished with two points to add to his tally.
At the end of lap 27, Evans had closed the gap to the front to 6.9s and was running in sixth place.
Another five laps passed and Evans had gained another place with the gap to the leaders now 3.6s. But perhaps the moment of the race from Evans was about to come as he lined up a pass on Virgin’s Lynn.
As the two approached the fast, almost flat-out, Turn 13, Evans dived up the inside of Lynn before the Turn 14/15 chicane. Evans forced Lynn out wide, on to the marbles, to move into fourth place.
Lynn held on to the car to avoid crashing despite being on the marbles.
The downside for Evans was that he’d lost time to the leaders throughout his battle with Lynn but the Kiwi claimed fourth place after starting 16th.
It’s difficult to say where Evans could’ve finished had he not been disqualified from qualifying. But if you can finish fourth after starting 16th, you need to have good race pace to make your way through the field.
It was a successful return to the Formula E calendar for Punta del Este; close racing, superb overtakes and epic comebacks. Hopefully, the second half of the season can follow suit…