Antonio Felix da Costa claimed victory in the inaugural Ad Diriyah E-Prix held in Saudi Arabia as the new era of Formula E kicked off in the Middle East. And it’s fair to say the season started in typical Formula E style: chaotic.
Unusually for the all-electric series, it started off with rain falling. It was such heavy rain that the undulating track was unable to cope with the amount of water falling, and practice was delayed.
Eventually practice one was cancelled and merged into practice two before qualifying was disrupted. Instead of four groups of five or six cars, group one and group three merged to make group A and groups two and four merged to make group B. There would also be no Super Pole Shootout given the now tighter schedule Formula E runs at to incorporate the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy.
It seemed like group A – running first on a drying track – would have be at a disadvantage due to the track conditions.
But group A is where pole position came from: BMW i Andretti Motorsport’s da Costa setting a 1m17.728s to take a front row start ahead of Dragon Racing’s Jose Maria Lopez (NIO’s Tom Dillmann was second but was disqualified from qualifying for doing too many laps).
Team-mate Alexander Sims had been the one taking the headlines from pre-season testing in Valencia by topping the timesheets. But as everyone was quick to point out: Valencia is not a typical Formula E circuit, even with an added chicane – there is plenty of run-off and you can abuse track limits. Abuse track limits in Formula E and you’ll, generally, end up in the wall.
But not long after da Costa claimed his first Formula E pole position, it all so nearly went wrong for the Portuguese driver.
Lining up on the grid, he managed to overshoot his grid box and miss it completely. Disaster? Almost. He managed to reverse back and make it to the grid box this time, albeit pointing left.
With no time left to correct it for a second time, da Costa had to start with his car pointing towards the wall. Luckily he got away with the embarrassing mistake and held onto the lead through the official Turn 18 (the first turn after the starting grid) despite pressure from Jose Maria Lopez.
Da Costa’s charge to the win was not an easy one, though, despite winning from pole position.
After Lap 6 he led Jean-Eric Vergne by three seconds, with Vergne in third and 1.9s behind Sebastien Buemi in second place. Buemi was falling back as da Costa made his escape up the road; eventually pulling 2.1s clear of second place on lap 10 – by which time Vergne had move into second place with a stunning move around the outside of Turn 18.
Vergne was able to close the gap over the next four laps before making a move for the lead on the 13th lap of the (what would turn out to be) 33-lap race. The pace of the Techeetah, shown below in the chart, meant da Costa started losing time to the reigning champion.
Based on each team’s fastest lap during the race expressed as a percentage – 100% being the fastest – Techeetah had the fastest car while BMW appeared to have the third fastest car – almost a percentage point behind Techeetah.
Meanwhile, behind, there appeared to be another problem for da Costa: Andre Lotterer.
Lotterer was the faster of the two Techeetahs at this stage of the race. And as Lotterer’s Techeetah team-mate passed the BMW i Andretti Motorsport car of da Costa, Lotterer was only four-tenths-of-a-second behind.
While da Costa was able to extend the gap briefly to 1.4s by lap 18, Lotterer closed back up and when they crossed the line four laps later, the gap was measured in the hundredths of a second rather than tenths.
Lotterer had enabled Attack Mode and had roughly three minutes of usage left as he performed the switch-back move on da Costa at the final corner, a 90-degree right-hander. Lotterer was comfortably ahead as they approached Turn 1.
Suddenly the Techeetah pair were on for a one-two finish in the inaugural Ad Diriyah E-Prix.
Until both drivers were penalised for “The level of charge power available is progressively increased as the pack discharges from 100% SoC [state of charge]”.
Both drivers took their drive-through penalties, coming back out in fifth and seventh, as da Costa re-took the lead of the race.
He used the lack of traffic to pull out a gap. The gap between da Costa and Vergne on lap 24, after Vergne had served the drive-through penalty, was 14.2s with Jerome d’Ambrosio, Lopez and Buemi between them.
A late full course yellow turned into a safety car deployment to recover Lopez’s stricken Dragon after his suspension broke on the rear left of the car. It bunched the field up but da Costa and Vergne both had an Attack Mode activation up their sleeve, as did Jaguar Racing’s Mitch Evans and Lotterer back in sixth place.
Mahindra’s d’Ambrosio and Nissan’s Buemi had used both their activations so while da Costa, Vergne, Evans and Lotterer activated it at the end of the safety car period and therefore had access to 225kW of power, d’Ambrosio and Buemi were stuck at the standard 200kW.
Da Costa pulled a gap of 2.2s to Vergne with just two laps left, and it looked comfortable for the BMW driver. But Vergne fought back, gaining seven tenths on the penultimate lap to reduce the gap to 1.5s. And on the final lap, Vergne was over a second faster with the pair crossing the line just half a second apart.
D’Ambrosio held off Evans despite his power disadvantage to take his maiden Mahindra podium with Evans in fourth while Lotterer felt the penalty of his drive-through by finishing in fifth when a Techeetah one-two looked possible halfway through the race.