Just Electric

Wehrlein shows his class in Santiago scorcher

Two races into his Formula E career and Pascal Wehrlein is already making a name for himself in FIA Formula E.

It was a difficult start for the Mahindra Racing driver as he was unable to race in the season-opener in Ad Diriyah for contractual reasons.

And his first race ended in Marrakesh at Turn 1 when he got hit trying to avoid Jean-Eric Vergne’s spinning DS Techeetah. One thing that stood out for Wehrlein in Marrakesh was his qualifying pace.

Wehrlein’s seventh on the grid was a good performance for the young German driver who hadn’t yet experienced the unique format of a Formula E qualifying session: out-lap, 200kW lap, 250kW lap, in-lap.

In the scorching heat of Santiago, Wehrlein improved on his qualifying.

A spectacular lap in groups qualifying meant he topped the times after all 22 drivers had set a time and while his Super Pole Shootout time was slower and he qualified third out of the top six, Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler’s Lucas di Grassi was disqualified following a technical infringement and so Wehrlein started in second.

Such an early stand-out performance in Formula E qualifying early on in a career is difficult to achieve – perhaps Edoardo Mortara qualifying second for Venturi in his second race in Hong Kong (also his first podium in the series) or Vergne, then driving for Andretti, taking pole position in Punta del Este on debut the comparable performances.

It’s performances like this that showed why he was a member of the Mercedes junior programme for so long and had two seasons in F1, scoring points for Manor and Sauber in cars that were uncompetitive.

His qualifying lap in groups qualifying was reminiscent of former Mahindra Racing driver Felix Rosenqvist. It was aggressive, sideways, full of flair, a fair amount of sliding and you weren’t really sure whether or not he would end up in the wall.

Wehrlein didn’t end up in the wall (something Rosenqvist also managed to avoid doing a lot of the time) and he ended up fastest after all 22 drivers had set a time.

He was unable to repeat the feat of being fastest in Super Pole – partially because di Grassi’s lap in that shootout was equally as stunning, and partially because of a massive slide at Turn 7 cost him more time – and qualified in third before being promoted to the front row, behind Nissan e.dams’ Sebastien Buemi.

In the race, Wehrlein was able to hold his own against Buemi and Envision Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird before Bird used a different Attack Mode strategy to get by on Lap 10, using his extra power down the start-finish straight to pass the Mahindra driver into Turn 1, a faster right-hander that didn’t allow much room for error.

Wehrlein responded by using his Attack Mode the lap he was passed, which was, in hindsight, the wrong strategy to use. Although Wehrlein was able to keep pace, he was not able to pass Bird back and remained in third place.

Buemi, Bird and Wehrlein were all pulling away from the chasing pack, making it a three-way fight for the win. Buemi was in control until he crashed on Lap 21 of the 36-lap race, which is when Bird and Wehrlein made it a two-way fight.

Bird extended the gap to a maximum of 1.7seconds from Wehrlein by Lap 25, with both drivers keeping their second Attack Mode activation until later in the race.

When Wehrlein used Attack Mode for the final time, he put pressure on Bird for the win. Six laps after the gap was 1.7s, Wehrlein had made up 1.5s – plus the time he lost from activating Attack Mode – to close the gap to just two tenths of a second.

It looked like Wehrlein might be able to make the move but the searing heat meant he had to back off. Battery management was always going to be key, with the key temperature of the battery being 72C. If the battery hit this level, it would spell disaster for the drivers as they’d start losing pace, and lose pace dramatically.

Wehrlein backed off, knowing he had a gap to BMW i Andretti Motorsport’s Alexander Sims was a long way back – 8.5 seconds when Wehrlein was at his closest to Bird – and eventually finished 6.5 seconds back from Bird.

The gap to Bird doesn’t reflect Whelrien’s performance throughout the 45-minute race, especially considering it was the first time in Formula E he had got past the opening lap.

Despite the ragged qualifying lap, and superb race performance, it’s probably unfair to compare him directly to Rosenqvist.

But his performances so far have shown he can emulate the Swedish driver in building a ‘new’ career after success in FE. Rosenqvist had been fast in various cars throughout his career, and claimed the FIA European F3 title in 2015 – beating 2019 Formula 1 drivers Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo Racing), Charles Leclerc (Ferrari), Lance Stroll (Racing Point), George Russell (Williams) and Alex Albon (Toro Rosso).

After F3, Rosenqvist went around the blocks and drove in Indy Lights, Blancpain, Intercontinental GT Challenge, DTM, ADAC GT Masters and a one-off appearance in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

He proved he was fast in anything but his two seasons in Formula E, where he was consistently fast, landed him an IndyCar seat for 2019.

Perhaps this is on Wehrlein’s mind as he looks to bounce back from ending his Mercedes ties in 2018. But Wehrlein joined in the new generation of FE.

Formula E is his chance to build a ‘new’ career and make himself a star like Rosenqvist did. Perhaps, though, FE will be able to keep hold of Wehrlein for longer than Rosenqvist.

After all, if a driver whose team principal says he wants him to “complete not compete” to gain mileage in his first full race, imagine what he can do when the reigns are off.

 

Jack Amey

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