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Formula E race strategy in Putrajaya

December 1, 2014

There’s no doubt that Round Two of the FIA Formula E Championship provided some great racing, or that winner, Sam Bird, did a great job in dominating the race in seemingly comfortable fashion.

A closer look at some of the numbers however, gives a little bit more insight into a few of the strengths and weaknesses of the teams and drivers during the Putrajaya event.

Laptime on street circuits, through their unforgiving nature, is all about the driver building confidence throughout each session, gradually edging closer to the limits and learning where they can push and where they need to respect the kerbs and walls etc.

In traditional forms of racing, where a series visits street tracks, there may well be two days of practice sessions before it gets to raceday, allowing for that gradual progression as the drivers dial into their groove.

In Formula E however, the tight, compact, single day schedule means drivers need to be straight on the ball in free practice and can’t really afford to step over circuit limits and into the barriers. Not only do they lose valuable and rare track time, but there’s little opportunity for team mechanics to carry out major repairs, before qualifying or the race is upon them._DD36339

Without touching the unforgiving circuit walls, ultimate lap time does come from running mighty close to them, so a driver with confidence in himself and his car on any given circuit has a big advantage. Developing that confidence is the main priority in the first two practice sessions at each event.

Sam won the race through a combination of a decent qualifying lap, albeit two tenths down on eventual pole man Oriol Servia, and promotion after the disqualification of Jerome D’Ambrosio and Beijing carryover penalty for Nico Prost, together with experienced race craft and far superior energy management than anyone else on the grid.

The fact that his qualifying lap was around 7/10ths slower than he went in practice, perhaps says a bit about the more risk-averse approach to the vital qualifying session. His morning time would have actually been good enough for pole by some margin, but the consequences of getting it wrong, considerably more serious.

The race in Putrajaya really highlighted some of the intricacies of Formula E, compared to some other forms of racing.

The all out, blistering pace over one lap in qualifying requires something all together different than the controlled, intelligent and measured approach to the race itself and various teams excelled or struggled in different areas.

From disjointed and troubled beginnings, the two Dragon Racing cars of Servià and D’Ambrosio lead the way in qualifying, showing impressive single lap pace, although the latter was later disqualified for marginally exceeding the permitted power usage. Jarno Trulli too, was a surprise name at the sharp end of the grid, lining up on row two after failing to impress in testing or in Beijing.imageGen.ashx

If these teams are playing catch up, having been late starters when the series first took to the track at Donington, it perhaps showed in Malaysia.

A car that delivers ultimate lap time on a street circuit, perhaps in higher downforce specification, may not be the car to best manage the longevity of the race. Even more importantly, the approach to efficient driving in race mode is also vastly different to that required for a qualifying run.

With the super hard Formula E Michelins, tyre management isn’t so much of a concern in the race, meaning a low drag, low downforce set up will help to extend range without destroying rear tyres before switching to the second car. It does however require the driver to control the car without relying on downforce to help them.

After D’Ambrosio’s elimination, Servià and Trulli disappointed in the race lapping between 0.5 and 1.0sec slower on average than Virgin’s Sam Bird up front, who himself was merely pacing himself for much of the 31 lap eprix.

The really impressive race pace came from the group of pre-event-favourites in Prost, Senna, di Grassi and Buemi, who all found themselves out of ‘natural’ position on the grid for various reasons and yet progressed beyond most expectations in the race to be able to chase down Bird in the closing stages.

The small group managed to move up the field due to a number of incidents ahead of them, but also by moving together as a pack. They all bided their time, much like the peloton in a cycle race, using the tow from the cars in front to drag them forward. They managed their electrical energy well and stayed out, as a group, one lap longer than many around them, pitting on lap 18.

The two early safety cars took away much of the need for extreme energy conservation, but staying out for the extra lap, meant their second cars could run fast to the flag without needing to worry too much about running out of battery power. This impressive group all set their fastest laps in the last part of the race, reeling in cars which stopped earlier and were now having to think twice about using their full 150kw power maps.

For Bird, in front from the safety car restart, he had to focus on his own race and did a great job. After taking the lead he managed the gap well and did the same with the car’s battery. EL0G1550
Being out in front he controlled the pace and energy usage and had plenty in hand when everyone approached the pitstop window from lap 16 onwards.
As many began to stop on lap 17, Sam had good pace and one eye on the group he knew could cause a threat towards the end.
He circulated again, but being the first car round each lap had to decide before the others wether to stop or not. On lap 18 he continued, a move I considered a little risky at the time, for another lap.

The risk became more apparent when the chasing pack all stopped moments later for their second cars. Whilst Sam wasn’t in danger of losing track position on pace alone, the chance of safety cars in street races is high, we’d already seen two earlier in the race.
If someone had got out of shape in their ‘cold’ and relatively unfamiliar second car on an out lap and hit the wall, the race leader, the only man now not to have stopped, would’ve found himself languishing at the back of a very long train of cars once he finally did pit and the BMWi8 safety car returned to the pitlane.???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

As it turned out, he pitted a lap later, with the television graphic showing the car’s battery at 3% and returned unruffled to the front of the field, but the unnecessary risk was present nonetheless.
Whilst the tv battery percentage graphics need to be taken with something of a pinch of salt, it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have been able to go too much further, but with hindsight, on another day it could have caught the team out to great effect.

Marc Priestley
@f1elvis

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