Formula E: Five things we learned from the Mexico City ePrix

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Kenny Campbell
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You want more drama in your motorsport? Try last to first. Try last to first with much less in the tank than the guys behind you. Try last to first and having to replace a rear wing.

If you really want to show off, do it almost a mile-and-a-half above sea level, because that sounds cool.

That’s exactly the performance Lucas di Grassi (pictured) delivered at the 2017 Mexico City ePrix, and it was pretty special.

What did we learn from di Grassi and the Mexican race?

Giving up is for losers

Not much went right for di Grassi (pictured) all weekend but some bold tactical moves and remarkable energy management delivered a genuinely unbelievable result.

Qualifying was appalling for di Grassi in his Abt Schaeffler Audi Sport and, even with other drivers suffering sundry misfortunes, he lined up a lowly 15th on the grid.

Not good.

Di Grassi’s battle to score any points looked to have ended at just the third turn of the race, when Maro Engel hit the back of his car and broke his rear wing.

Not good.

He was forced to pit but, rather than retire the battle-scarred Audi, his mechanics wrestled the damaged wing off – it’s held on with just four bolts but there was a bit of brute force required to get everything off – and got di Grassi back out in last place.

Not good.

But, crucially, di Grassi was still on the same lap as the leaders thanks to a safety car.

A second safety car – triggered by pole-sitter and race leader Oliver Turvey breaking down – gave the Audi strategists another roll of the dice and they opted to swap di Grassi into his second car at the end of lap 17, which was at least a couple of laps too soon to guarantee his batteries would last the race distance.

Such was the pressure di Grassi was under that he almost spun his car entering the garage.

The net result of all this was that, for the last third of the ePrix, di Grassi was an unlikely leader of the race, thanks to those ‘Hail Mary’ pit stops, but was at such a power disadvantage to those behind him that he had very little chance of glory.

Except that he had a friend behind him… well, sort of.

My enemy’s enemy is my friend

Because of his early pit-stops, di Grassi was low on battery power and seemed destined to have to slow and conserve energy, allowing those behind him to sweep past.

The driver in second place – Faraday Future Dragon Racing’s Jérôme d’Ambrosio – had also pitted early and was also down on battery.

If d’Ambrosio (pictured) was worried about having enough power to finish the race, he didn’t show it.

The battle for second place was worth the price of a ticket alone. Techeetah’s Jean-Éric Vergne did his best to pass d’Ambrosio but declared the task ‘impossible’.

However, the tussle for second kept the pressure off di Grassi in the lead, and he was able to save his dwindling battery reserves while d’Ambrosio ran his car down to empty and retired as the race drew to a close.

Without d’Ambrosio holding the rest of the drivers up, di Grassi would have been swallowed up by the pack and either drifted back down the field or run his power reserves down trying to defend.

It’s not always obvious who your allies are in Formula E…

It’s harder than it looks. Much harder

After he crossed the finishing line, di Grassi was interviewed briefly while he was still on track and he sounded utterly drained.

At this level of motorsport, drivers are expected to be super-fit but the mental challenges of Formula E are at least as significant as the physical challenges.

Managing power reserves while maintaining track position is an incredibly tricky balance, particularly when you might also be banging wheels at 100mph+, and there is nothing like the sort of support that Formula 1 drivers get, for example.

An awful lot of responsibility rests with the driver.

Di Grassi was properly breathless at the end of the race. When he did speak, he said: ‘I’m so tired mentally, it was so exhausting…’

Which is just how it should be when you win from last position. But, perhaps more than in any other motorsport, the mental effort can be particularly challenging.

When you are conserving power, every approach to a corner requires a ‘lift-and-coast’, every acceleration is an opportunity to save energy or destroy your power reserves, and Formula E drivers do not have the big teams of strategists crunching numbers on their behalf that we have in F1, for example.

Yes, there are different power modes to employ but, as di Grassi’s exhausted demeanour showed, driving these electric racers isn’t simply a case of flicking a switch and going as fast as you can.

Jaguar are learning fast to go fast

Formula E newcomers Jaguar haven’t had it easy in their first season.

They were the only team to score no points from the opening couple of races and, only four months ago, Autosport was running articles with headlines such as: ‘Is Jaguar Formula E’s worst team?’

On their Mexican performance, the answer to that question is an emphatic no.

Mitch Evans (pictured) piloted his Panasonic Jaguar Racing chariot to an impressive and unpredicted fourth in Mexico – Jaguar’s first points finish, tantalisingly close to the podium.

Team-mate Adam Carroll also scored points, coming home in eighth place which in itself was a huge step forward for Jag.

Evans started 11th and the Jaguars spent much of the race in seventh and eighth, suggesting that they are fast becoming a force to reckon with.

Who says it’s all about speed?

This year, Formula 1’s new regulations have slashed lap times but, so far, also appear to have cut overtaking opportunities too.

Formula E may be more than 25 per cent slower but there’s a ton more action.

And here’s the thing. Much of the best action at Mexico City’s Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez took place when d’Ambrosio was going as slowly as he could, at the head of a five-car queue as he desperately tried (and failed) to eke out his power until the end of the race.

On lap 35, José María López was sitting pretty in third place, looking like his superior power reserves were going to help him to a first-place finish, when he tried to pass the slow d’Ambrosio and promptly spun off dramatically.

On lap 42, the Techeetah of Jean-Eric Vergne (pictured) was now sitting in third, the Frenchman becoming increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of the car in front.

He radioed to his team: ‘This is a ****ing joke…’ and the broadcasters’ bleepers didn’t manage to censor his anger.

The following lap d’Ambrosio locked up, Vergne bumped him and finally moved up a place – d’Ambrosio was about to run out of power anyway.

The battle for second place was utterly enthralling and it wasn’t simply about who was fastest. There were five cars, nose-to-tail (because Formula E aerodynamics aren’t as crippling to the cars behind as F1’s), with different strategies and different amounts of charge remaining – and there was proper racing.

A special mention for Techeetah’s Esteban Gutierrez, making his debut in Formula E and managing to finish in the points.

Gutierrez may have raced in F1 but he was on an extremely steep learning curve in Mexico – made all the more difficult because, as a Mexican, he was under pressure to perform for his home crowd. Job done.

More races like this please, Formula E ­– and roll on the next round, in Monaco.