Ad Diriyah provided an incredible opener to the Gen2 era of Formula E, in which DS Techeetah looked ominously quick but Marrakesh is expected to provide a clearer view of the running order.
The two Techeetahs of Jean-Eric Vergne and Andre Lotterer were running first and second when they both served their drive-through penalties for exceeding the maximum 250kW of regen.
For the first few laps the pair carved through traffic, seemingly coming from distances that it shouldn’t be possible to pass from.
Talking about an attempted move Vergne put on da Costa on the last lap of the race for the lead, da Costa told Vergne on the podium “You were too far back.” The reigning champion’s response was ominous: “Ask Buemi where I overtook him from.”
“It’s hard to say [why we were so quick],” Techeetah team principal Mark Preston told FormulaSpy, “We just seem to be way more stable and I can’t even describe why we were quicker in Saudi, the drivers just seemed confident in the cars. Mostly confidence.
“Then also I think we chose the right times for Attack Mode and things like that. Others did it early, JEV did it during the drive-through, so it all came together and worked in the right way.
“This weekend we may choose the wrong time to do Attack Mode and someone else takes an advantage that we didn’t see.
“We’ve all been here before, and most teams have run here, it’s more of a traditional race track. All of those things should mean everyone should come closer together.”
They were not the only ones caught out by penalties though. Rookies Felipe Massa, Gary Paffett and Alexander Sims were also penalised for the same infringement. 2016/17 champion Lucas di Grassi and both Envision Virgin Racing drivers Sam Bird and Robin Frijns were thrown out of qualifying for exceeding the maximum power output during qualifying.
This all came out because of the lack of running prior to qualifying due to rain, meaning some teams had not properly calibrated their software. It made for a chaotic race that will unlikely be repeated.
It meant the likes of Audi and Virgin were unable to show their true potential. Di Grassi would have started in sixth had he not been excluded, for example. Instead he crawled back up to ninth place from the rear of the field.
“It was far away from optimal, it’s just sometimes in a situation like that it could happen that you’re not optimised because of cancellations or red flags, so the set-up was not correct,” Lucas di Grassi told FormulaSpy.
“You don’t have time, you have to guess, because from free practice the car is not good and you have one try to qualify and you guess again for the race. So for sure you don’t have the time so we were not on pace.
“With this new format on a track like Riyadh which was almost flat out it’s difficult to make up positions. I was the guy on the grid who made up most positions to ninth. So even if the car or the set-up was not perfect, we’re still okay. We’re still fast and made the points.”
Jaguar also was unable to show what it could do as both Mitch Evans and Nelson Piquet Jr. had their qualifying laps blocked by Felix Rosenqvist’s crashed Mahindra. Evans put in yet another stellar recovery drive to narrowly miss out on the podium once again.
We are assuming that these teams will actually be contenders and although the likes of Daniel Abt struggled for pace during the weekend, a handy post-race test (crucially in the dry) has the potential to shake things up. Techeetah turned its season around this time last year with just one day’s extra testing after Marrakesh, leading it to Vergne’s driver’s title.
But even excluding these factors, the natural outcome of the Ad Diriyah race is left to fantasy because of the late safety car period, which brought Vergne back into the lead contention after serving his penalty.
Under the new timed race format safety car periods are said to have “double the effect” of saving energy, as the clock continues to countdown but much less energy is being used at the lower speeds, unlike during the old lap distance format era.
Had the race played out naturally, we may well have seen the Techeetahs struggle for pace towards the end of the race from using energy early to make up places. Although eventually winner Antonio Felix da Costa believes he would have been resigned to third in such a scenario:
“We would have been third I think, still a good start of the season anyway,” he told FormulaSpy.
“In the race it looked like after the first third of the race when the cars went into full regen the Techeetahs really picked up their pace. Nobody was a match for them.
“It seemed to me from feeling and being close to them that they were very strong on braking. Obviously the track was so dirty from the morning that if you have confidence on the brakes in those conditions it really helps. It seems like their brake-by-wire system is working really well.
“It shows in shakedown. When everyone’s learning the track JEV was half a second in front of everyone and that just shows they have confidence straightaway. I think on a track like this the difference will not be as big as that.”
Marrakesh is set to provide us with a clearer indication of the what the field will look like throughout 2019. It may be a smooth, semi-permanent facility, unlike the majority of FE circuits, but the vast array of corners and long straights make it a good test bed to see where strengths and weaknesses are.
The series has a reputation for competitiveness and changing leaders race-by-race, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.