Marrakesh, Morocco|13 Dec, 2016

Marrakesh ePrix in-depth analysis

It’s been almost a month since the last time the FIA Formula E Championship cars were in action, and with two more months to wait until the on-track action resumes in Buenos Aires, we take a detailed look back to the last round in Marrakesh to deconstruct what we saw play out on track. 

Qualifying

It was a career first Julius Baer Pole Position for Felix Rosenqvist and also the first Formula E pole for the Mahindra Racing team.

But while the Swede did a great job in the Super Pole session, his task was made considerably easier by a misunderstanding in the TECHEETAH pit that resulted in Jean-Eric Vergne being sent out too late to take to the track and set a time.

Given that in the qualifying group stages, Vergne had lapped in 1m20.993s – a full half a second faster than Rosenqvist’s eventual pole time, there was a very strong chance that the Frenchman would have snatched away the top spot but for the failure to send him out of the garage on time.

Other notable qualifying performances came from Daniel Abt in sixth, who was three tenths and six places ahead of his Abt Schaeffler Audi Sport team-mate Lucas di Grassi, which meant for the first time in Formula E, he’d out-qualified di Grassi twice on the bounce.

Nelson Piquet Jr once again demonstrated NextEV NIO’s return to form by making Super Pole, while in the tightest inter-team battle, Robin Frijns beat Antonio Felix da Costa by 0.081s to have the bragging rights in the Andretti garage. 

But the big story from qualifying was the discovery in scrutineering that the fire extinguisher in Sebastien Buemi’s car was underweight – in other words that it was empty – resulting in a five-place penalty for the championship leader.

As the Renault e.dams is already underweight, so has ballast added ahead of every session, the car would not have been running light and gained a performance advantage, but it was a clear breach of the safety requirements. Now starting seventh, Buemi and his team would have to work hard to win this one…

Start

In Hong Kong Nick Heidfeld made the best getaway, and Rosenqvist again demonstrated that Mahindra has nailed its starting set-up by scorching off the line to lead comfortably into the first corner.

Vergne was slow away giving Abt an opportunity around the outside into Turn 1, but when Piquet locked up, it forced Vergne to take avoiding action, which in turn forced Abt very wide, and allowed Nico Prost to dive down the inside. Abt somehow managed to hold station and the field made it through the opening lap without incident.

At a shade over 98 kilometres (60 miles), the Marrakesh ePrix was the longest Formula E race so far, so once the opening lap tussle had been concluded, the drivers settled down into managing their energy strategy.

Prost effectively waved Buemi by into sixth, but while the defending champ was trying hard to work his way up the order, he was equally working towards a strategy that would allow him to stay out a lap longer than Rosenqvist, and would ensure that he was a major contender in the final stages of the race.

Compared to Hong Kong, the Circuit Moulay El Hassan in Morocco was relatively wide, with more open corners, which made overtaking more attainable than it had been in the season opener, and di Grassi made full use of this to pass Heidfeld and Frijns, while Buemi dispatched Abt for fifth place with a very brave move under braking at Turn 10.

Once Buemi was ahead of Abt on lap eight he was able to put his energy conservation plan to work, while still reeling in the leader.

Over the next eight laps, Rosenqvist in the lead, lost just over a second and a half to Buemi, but crucially Buemi was able to stay out on lap longer, meaning his 28kwh of energy had to last him 16 laps as opposed to 17 for the Mahindra driver.

A mistake on his in-lap actually cost Buemi the best part of two seconds during the pitstop, but with Buemi in clear air – we saw the true devastating race pace of the Renault e.dams.

Over the opening five laps of the race, Rosenqvist’s average lap time was 1:25.323, for the five laps after the car swap it was a near identical 1:25.328. Buemi’s five lap average pace after the stop? 1:24.213. With Buemi gaining at an average of over a second a lap, Rosenqvist was toast.

But that didn’t guarantee Buemi victory, because he was still behind the TECHEETAH of Jean-Eric Vergne, and while his lap times weren’t quite as stellar as Buemi’s, because he uses the same powertrain as the Swiss, he was going to be a tough nut to crack for an overtaking move.

However, the electrics in the steering wheel had died, taking with it the pitlane speed limiter, and the drive-through penalty for speeding during his pitstop gave Buemi a real helping hand in his quest for the win.

It took Nico Prost two laps longer than his team-mate to pass Abt, and this ultimately was the difference between a podium and not, because, right on the limit of energy, Rosenqvist practically coasted around the final lap backing off by over three seconds compared to the cars around him, but it was still enough to claim third.

Sam Bird was happy with the points he scored for second, but not at the performance of his DS Virgin Racing car – and it’s clear to see why. Despite being able to conserve his energy as well as Buemi, when they were on track in close proximity in the second half of the race, he had time to analyse the performance gap between himself (and the rest) and Buemi.

As they left the pits at almost the same time, Bird recorded his fastest lap of the race on lap 21. It was a 1:24.173. On that same lap, Buemi set his fastest lap of the race – 1:23.663. In a series as close as Formula E, that 0.5s is massive and prompted the Brit to say that everyone else is racing for second place in the wake of Buemi’s dominance.

In terms of race pace, it was a poor outing for the Abt team, but di Grassi’s supreme race craft ensured he once again maximized his points haul in fifth. His overtakes on Turvey and Vergne were beautifully judged, and he’s now gained 24 places from his starting position in races this season!

Even if di Grassi had put all his best sectors together, his ideal lap was 0.6s off Buemi’s mark, while over the second half of the race the gap between him and the Renault went from 12.431s to 15.474s, before Buemi backed off in the closing stages.

Behind Buemi and Renault e.dams there very little between DS Virgin, Mahindra, Abt Schaeffler and the TECHEETAH of Vergne. On the basis of Marrakesh, the remaining teams – NextEV, Andretti, Venturi, Faraday Future Dragon Racing and Panasonic Jaguar Racing appear to be a couple of tenths adrift on race pace, but equally closely-matched.

Jaguar is the only team yet to score a point, but that’s not to say it’s the slowest. However, both drivers have struggled to unlock the pace of the car in qualifying, which in turn has led to them being involved in fraught battles during the race, which are great to watch, but can disguise raw pace.

During the race, when he was clear of traffic, Carroll’s pace over the final 10 laps was actually faster than Rosenqvist’s (even if you exclude the Swede’s slow last lap, Carroll’s stint was quicker by about two seconds). However, the spin in qualifying, which left him on the back row for the start, meant it was always going to be a big ask to trouble the scorers.

If he or Mitch Evans – can put a clean qualifying session together then it could be that Jaguar’s first point is right around the corner. But on the basis of Marrakesh, as has been the case since almost the first ever test, the driver they all need to beat is Buemi and his Renault e.dams machine.