Zurich, Switzerland|11 Jun, 2018

Zurich analysis: Sam Bird - "I need to beat JEV, end of story"

History in the making or making history? We're not quite sure - you'd better ask Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler's Lucas di Grassi who did exactly that after taking home the title in the first circuit race in Switzerland for over 64 years. Bravo, di Grassi, that win's been a long time coming - and not just for you.

Cruising to his first victory this season, after a disastrous initial first few months, the reigning champion marked his fifth consecutive podium with a win in the inaugural 2018 Julius Baer Zurich E-Prix. Waving to fans while doing doughnuts just moments after crossing the line, di Grassi simply yelled, "F***ing YEAH!" down the radio - clearly overwhelmed and, err, perhaps a little overexcited by the result. "We've been very unlucky the first half of this season and now the luck has turned a little bit," explained di Grassi after returning to the garage. "We've managed to do five consecutive podiums...the win here in Zurich is the cherry on top of the cake."

But it wasn't all easy going, explains the Audi driver. "First of all, the weekend wasn't easy...The second part of the race was just about managing the pace but the first part of the race was really difficult trying to overtaking everyone - I got very close to the wall and Andre was super-hot on defending but the car was fast." Arriving in Mexico City (Round 5) with absolutely no points to his name, di Grassi has since made a miraculous comeback, scoring his first three points in Mexico before placing second consecutively for four races. Now, with a first in hand, di Grassi sits third in the championship with 101 points. Still a full 62 points off championship leader Vergne. "Our target is to win the constructors title in the championship for Audi - I think that will be an amazing target after the first half of the season we had," he said. "For me, I think the best I can do is third place, so I'm going to focus on that."

Bringing home silver for DS Virgin Racing was frontman Sam Bird, who managed to steer clear of any penalties, track debris, concrete walls and tram lines to finish the race unscathed. After a blunder in Super Pole, the Brit started the race in third. “I was disappointed after Qualifying, I really felt like I really missed an opportunity to get three extra points with Pole position,” explained Bird after the race. “The first two-thirds of the [Super Pole] lap was one of the best I've driven in in Formula E, to be honest, and then I threw it all away at the chicane.” But that should be the last of the DS driver’s worries. Coming to Zurich second in the standings, Bird needed to place well above rival and championship leader Jean-Eric Vergne (Techeetah) to minimise the Frenchman’s chances of extending his lead and, crucially, wrapping up the championship in Zurich. And that’s exactly what he did. “We've got ourselves in this fantastic position and thankfully now, with the second place today and with a little bit of luck, we can fight in New York and, well, we all know what happened in New York last year,” he said with a smile.

With just 23 points separating Bird and Vergne, Bird’s long-awaited championship title is well within reach. “I need to beat [JEV] in the first race in New York, end of story. If I can do that, then there's a chance.”

But what exactly does that all mean for fellow championship hopeful Vergne? Well, after the Frenchman failed to wrap it all up here in Switzerland (he would have needed to score just 19 points more than Bird to close the title in Zurich), meaning Bird lives to fight another day, with Vergne having to defend his lead all the way to the bitter end. While it's good news for Bird, the pressure is still very much on for both drivers in the double-header season finale in New York City. “It was a race that basically boosted my confidence for New York because I know that even if I have a bad Qualifying session in New York, I still going to come back because we were flying in the race and I know we're going to be fast there,” said Vergne confidently. “We are going to take it calm - take one day to digest this race (I am going to need it) and then do everything perfect for New York, that’s all,” he said with a knowing smile.

Finishing in third was Dragon’s Jerome d’Ambrosio who, following a tidy Qualifying and Super Pole session, found himself starting the race in fourth. “It’s been a long wait!” said d’Ambrosio, still covered in champagne and confetti from the podium celebrations. “You just have to be on top of everything all the time and that's part of being a good Formula E driver, I believe,” he explained. With a podium in Zurich, it’s the best finish the Belgium driver has had since his win in Mexico City and third in Battersea Park, London back in Season 2. “You can't afford to make a mistake - it's a one-day event, everything goes by really quickly and one mistake and you're at the back.”

For our home race heroes, while it was a disappointing round for Renault e.dams’ Sebastien Buemi, Zurich spelt disaster for Venturi Formula E’s Edoardo Mortara, who retired after technical issues brought his race to an early finish. “We had a mechanical failure on the rear, right suspension,” said the Swiss driver. “When I went over the chicane, on the kerb - it just broke, which sent me into the wall and it was game over.” After a promising start to his Formula E career in Hong Kong, Mortara has failed to score points in over half the races this season, as well as missing Round 9 in Berlin due to a clash with the DTM series. “I think at the point I retired, we were managing the energy and the temperatures well - we were looking very good… It was very, very disappointing - a lot of frustration,” he said, looking visibly disheartened.

For Sebastien Buemi, however, a seventh-place start turned into a fifth-place finish, largely due to a drive-through penalty he picked up for speeding during the full course yellow. “It could have been better. I got the penalty which obviously cost the podium so I'm a bit disappointed with that,” he said. Despite hoping for a podium in front of an adoring home crowd, for the Renault driver, it was much more than just a race. “I'm really happy today happened and it's going to stay with me for a long time - it was a historic day.” Now fourth in the standings, Buemi is 71 points astray of race leader Vergne, 48 points off Sam Bird in second and just nine points away from Lucas di Grassi in third. At this point, it is mathematically possible for the former champ to crawl into third while second and first remain a distant dream. As for the team’s championship title – something Renault has held onto for all three seasons, it’s looking more likely that its very own customer team, Techeetah will take it in the final race in New York.

Of course, no analysis of Zurich would be complete without mentioning Mitch – Panasonic Jaguar Racing’s Mitch Evans, that is. Starting the day with strong performances in both Free Practice 1 and 2, the New Zealand driver stole the show in the Super Pole shootout to claim the Julius Baer Pole Position ahead of the race. With the day shaping up to be the team’s best since the British carmaker re-entered motorsport, all Evans needed to do was keep ahead here in Zurich to bring home his and the marque’s first win in Formula E. But it wasn’t to be. Out in front, Evans had to fend off multiple attacks from Techeetah’s Andre Lotterer and di Grassi, as the pack vied for a first-place finish. Holding them back until lap 16, Evans’ defence broke down as di Grassi slipped past him and into the lead. In a performance reminiscent of Rome, Evans then fell back to seventh place before crossing the line defeated and utterly devastated. Throughout the season, the Jaguar driver has arguably outdriven his more experienced teammate (Nelson Piquet Jr), sitting three places above him at seventh in the standings. It’s no championship winning performance – not yet, at least – but Evans has shown he’s more than capable of fighting with the seasoned pros. Watch this space.

As the sun sets on the European series of the ABB FIA Championship in Zurich, we move west to the USA for the long-awaited season finale on the streets of New York City. With the championship starting to narrow to just two candidates, join us across the pond to find out who will be crowned champion. Let the battle for the championship commence.