The Mexico City opener came against the backdrop of a whole heap of unknowns at the start of Formula E's third generation. Nobody knew what to expect; testing is rarely a massive indication of what's to come and sure enough, everything we thought we knew looked to be up in the air by the time we left the paddock at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and set off on the way to Rounds 2 & 3 in Diriyah.
Oliver Askew is in the Comms Box this year alongside Jack Nicholls, and he saw his former outfit Avalanche Andretti stride to a storming win in the first race of Season 9, with past teammate Jake Dennis top of the pile - and by some way; the seventh-biggest winning margin in the series' history.
We quizzed Askew as to why Andretti - Porsche powered from 2022/23 - were able to steal such a march on the rest, particularly after they looked pretty much mid-pack in Valencia - what we'll learn in Diriyah, what the teams have to get right to go quickly at the start of this GEN3 era and who impressed him most in the first round.
'It would be surprising to see Porsche so dominant here, too'
Porsche looks to have a headstart given they fired four cars into the top seven in Mexico City. Askew feels the team have found a bit on the brakes - ultra important with the big stops in Mexico City. With the pace of development lightning fast, though, Askew feels there's zero guarantee they'll be up there in Diriyah - at least to the extent the Stuttgart firm, Andretti and TAG Heuer Porsche were last time out.
"From what I understand, the big struggle in Valencia for them was their braking instability and deceleration," said Askew. "They have to have got a handle on that for Mexico because that circuit is one of the hardest tracks under braking on the calendar.
"By braking, that’s combined braking – you really need the car stable on the brakes there. This is because a lot of the corners are braking and turning or trying to rotate the car at the same time. That’s difficult ordinarily but even more so with the new tyre because they are a harder compound. So, drivers are needing to do all their slowing down in as straight a line as possible and then turning in.
"Between testing and the first round that must have been a focus for them, and others up and down the grid. I doubt that the Porsches were able to copy and paste their mechanical setup from their success last year and carry things over into this as it’s a completely different car. I think the fact they went well in Mexico two years in a row is coincidental – they just got it right. It’s more of a balance window thing than tyre pressures or setup.
"I think this weekend in Diriyah will be very telling. It would be a surprise to see Porsche dominating. It wasn’t just Jake (Dennis) in Mexico that went well, it was all four Porsches – the Andrettis and the factory cars. So, it looks good for them and they look to have a head start on everyone - so it's not entirely out of the question, as is always the case in Formula E.
"Their development and understanding of the car looked to be better than those around them at Round 1 and maybe other teams took things in the wrong direction. Nobody’s reached their full potential, by a long way – and I’d say that we’re another two years off the ultimate pace these GEN3 cars will be able to achieve. This weekend, though, we’ll get to see a bit more of the bigger picture but it is a development race.
"We saw that with GEN2 – Jaguar came on strong the last two seasons and you had the pattern of the NIO and DRAGON guys towards the back, unable to catch up with their full potential reached."
Track time, and braking finds are king
Four 99X Electric Gen3s means four lots of data shared between Andretti and Porsche. Early season pacesetters Maserati MSG Racing suffered in Mexico City - despite setting benchmark times in testing. Edo Mortara shunted in Free Practice as well as the race and teammate Maximilian Guenther steered to 11th after a disappointing qualifying session.
That lost track time will not help amid this sporting arms race as teams seek to clamber on top of one another in terms of development, software and setup - the potential gains with every step and discovery at the dawn of GEN3 are massive. One such find has been on braking and deceleration.
"Right now, track time is king," continues Askew. "The engineers can’t ever have enough data and they’re still having to go through long nights and days but they’re all wishing they had more track time. Of course, having a car that misses chunks of a weekend at this stage will be a disadvantage. That said, teams will have an idea of where they’re missing pace and what needs work.
Askew feels Porsche has a head start on this, and Dan Ticktum - who qualified fifth in the NIO at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez - has previously said the Anglo-Chinese team have found something that others have yet to, telling fiaformulae.com that they're able to push more under braking and turn in before the car's tyres lock up.
"There’s a lot of noise in the paddock at the moment about teams having found bits under braking – with deceleration through the front and rear powertrains on the new cars. This could be looked at as sort of a “anti-lock braking” system and that’s something the teams are racing to get their heads around.
"It’s key, as I said, particularly with this tyre. Teams and drivers will be looking to exploit it as much as possible because if you can condense your braking zone and get your deceleration done before you turn in, you’re going to have more minimum speed and the car is going to rotate better. You’re going to have more traction too. Minimum speed is slower than last year, and it’s more critical as a result to lap time."
'Diriyah's one of my favourite tracks - completely different character to Mexico'
Askew started out life in Formula E with points in Diriyah last year and an impressive ninth on debut. He loves the circuit and feels it's going to give us a strong idea, combined with Mexico, as to where teams are given the tracks' contrasting natures.
"It’s one of my favourite circuits – it’s a lot of fun," says Askew. "This track is a completely different character. Minimum speed and lateral grip is a lot more important than in Mexico City – so in two races, we’re going to see a pretty complete picture of the two flavours of race track. We might well see thing flip around with whoever went well in Mexico going less well here, and vice versa.
"I know that teams are also struggling to dial things in, in colder temperatures, too. This is key in Diriyah with he night races and the cooler evening temperatures. I know at Andretti, we struggled through the year to really put our finger on why we struggled as the temperatures dropped so we’ll see how it affects things this year."
Rapidly impressing rookie
Like Askew last year, Hughes is new to the grid this season.
The NEOM McLaren racer has impressed in almost every session he's been a part of from testing to the season-opener and Round 1 was no different as he scrapped with some of the most seasoned heads in top tier motorsport in Lucas di Grassi (Mahindra Racing) and Andre Lotterer (Avalanche Andretti) - winding up fifth at the flag.
"Hughes was probably second to Dennis in my opinion, in terms of standout performers in Mexico City," adds Askew. "He was quick all weekend and there wasn’t a session he was off the pace. If there was a championship across all sessions and they each paid points, he’d be right up there.
"He’s competing against a grid of drivers who are also learning a whole new car and it’s perfect for a rookie. He’s had a couple of years’ sim experience as well which really helps, so it’s not like he’s turning up at tracks and seeing them for the first time. He’s been in and around the paddock.
"His race craft was really impressive. He was in a really difficult spot with (Lucas) di Grassi up ahead and (Andre) Lotterer just behind. Racing up against two veterans on debut like that was fantastic for him and a really interesting matchup."