Some say you cannot overtake in Monaco. Well, nobody told the 2023 Monaco E-Prix grid, with some 166 overtakes between them – and DS PENSKE's ABB Driver of Progress winner Jean-Eric Vergne definitely did not get the message.
Few tracks in world motorsport would present a harder challenge to do what the DS driver did in the Principality, rising from square last and 22nd on the grid to seventh - making amends for a penalty in qualifying as a tyre pressure infringement left both the Frenchman and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne marooned out of position on the back row of the grid.
It looked a long way from possible even a few laps into the race, even given Vergne's recent form which most recently yielded a podium in Berlin, but the team's strategy to recoup their losses was clear from the moment he made a conservative start and played it cool, lifting early into the first corner: survive, save energy and then attack.
Biding time, and picking when to pounce
It took Vergne a full five seconds to fire from zero to 100km/h, almost double the time the current generation of ABB FIA Formula E World Championship car is ultimately capable of, and his first half-lap of the race was spent tickling the throttle.
He used a bit of juice passing the Mahindra Racing of Lucas di Grassi exiting the tunnel but that was the extent of his extravagance – by the end of the first lap, Vergne was a percentage point better off on energy than race leader, NEOM McLaren's Jake Hughes.
That opening lap was an extreme example of the key to Vergne’s rise, beyond just being patient: that he had speed to deploy and was just careful when he used it. For instance, a reasonably high peak speed of 195km/h, compared to 182km/h by teammate Vandoorne who was also at the back of the pack, was necessary to pass di Grassi.
But the energy spent there was easily offset by the lift and coast earlier in the lap, and the little bit of free air he created for himself by such a conservative start meant that Vergne had a clear run through the second half of the lap.
So, despite finishing the first lap in second-to-last spot, and saving a lot of energy, Vergne’s average speed of 100km/h was actually as high or higher than 12 of the cars in front of him.
Higher minimum speeds and energy in-hand
This trend continued through the race, although it was more subtle at times. Compared to early race leader Hughes, Vergne stayed around a percent better on usable energy remaining, despite a consistently higher average speed: only around 1km/h a lap for six laps, but these are important marginal gains.
Deep in the pack, Vergne had the benefit of the slipstream if he wanted it, but it was only worth around 0.1% of energy a lap and Vergne was able to find bigger gains through other methods.
By the time he had moved up to 16th by lap nine, he’d just completed two laps back-to-back as the second-then-third-fastest car on track. There was a small spend attached to this but that cost was almost intangible compared to the cars squabbling for the lead, as the experienced double champion's lift-and-coast was as clever as it gets.
He would prioritise moves like a big lift towards Sainte Devote, willing to let the gap open up while the groupe of cars ahead delayed one-another fighting for track position. Or he'd keep an extra couple of car lengths in-hand through Rascasse, knowing that he would close the gap through the corner anyway with the clear air ahead of him. For Vergne, It was about keeping in touch with that group while ensuring maximum efficiency during the mid-portion of the race.
Such drives can never be perfect or without setbacks and Vergne spent energy around half-distance when several attacks that were rebuffed by TAG Heuer Porsche's Pascal Wehrlein, which meant Vergne’s slightly hungrier, faster laps (including one where he hit his second highest top speed of the race) saw him spend around 0.5% extra energy for no gain in track position.
From there, though, and that push from Lap 15 onwards, Vergne then pulled a great move to re-pass Sebastien Buemi after dropping behind the Envision Racing driver by taking ATTACK MODE, then used the resulting 50kW advantage to finally make it past Wehrlein. This moved Vergne onto the cusp of the points, and he took 10th on Lap 16 when Norman Nato (Nissan) activated his second ATTACK MODE of the race. By the time Vergne's 50kW boost had expired, his energy advantage to those ahead had closed - but importantly, he had a huge two percent surplus to the likes of then-standings leader Wehrlein, meaning he could look forward rather than in his mirrors for the final third of the race.
Some calmer laps were required to address his lack of surplus to those ahead, though, and Vergne’s average speed dropped by 3km/h in the three laps after he'd used ATTACK MODE compared to the three laps before and including it. Although that still didn’t stop Vergne launching a lovely move around the outside of Jaguar TCS Racing's Sam Bird at Mirabeau on Lap 20.
He was repeating the move on the Maserati MSG Racing of Edoardo Mortara a lap later, and poised to complete it at the hairpin, when Maximilian Guenther in the other Maserati moved right and collided with his teammate, just to guarantee Vergne the place. Guenther was then wiped out after another accident on the next lap, a coming-together with NIO 333's Dan Ticktum, which gifted Vergne one more position.
A Safety Car was enforced with Bird collecting Nico Mueller (ABT CUPRA) four laps from the chequered flag - the German heartbreakingly taken out of points contention. Vergne found himself seventh with decent energy when it resumed, he just didn’t quite have the pace of the lead group as the race became a full sprint finish with eventual leader Nick Cassidy able to set the pace and hold off the attentions of the factory Jaguar of Mitch Evans and the customer Porsche 99X Electric of Jake Dennis.
It meant a slightly blunt end to a sharp drive, but that just underscored how much of an overachievement this recovery really was. Vergne's outright pace was ultimately slightly lacking, but good energy management, clever driving and patience turned the worst possible starting position into a very good result - and likely as much as DS PENSKE could have hoped for given the performance of the car/driver combinations that finished ahead of the Frenchman.
Porsche's Wehrlein has been the driver with the target on his back since Round 2 in Diriyah - sitting atop the Drivers' World Championship ever since. However, he and Porsche - who had also topped the Teams' running - finally came unstuck in Monaco, where he and the team were deposed by Cassidy and Envision Racing.
The German struggled to 12th on the grid - again the team finding it difficult to break into the Duels or at least extracting consistent one-lap performance and pace.
Progress was hard to come by in Round 9, too, with Wehrlein getting caught in the pack - which will puzzle the team given Dennis' progress in the customer Porsche to an eventual third. Making up just two positions by the chequered flag, he wound up 10th as a result of the first Safety Car turning more of the race than the team had banked on into a sprint - throwing Wehrlein's strategy out. Either way, the German had accrued quite the energy deficit to the leaders, in struggling to make on-track progress.
Leader Cassidy’s average lap prior to the first Safety Car (Laps 2 to 21) was at an average pace of 1m37.283s. Once the Safety Car came in the pace picked up, with Cassidy averaged a 1m32.013s. All drivers that reached Lap 25 in the race set their personal best fastest laps between Lap 25 and Lap 27 and Wehrlein, ultimately, was unable to live with anything like that pace.
On to Jakarta, then, and work to do if the German giants are to bite back in their search for World Championship honours.
Despite Wehrlein's lack of progress in Round 9, he left Monaco atop the ABB Driver of Progress leaderboard. It's not often the German's been stuck for moves this season. It wouldn't be unexpected for the Porsche driver to continue that trend, rather than repeat the Monaco blip, heading into the second half of the campaign - especially given Porsche's qualifying performances this season.
Andre Lotterer (Avalanche Andretti) sits second, just two positions gained behind with Vandoorne matching his teammates strides to head from 21st to ninth at the end of the race in Monaco.
Vergne himself sits seventh in the running after 15 positions gained in Monte Carlo.