until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

Formula E braced for peloton racing return - and safety fears

by Sam Smith
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Saturday's Sao Paulo E-Prix will include extreme energy saving and a scenario where effectively no one will want to lead the race in what several Formula E drivers believe will be a minefield of potential accidents.

Qualifying will likely be meaningless in terms of benefitting from pole position as the front portion of the grid will attempt to not be the first car into the first corner and the first laps of the race.

The most extreme example of the so-called ‘Peloton-style’ of racing was seen at Portland last June when the grid lifted off and ran occasionally four-a-breast on the open expanses of the parkland venue.

The Anhembi Sambadrome does not have that luxury with walls and Armco barriers surrounding the site of Sao Paulo’s annual carnival held in an urban amphitheatre.

That has triggered concerns about accidents in Saturday’s race and with the useable energy down from 40kWh in 2023 to 38.5kWh for this year’s event will be more on the extreme end of saving energy, particularly in the first half of the 31-lap (same distance as 2023) race.

With little or no run-off in Sao Paulo, drivers are wary of a race that could end in multiple suspensions.

Nico Mueller suffered a significant shunt in the Portland race when the front wing on his Abt Cupra Mahindra acted as a skate and he hit the wall hard, while several other drivers had narrow escapes including Jean-Eric Vergne, who just managed to avoid hitting the back of Edoardo Mortara’s Maserati by taking to the grass run-off.

“Yeah, it's dangerous, because the straight is all of a sudden full of cars trying to make a position and then you have a change of direction from one, from left to right, people lifting way early,” Vergne told The Race.

“It's a very messy kind of racing and I really don't like it.

“I think it's only like this for the first few laps, then once people start to be on the targets then the team feel comfortable to be able to lead the race from, then the racing becomes more like normal racing.

“But before that, like what we see in Portland, it will be a joke.”

The topic of starting the race at the front of the field was put to Envision Racing’s Sebastien Buemi, who suffered a hand injury in last year’s race when Maximilian Guenther lifted unexpectedly at the first chicane.

“Starting at the front in Riyadh, 70% of the result is done,” he told The Race.

Here, starting at the front will not bring much. If you start at the back you are pleased with that effect because you know if you are fast you will be able to come back.

“However, from a pure driver perspective, I don't like it when it's like that. You find yourself in situations that are really awkward.

“I'll give you an example: you have the guy who wants to lose position because he doesn't want to stay at the front, some people that want to stay in that slipstream as much as they can and then people who are desperate to move up the order.

“If there is a bit of a misunderstanding of one guy wanting to finally slip past and you arrive flat, then it can create a big accident.

"I passed some guys [in Portland] on the straight at the end, I had the attack mode boost, a lot of energy, that's maybe 50kph faster on the straight. Imagine that guy moves out of the way, you find yourself, in my opinion, in situations that should not necessarily exist."

Buemi’s Envision team-mate Robin Frijns had a similar opinion, using the peloton analogy, saying that “it's going to be a bicycle race” and “how many times we saw in those bicycle races if one falls in the group, everybody crashes, it's going to be the same thing here.

“Seb had a hand injury, last year and I think this is going to be one of the worst races for it, because we have long straights, everybody is flat out and then these slow corners coming up like small chicanes, everybody's bunching up together.”

Director of Porsche factory motorsport Formula E Florian Modlinger believes having drivers around you that you can trust will be crucial to success in these "Tour de France"-style races.

"I think it will depend a bit on how the grid will look like," he said. "There you need also to think about if you have friends on the grid or if you have only enemies.

"Think about cycling, think about how they behave in the peloton and that will be key tomorrow. This will also then dictate the race pace at the beginning.

"An extreme version will be the leader will slow down the field at the beginning, a quite big significant [pace] drop and then after some laps the pace will increase and go closer to flat out racing, or if a team or manufacturer thinks that he’s sorted balance wise, tyre usage wise, with the heat and the battery, that they try to go their pace and get rid of the others.

"There you need some friends, you cannot do it alone."

From One Extreme to Another

Going from one extreme to the other after the first two events in Mexico City and Riyadh which were largely flat-out affairs will not be a shock for the Formula E paddock.

While there is a risk of drivers sounding contradictory in knowing what type of racing they want, there is a feeling that there is little middle ground being explored for the races in Gen3.

The closest was probably Monaco last year where a combination of the circuit characteristics, the high grip levels and the useable energy given contributed to the most balanced race of the year.

Sao Paulo 2023 was not as extreme as the Portland E-Prix last June, but the 1.5kWh reduction this season allied to the knowledge gained from teams and drivers regarding the strategic decision to ‘go’ after ultra-saving is expected to generate an exciting race if it stays clean.

“The reality is that none of us know how extreme that will play out here,” was Jaguar TCS Racing team principal James Barclay’s opinion when asked about the balance of racing styles.

“If anything, now everyone has raced here and has a better understanding of what could happen. I think it's going to be an incredibly tight race; it brings a lot of people back into the fray.

“It maybe isn't just about the most efficient but the best strategy as well, that'll all come out, so I think it's definitely going to be one for cool heads, the right decision making at the right time.

“Qualifying is an important step ultimately on Saturday as well, it doesn't mean that you don't have an opportunity (to win) but it does put a bit of importance back on track position as well.”

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