until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

How Dennis and BMW achieved a supposedly impossible win

by Sam Smith
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

“It was like a poker game trying to use your cards at the right stage, trying to use the energy in the right point and conserve when you could.”

The words are those of BMW’s rookie signing Jake Dennis after he took his first Formula E win at Valencia on Sunday.

It came because he played the rights cards at the right time in a high-speed matchplay encounter against multiple more experienced opponents.

His lights to flag performance was akin to a fresh card-flicking rookie sitting down confidently amid gnarled card-flicking veterans and being dared to finish what he’d started after earning an accomplished but slightly fortunate seat at ‘the table’ with a surprise pole position.

Then, with the assuredness of a seasoned pro, he brought out his ‘ace hand’ – which was absolute control.

Sometimes the advantage of being out in front and leading from pole is that you have some degree of inherent control of course.

But this very rarely happens on the mean streets of Formula E, let alone on a high, wide and handsome-ish permanent track like Valencia.

Valencia Formula E 2021

Historically BMW i Andretti has started seasons strong and then faded but maybe now it can reverse that trend and rise from the foot of the points table and sustain what it has threatened briefly before: to become a genuine title contender.

Should it achieve that, what just a few days ago appeared to be the racing equivalent of dealing an impossible five-card trick, then it can look to Dennis’s remarkable performance today as the point that the cards truly fell its way.

Everyone went into Sunday’s dry Valencia race believing that the nature of the permanent racetrack would make this a cagey contest in which everyone sat in the leader’s slipstream conserving energy then pounced at the finish, with the leader being swallowed up because they’d have had to use far more energy than everyone tucked in behind them.

Part one of that transpired: Dennis indeed led a long cautious crocodile for most of the race. But part two didn’t – he not only stayed in front, he even broke away.

The key to it all was the simple fact that Dennis did not have to defend the lead too hard from initial stalker Alex Lynn’s Mahindra in the first half of the race.

“As long as you’re not having to defend aggressively [saving energy in the lead is possible], and I think that’s the difference here: we knew that whoever was behind us probably didn’t want to pass,” Dennis’s team principal Roger Griffiths told The Race.

“So that gives you a little bit more freedom.”

It allowed Dennis to take the lines he wanted to take, drive more efficiently, coast, sail and regenerate where he wanted to do it. Sounds simple, but it sure was effective.

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Once he got into the rhythm of leading it was actually going to be quite tough for anyone to get past him despite the pre-race speculation that it would be akin to a pacesetting 10,000-metres Olympic final race that no one wanted to lead.

“I think what really made the race for us was when he was able to take the first attack mode and get ahead not losing the position,” said Griffiths.

“That was the turning point really. The fact that he got the inside line down into T9, it really helped him.

“We were just sort of monitoring the gap.

“Our biggest fear was had there been a safety car or full course yellow and that then neutralises everything.”

The poker faces were truly tested when one or two skirmishes started to swirl around the gravel dappled Valencia track.

In particularly, Stoffel Vandoorne and Sebastien Buemi’s incident created a few palpitations with debris on the racing line that caused Griffiths and his team to mouth “’no, this is the last thing we want’ – it was our biggest fear.”

A piece of banner from the specially adapted wall at Turn 10 was dislodged in that incident but in a stroke of remarkable luck it was hoovered up by Rene Rast, who spent several laps with it stuck to his Audi.

It meant that race director Scot Elkins’ own ace hand remained off the neutralisation button and that the stakes would not be raised by an artificial reshuffling of the pack.

If these were tense moments, in what appeared from the outside at least as a serene drive, the true friction was yet to come.

The reality was that Dennis was right on the cusp of doing an extra lap over what the strategy plan stated and preferred, under Formula E’s ’45 minutes plus one lap’ race distance format.

“We had the energy in the car to do it, but mindful of what happened yesterday [in the controversial race one finish], we did not want to recreate that same situation,” said Griffiths.

But back to ‘control’ again.

Dennis was able to slow the pace down by “about a second” according to Griffiths so he could time when he crossed the line to avoid the race running an extra lap.

Jake Dennis wins Valencia Formula E 2021

That is precisely what he was able to do in the last sector. This was crucial because any of his closing rivals attempting a pass there was always likely going to get a raw deal.

“It was difficult to pass in that last sector, so if we could get him out across the line first, it was a flat out run to the finish,” mused Griffiths.

“My view was once he’d got a sniff of the champagne and the sight of the chequered flag nobody was coming past him.”

Another ally was – inadvertently – the driver who finished second on the road – Venturi’s Norman Nato.

He would have five seconds added to his finish time for punting Lynn off the road, and although Nato was never told this by his engineer Jerome Colancon, it gave Dennis a bit of breathing space as the winning hand was readied.

“One thing we were keeping an eye on was whether Nato was going to try and go for it, to try and open a gap to lessen the impact of the five second penalty at the end of the race. That was a major concern,” said Griffiths.

There were a few things playing on Dennis’s side of the garage’s collective minds but Dennis put them all to rest with a faultless display.

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BMW i Andretti resisted temptation to pick the pace up in the crucial early phase. If it had done that, the race would definitely have gone one lap longer – which the team believes it could have managed, but was glad not to.

“We were anticipating the race was going to go one lap longer, so we were on the long strategy if you like,” said Griffiths.

“So we were able to manage the pace almost exactly as we wanted it.

“If it had gone one lap the other way then it would have been definitely a lot tougher to finish for everybody.

“The fact that we shortened the race for everybody I think probably meant more cars finished than not and we were mindful of yesterday’s situation and not wanting to recreate that.”

Griffiths never doubted Dennis’s one lap pace but as he rightly attests “this championship is more than just one lap pace and, it was all about how quickly he can learn the energy management”.

The answer to that question is pretty damn quickly despite a baptism of fire over the last couple of races that have included shunts (not of his making) and technical glitches.

Heading into Valencia, he hadn’t qualified higher than 14th in FE and before today’s win his only points had come from inheriting eighth – over three minutes behind winner Nyck de Vries – in the farcical Valencia opener.

Between Dennis’s faltering start and team-mate Maximilian Guenther’s string of crashes, BMW sat a miserable last in the teams’ championship before this weekend. It’s now vaulted straight up to seventh, with third-placed Envision Virgin just 13 points ahead.

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“We knew at some point he was going to break that streak of luck, but when was it? Was it going to be here? Was it going to be Monaco? Was it going to be London? We just didn’t know,“ said Griffiths of Dennis.

“I think this has done a massive boost for his confidence and also for the team. When you’re last in the points it’s rough.

“Hopefully now the momentum can continue for Monaco.”

At the top of Massenet where the Monte Carlo casino sits, the poker tables are being cleared and prepared for Formula E’s newest winner next month.

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