One of the more curious events of the 2023 Formula E season was how Envision Racing went from a comfortable 1-2 in the opening stages of last Saturday’s crucial title deciding race in London to its championship protagonist Nick Cassidy being completely out of contention in a matter of laps, via running into team-mate Sebastien Buemi.
Polesitter Cassidy got a perfect start in more ways than one, sprinting off the line perfectly to head the field. That was boosted when he looked in his mirrors as daylight blinked into view from indoors to outdoors at the unique ExCeL track and he saw the comforting green of Buemi in his mirrors rather than the red for danger of championship rival and front row partner Jake Dennis.
With 24 points to catch up on Dennis, Cassidy knew that at this early stage of the race that him winning and Dennis being third, at best, would reduce the gap to 14 points heading into Sunday. That’s when the pressure would really be on Dennis.
The plan went perfectly as Buemi expertly backed up Dennis to a ravenous pack that included ‘nothing to lose’ tyrants Rene Rast, Pascal Wehrlein and Sam Bird.
When Cassidy completed his two attack modes by lap seven and with title outsider Mitch Evans having sliced past Dennis to third place it was happy days for Cassidy, as surely now he’d sprint away and build an unassailable gap as Buemi continued to act as blocker.
Was that too simple and too good to be true? Seemingly.
In an act that he later described to The Race as being “too kind”, Cassidy – unseen by the TV cameras – pulled off the racing line coming out of Turn 15 and let Buemi through into the hairpin.
The plan was to create a gap so Buemi could complete his attack mode visits without losing ground too. That would’ve given Envision a better chance of a 1-2 rather than dropping Buemi into the pack, and therefore would’ve kept Dennis back one more place and further protected Envision’s place at the top of a teams’ championship that it led by 14 points over Porsche pre-race.
With Dennis then taking his first attack, which he missed, the Avalanche Andretti driver wasn’t in position to charge at Cassidy but Evans was and needed no second invitation and vaulted his future works Jaguar team-mate instantaneously.
The Envision plan was already starting to unravel and some panic set in, as team principal Sylvain Filippi explains.
“When we executed the beginning of the race, it was just textbook perfect, it was really beautiful to watch, getting Jake like this, a 1-2 and then getting a gap,” he recalls to The Race.
“Nick went on the radio at that stage, after having done both attack modes and being still in the lead. Nick asked for it [to switch back] and it was part of our plan of maximising it, but it was the team and also Nick.
“In hindsight – and it’s easy in hindsight, right? – but I had this instinct saying, ‘if it was any other race, Nick would have just disappeared into the distance and happy days’.
“We were just too greedy.”
In capitalist London greed most definitely wasn’t good on this occasion as Cassidy then fell into the hands of Dennis who hustled through at Turn 19. As an opportunist Rast followed through also, Cassidy was all of a sudden down to fifth.
It was barely credible. But when Cassidy then brilliantly repassed Dennis, there was at least a second chance now to move ahead of Buemi and get after new leader Evans.
We all know what happened then as Buemi appeared not to get a clear call and Cassidy tagged his team-mate and then watched in horror as his front-wing fragmented and his title chances crumbled with it.
HOW IT UNFOLDED ON TEAM RADIO
Here are some extracts from Cassidy’s conversation with Maxime Menneglier, his third engineer of the season.
‘Black 20’ appears to be code for Envision’s team order plan and ‘gladiator’ a term for holding back opponents and Dennis in particular.
NC: Tell Seb to pass me around the outside of 16.
MM: He will be told.
NC: Then we gladiator for him as well.
MM: Good plan. Seb has been told.
MM: Seb will go now, Seb will go now. 1.4 ahead of you.
NC: OK, I need to get Seb. I need to get Seb.
NC: Come on, he’s defending [against] me. Mitch has less energy.
MM: Stand by. I’ll let you know.
NC: Seb is defending me? I just need to get him then I can help him out.
NC: Come on guys, what’s the feedback?
MM: Black 20 now.
NC: I spent energy to get past! He just took off my front wing.
NC: You called Black 20, I spent energy to get past, he put me in the wall T1, I got ahead, he swiped back T2 and took my nose off. After you called Black 20. Clear series of events. Just summed up my season.
Buemi’s conversations with his own engineer Connor Summerville were no less anguished as everything fell apart for Envision.
SB: OK, what’s happening with Nick? I mean, do we want to do the gladiator stuff or not?
SB: Tell me what you want me to do, man! He’s trying to attack me!
CS: Copy, Seb.
CS: Seb, we will swap positions I’m just working out where.
SB: OK, tell me! I need to know, guys.
SB: Man, what happened now with his front wing?!
SB: Guys, I’m speechless. I’m speechless.
CS: You’re doing an amazing job.
SB: It cannot happen. No, I’m not! No, I’m not. I’m not.
“That evening I spoke to the team a lot about the risk/reward balance and we basically completely screwed up our risk/reward analysis that day, we should have never switched [positions],” Filippi admitted.
“Seb was completely cool with it and he was never expecting a return anyway, he was happy to do whatever for the team that weekend.
“Seb should have stayed there, blocked everyone for another 10 laps, Nick would have disappeared down the road and it was a guaranteed win in the pocket.
“It would have been great for Nick’s championship, would have been great for the team’s championship.
“But we were greedy and we wanted to guarantee a 1-2, which sounds very arrogant, right? But we were in a position we wanted for Nick.”
— ABB FIA Formula E World Championship (@FIAFormulaE) July 29, 2023
The important word there was ‘were’.
Quite how Envision made such a hash of a race at just the wrong time placed the team and its drivers into shock afterwards. Cassidy, often hushed in his description of difficult races, was barely audible afterwards as he made his way from steward’s office following an unseen race ending collision with Edoardo Mortara after he had pitted for a new nose.
The reality of the jumbled confusion set in. At the debrief tensions were high. Cassidy looked at Buemi, Buemi looked at the team and the team looked anywhere other than into both of its drivers’ eyes.
This was a collective screw up of epic proportions and Filippi knew it.
“I’m kicking myself, I’m furious with myself and I took some responsibility for it on Saturday evening,” he said.
“Even though I’m not in the strategy team, per se, I can still say things on the radio.”
It was probably best he didn’t, at least not to Cassidy, who was trying to absorb how his dream position a few laps earlier had now turned into a nightmare and effectively handed the title to Dennis.
“We said all along if Nick scores big points in the drivers’ championship it is great for the teams’ championship,” said Filippi.
“On Saturday we had perfectly aligned goals.
“That’s why it’s silly really. If he had scored 25 points and then Seb got 18, 15 or 12 we were laughing all the way to the bank.”
Instead, the bank needed to be bailed out on Sunday. Thankfully Envision made it to the teams’ title.
But Cassidy, who struggled to process what had happened in race one initially, was left with still several unanswered questions as to why Buemi blocked him for the best part of two laps and why no one got on the radio to make it completely clear he should repeat his earlier altruism.
Buemi is as canny as any driver on the grid and perhaps there was a deep-seated reason why he didn’t give up the position. The pair have had a healthy relationship all season but it could get tetchy very quickly – remember the contretemps in Berlin that preceded Cassidy’s unforgettable radio rant?
On the final day of the season as the final bones were being picked out of the Saturday mess, Cassidy blocked Buemi in morning practice and poked the Swiss bear into a considerable radio snarl.
The dynamics of the Envision team have been interesting this season. If you put yourself in the position of Cassidy, seeing the force of nature that is Buemi in full flight immediately in a team he had frequented for two seasons with the relatively placid Robin Frijns must have been a culture shock.
Equally for Buemi, getting beaten pretty comprehensively in races by Cassidy will have tweaked the ego. Perhaps these things festered semi-consciously within them both. Who knows?
What we do know is that Cassidy is moving to Jaguar in 2024. What that meant for the final races of the season may have had some bearing on the underlying forces in the team.
Whatever was going on there was a mostly happy ending in Envision achieving a remarkable teams’ title as an independent Jaguar customer.
But as ever in Formula E it was tinged with a few drops of bitter to go with the sweet as Formula E’s most efficient and productive team deservedly popped champagne corks, and perhaps with them some of the pent up tension of the previous day.