until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

The key to McLaren's maiden win beyond last-lap brilliance

by Sam Smith
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The obvious extra frisson of Sam Bird overtaking former team-mate Mitch Evans’ Jaguar was just a small part of an epic first race win for McLaren in Formula E on the streets of Sao Paulo.

Exactly 12 months ago a conservative Bird had held back on the final lap to preserve a much-needed podium behind then team-mate Evans and the man who would take his seat a few months later at the Big Cat, Nick Cassidy.

As Bird entered the final laps, he had been warned to look after temperatures on his Nissan-powered NEOM McLaren. He didn’t completely ignore them but it wasn’t at the forefront of his mind as the 'yin and yang' of the gap to Evans became a temptation he couldn’t resist.

When Evans’ Jaguar battery started to derate Bird swooped like he had done many times in the past. But it was an increasingly distant past, meaning that his return to the top step of the podium in Sao Paulo was truly one of the best feel-good stories of recent Formula E seasons.

The dark places of Bird’s recent seasons once appeared to have no end. But in the bright sunlight of a Brazilian afternoon, he burned as bright as his lusciously hued Papaya McLaren.

Getting to the chequered flag though was tough. Most cars on the grid were affected by the furnace-like temperatures.

The Gen3 batteries actually run pretty cool compared to the previous iterations of the RESS but the pace of course has been increased. That combined with the much more bijou spec unit supplied by WAE makes for different challenges in managing the unit over a race distance.

Having the energy to spare but being limited by temperatures and derating is a cruel outcome, leaving drivers impotent to defend or attack. It's not about being conservative. If you go too aggressive and you push the temperature into a window you don’t want it to be, the RESS will hit a metaphorical wall.

Both Bird and Evans, who dropped the Porsches of Jake Dennis, Pascal Wehrlein and Antonio Felix da Costa as the extra laps acquired by two safety car periods began, made it a two-horse race.

Evans looked to have his former team-mate covered even as they entered the final lap but it was fool’s gold for the Kiwi.

What no one knew though was that he lost a huge amount of momentum in the first sector of that last lap, and the conversation with his engineer, Josep Roca, attested to that as Evans’ tried to absorb the shock of seeing a win slip cruelly through his fingers on the penultimate corner: "Got the f***ing legality cut and it was derating so I had no f***ing power. ARRGGHHH……" Evans fumed at the end of the race.

After the race he explained: “I was running out of power so I think even if Sam didn’t overtake me there he probably would have got me to the start finish line.

“A bit frustrating with that because I looked at the energy left and was just trying to bring it home.

“I’m happy for the points but we did all the right steps at the right times with these crazy races to produce another race win but it wasn’t meant to be today.”

This was no silver platter offered up to Bird though. He earned a deserved first win for almost three years in style.

“I said on the radio ‘I think he’s struggling more than me’ with the car temperatures and I said, ‘I think he’s struggling,” said Bird after the race.

“I was told to cool the car. Then I saw the lift points and thought, it’s now or never I’ve got to go.

“Mitch defended the inside and gave me just enough room on the outside to have some kind of move. I don’t know how close it was to the wall but it was fair racing and got it done.”

Back in the garages James Barclay and Ian James, normally unflustered and serene, were skipping heartbeats.

“We thought we’d played it just about right but we had a lot of defending to do with Pascal (Wehrlein) who had a strong energy overlap at one point,” Barclay told The Race.

“Maybe that was what caught us a bit because we had to use a bit of performance at that point in the race where probably Sam [Bird] was also managing to keep a profile on his race on the temperature in a better window.

“Mitch, I’m super proud after he did one lap in free practice 2. To get through to the duels in qualifying and then put that race together, it's testament to his mental strength.”

In the Papaya corner, James was hitting his own personal derate situation as it became evident on the last laps that a best-ever result of second place could be something much more spectacular.

That was helped in part by Bird’s team-mate Jake Hughes who retired with a temperature-related issue according to James. It informed some of what was told to Bird via his engineer Stephen Lane in the final laps.

“Sam heeded the instructions to cool the car and he did a beautiful job,” James told The Race.

“We’d already picked up the problem with Jake [Hughes], that was the reason we eventually ended up retiring the car actually. We had some fairly significant battery temp issues.

“I think that was caused by the fight he was having towards the back in the traffic, that was an absolute nightmare.

“So, the instruction was given to Sam to effectively try and get some clean air into the right-hand side of the car. If you take a look back he did exactly that.

“Despite trying to get close to Mitch or stay close to Mitch and then defending those that were behind who had more energy effectively, he did a superb job of managing that issue so hats off to him.”

Bird executed that holy grail of all racing drivers. Winning a race in the final few corners in epic style.

Bird had also survived some contact with Jake Dennis earlier in the race. These are fine margins in the great accordion effect of peloton Gen3 races. Nick Cassidy had multiple contacts which came back to haunt him in spectacular style. Some cards fell for Bird in Sao Paulo but those were outnumbered by his intelligent and calculated race in tough conditions.

Bird’s joy in winning again was matched by significant relief too, and tongue in cheek he told the TV feed afterwards that “there’s still life in the old dog yet”.

Back home in Sandbanks near Bournemouth, one of his biggest fans, Buddy, his playful Cockapoo would definitely have given him solidarity on that front, as did the whole paddock on a sultry Saturday afternoon in Brazil.

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