Formula E 2024 had its first double-header of the year at the Diriyah E-Prix, a high-speed circuit that's served up plenty of dramatic moments.
And while this year's races won't go down as a classic, the first affair featured a race-long elbows-out battle for the last two podium places.
But what did we learn? Sam Smith was on the ground in Diriyah and he's picked out seven things that stood out to him.
Evans and Buemi were unusually off-colour
Mitch Evans and Sebastien Buemi don’t just share the same spec of car but they also assign traits of speed, canny racing and strong points collation to their individual armouries.
But in Diriyah few of those traits came to pass.
We know that Evans is combative but his performance in Friday’s race was a different level altogether.
On one hand, he was making bold exciting manoeuvres that paid off – on Vergne early in the race, and another that didn’t (above) – again on Vergne on the final lap. But on the other, he had a cast iron 15 points in his pocket in the third race of the season.
While others settled for maximising points Evans didn’t and on this occasion what should have been a heroic racer, which he is, became a bitter hard luck story and one in which he vented during and after his tribulations.
The fact he is 36 points behind new team-mate Cassidy will be a worry, but Evans rarely starts seasons off well anyway, so there will be no reaching for the panic button just yet.
Saturday saw a mystery drop-off in his first and second qualifying runs, something which the team’s general manager Gary Ekerold said would be “investigated fully post-event.”
After a nondescript Friday saw a frustrated run to 11th position, Sebastien Buemi made a mistake in his qualifying group on Saturday when he went for a second lap right at the end of the session, stuffing his Envision Jaguar firmly into the Turn 1 Tecpro.
Distracted by a communication from his team, Buemi acknowledged his error, and like in Cape Town free practice last February, his team were faced with a damaged tub to patch up.
It will frustrate Buemi who showed in Mexico City that he is still one of the fastest on pure pace. Last season his campaign was fractured by genuine awful luck and the odd mistake. This season he will now employ his laser-guided focus on full deployment to rectify one of the more costly mistakes of his Formula E career to date.
Diriyah Track's affected the pecking order
Construction dust from nearby building projects is always a feature of the Diriyah weekend. But this season it was much worse.
That was because what looked like a hundred imposing industrial cranes filled the nearby vista like giant spikes on a flowchart.
It curtailed any appreciation of how much quicker the Gen3 cars were from last year to this. In free practice on Thursday evening, five seconds were missing from the fastest time in the corresponding session last January.
Just as soon as race director Scot Elkins got his teams to clean the track, then any whisps of wind stirred up more dust in the air and meant much of that work was meaningless.
It did improve but the cars only got close to last year’s times rather than, as they should have been, a second or two faster given the knowledge now gained with the Gen3 machinery.
It was all very frustrating and riled the drivers and teams. But perhaps the bigger point to discuss was ‘should a progressive world championship with state-of-the-art messaging be at the whim of dust and grime’. Clearly, no, but what other solutions were there?
A forthright discussion took place between drivers and Elkins at the drivers' briefing on Thursday night, with one idea being an extra free practice session on Thursday to try and get something approaching a clean track.
But that would only go so far. The organisers can do incredible things with their wealth but they can’t control the wind just yet.
“I think we need to do better next year,” Andretti’s Norman Nato told The Race.
“We will all together make some proposals and can agree on something. It’s never going to be perfect but at least we can try something next time.”
Portland uber-peloton race spooked Formula E
The first three races of the season have passed uneventfully for Formula E.
While Mexico City was a rare dud race, Diriyah has usually proffered something much spicier and expectations were high.
This year though that generally wasn’t the case, and while there were decent battles for positions there was a distinct lack of genuine overtaking outside of attack mode position swaps.
This was mostly due to the fact that again the races were more or less flat-out affairs with the usable energy for the Diriyah E-Prix set at 38.5kWh for both races.
The first took place over 37 laps and the second 36. That compared to the 39 lap events that took place last year when the useable energy allowed was 40kWh.
The FIA and Formula E chose to have a longer race of one lap on the Friday as opposed to the Saturday. Some drivers questioned why the races were not the other way around but distances are defined by the data simulations of the FIA and the competitors.
There is no rule in place of when the longer race must happen in a double-header event.
The conservative nature of the race structures so far this year has raised the question of whether it was a pre-determined strategy by the FIA to not have overly aggressive energy-saving events as were seen in Berlin and Portland last year.
Particularly in the second of those races, it was felt by many teams and drivers that the ‘racing’ was too extreme and bordered on dangerous, as drivers lifted on straights with several near misses and in the case of Nico Mueller a huge shunt.
No one has much appetite for that kind of racing again (perhaps bar Nick Cassidy – the peloton master).
It may be the case that they're dialling it back a bit and then slowly release the handbrake again for more managed jeopardy further down the line when the title stakes start to get higher. The FIA have the power, let’s see how they use it, especially at unknowns such as Misano and Shanghai.
Wehrlein was in damage limitation mode
Porsche, so dominant in Mexico City two weeks ago, was nowhere on Saturday in Diriyah and that was a major surprise.
There were a few incredulous looks around Porsche and Andretti after qualifying and they knew that only a handful of points were coming their way should attrition not play a part.
And so, it proved. Pascal Wehrlein’s fighting seventh was one of the drives of the race, as he came through from 10th after just missing out on the duels again.
His moves on Sette Camara and Vergne were sweet, and then his serene poacher-sweep on a squabbling Sacha Fenestraz and Sam Bird proved to be a small cherry on the cake.
But Wehrlein couldn’t entirely mask the dejection of not quite getting it right in qualifying.
“I think all four (Porsches) struggled with grip today and just with one lap pace,” he told The Race.
For Diriyah it was back to some 2023-spec handwringing over one lap pace for Porsche. It wasn’t far away on both days for Wehrlein. But this slight miss was as good as a mile in Diriyah and in both races, he was forced to chance his arm at meagre rewards compared to his Mexican points feast two weeks ago.
“We need to work on qualifying, that’s the issue,” Wehrlein told The Race, a mantra echoing around Porsche for the last nine months now.
His boss Florian Modlinger agreed, and also suggested it had been a one-off occurrence, unlike 2023, telling The Race that “the track evolution we’ve had this year is very special.
“This we had once here, it was season six I think, Diriyah had exactly the same, that the track at the beginning was so poor and worse, slower than in wet conditions, and it was within six years now twice [like this] and therefore it’s the whole event, everybody needs to adapt and get the best out of it, but it’s not representative for any other track.”
Frijns and Rowland are back in the big time
You didn’t get many takers for second time around drivers Robin Frijns and Oliver Rowland making returns to previous teams Envision and Nissan that were going to be anything other than a success.
Rowland was deceptively quick in Mexico City but just got stuck in the midfield mire, the same manifested on Friday at Diriyah.
Saturday though was very different and one of the fastest one-lap merchants in Formula E proved why, with a sensational pole lap, of which the third sector was of the very highest quality.
“It takes a lot of weight off your shoulders and I was actually a bit almost emotional after qualifying because it’s a lot of stress,” Rowland told The Race.
“You think about it constantly, you go to bed at night thinking about it, and you’re doubting yourself a lot. As race drivers, you do that and the last two years have been, even though I worked hard and tried everything I could, it’s just very tough.”
The race itself wasn’t quite as smooth. A fluffed start, to which Rowland was honest “if I’m completely honest the first three starts have been terrible for me” may have scuppered a genuine chance of a Vergne-style Hyderabad 2023 defensive win.
“We need to go and have a look at that,” added Rowland.
“To be honest, I think that probably cost us the win. I think I had the pace but I couldn’t control the race from second.”
Despite getting back on to Frijns’s tail there was an overarching feeling that a third place, added to Fenestraz’s sixth, was just the sort of big points boost that Nissan really needed after a largely tepid start to the season otherwise.
For Frijns the race start was a blessing and a curse because, as he told The Race “I wasn’t expecting to lead and we (Cassidy) were over-consuming and killing each other".
The mid-phase lull saw both get the energy back on track but at the consequence of Rowland and gang latching back on. Still, with overtaking very risky Frijns was still in a good position.
He did entertain thoughts of making a hero move but perhaps judiciously decided against it.
“I was thinking about it for sure,” said Frijns.
“But the thing is that we're both driving Jaguar powertrains. We’re not team-mates but if I would do a move, it will be a very tricky one to do so.
“It was the first time for me that I was in a good position. Still, I feel that Nick has an edge over me on understanding of the car and how to do little tricks differently and better. I'm still learning.”
Sette Camara and Daruvala Surprised Us All
“I’m feeling a bit more comfortable with the car,” was ERT’s Sergio Sette Camara’s summary to The Race after his heroic fourth on the grid performance on Friday and subsequent fighting ninth-place finish.
Yet, despite it all, he wasn’t feeling “very comfortable with Gen3 to be honest” still.
“I’d sign the paper right now if you say we have Gen2 next round. For me, these cars are still really weird, hard to drive, it’s not my style, but I’m much more comfortable than last year, and when you’re comfortable you start getting into the groove.”
The Brazilian is far from alone in that judgement of the Gen3 cars but he is learning quickly where the nuances in the combination of vehicle dynamic and personal driving style are.
Sette Camara is famously aggressive at the wheel, and it is well-known that the Hankook tyres are as fickle as a feather in a stream when it comes to get them in anything approaching a sweet spot.
Some of that Friday wonder of qualifying was slightly diluted by a fall from fourth to ninth in the race results, but in the context of what he had and an adapted strategy it was actually one of the performances of the entire weekend.
“I think one or two positions more would have been possible if I had gone to that strategy (harder saving) earlier,” he said.
“I was trying to it like a linear race and people were passing me because they just had more energy. It took me some time to say, ‘ok I’m going to switch’. If I had have done that earlier, I think I could have kept P7 or P8. But no one has a crystal ball.”
For Maserati MSG newbie Daruvala there was a best showing so far in his nascent Formula E career.
Some hard work from Friday to Saturday bore fruit in free practice on Saturday morning and the hints were there that a breakthrough may have been found after a dispiriting first race brought only a distant 20th position.
But it was exactly that collation of laps that he took forward for the following day using them intelligently and to his advantage.
Making it through to the duels with a lap that knocked out Buemi and Dennis, the Maserati lined up fifth, largely due to the beneficial nature of going last in the quarter final, where he was hammered by a pumped-up Rowland in the first and third sectors of the lap.
“I took the confidence of yesterday into today and qualified in the top five which was obviously very good,” Daruvala confirmed to The Race.
“Doing 35 laps yesterday (Friday) in the race, driving corners closer to the limit and driving more on a track which is not so dirty I think helped me gain more confidence going into today.”
🟡 YELLOW FLAG 🟡@DaruvalaJehan brings out the yellow flag after suffering brake failure and running straight on at Turn 18.— Formula E (@FIAFormulaE) January 27, 2024
The @maseratimsg driver is the second retirement for this race.#DiriyahEPrix pic.twitter.com/5oxDOCrONY
Those signs are good for Daruvala and with a team that feels more unified after a bruising off-season, both the ‘Trident Blues’ can be in amongst them at several races this season.
No One is King for Long in FE
A bit like fellow front-runners Evans and Wehrlein, champion Jake Dennis was largely perplexed as to why his one-lap pace on Friday couldn’t translate 24 hours later.
“The car was really good actually (in the race); we had really good pace, one of the fastest cars on track, when we needed to be but it’s just impossible to overtake, just impossible,” Dennis told The Race.
That was a huge change from qualifying when he described what he felt beneath him as “the worst car I’ve had in Formula E".
“We don’t really know what’s happened to be honest,” was Dennis’ honest assessment.
“It’s a bit confusing for all of us and that’s what we need to analyse. We changed some things for the race, that was quite positive but we don’t really know why we woke up this morning and were slow.
He added that “we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here; we were just lacking a bit of pace in qualifying today.”
Like post-Mexico City, Andretti and Dennis will be far from panicking after their collective Arabian feast followed by famine.