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Formula E

Stopgap or new era? Di Grassi’s first Formula E move analysed

by Sam Smith
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Lucas di Grassi won Formula E races in his first and his final event for the Abt Audi concern, which changed guise considerably over that time.

Earlier this week was the seventh anniversary of di Grassi’s win in the first ever Formula E race in Beijing.

Since that time di Grassi has been an ever-present on the grid via a true white-knuckle ride of a tumultuous Formula E career that has redefined the term ‘box office.’

Lucas di Grassi Abt wins Beijing Formula E 2014

Di Grassi can view his move to Venturi – officially announced today – as transient or everlasting depending on how he performs next season.

But the indications are that his moment of considering a sabbatical for 2022 was altogether fleeting and just perhaps he can build a career with the Monegasques of Venturi beyond his competitive lifespan as a driver.

Some of the reasoning for his signature alongside Edoardo Mortara was that Venturi has committed and ambitious majority stakeholders in Scott Swid and Jose M Aznar Botella.

But the halo factor here is really that Formula E is a category of racing he deeply adores.

That adoration comes from a dual-stream of pure competitive desire and a fascinated thread that runs deep via science, mobility and socio-economic curiosity.

Lucas di Grassi

The first of these pre-requisites for di Grassi is precisely why he was confirmed as a Venturi driver today. As team-mate to 2021 runner-up Mortara, in an initial one-year deal that The Race reported earlier this month, he will have a very strong chance of becoming a double champion.

This isn’t the first time di Grassi has had to consider a change of path in his Formula E voyage as he told The Race last month, he did seriously consider leaving ABT Audi in 2016 after probably losing the 2015/16 title via his Mexico City E-Prix exclusion.

There are undoubtedly those in the Formula E paddock who thought di Grassi was past it at the start of last season.

Rene Rast would come into Audi and blow him away they said. It didn’t happen.

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Yes, Rast was pacey and had some sensational races. But di Grassi outscored him on points, had a better average qualifying figure (12.3 to 15.1) and started in a better position from the grid than his new team mate on 10 occasions in the 15-round championship.

He also won two races and probably should have won three (had his London trick stood).

He had a mechanical failure (driveshaft) while in the lead in Rome and he only failed to win in London because he didn’t come to a complete dead stop in the outrageous genius of ‘the Lucas Loophole’ pitstop.

It is plain that di Grassi still has got plenty to give. He of course knew this, and eventually so did Susie Wolff and di Grassi’s Monaco neighbour and new Venturi work colleague Jerome d’Ambrosio.

Di Grassi will also have a pretty good idea of what he is doing in 2023 as well, the crucial first season of the Gen3 era.

By that time he’ll be knocking on the door of 40 but age shall not overly whither him, just as it didn’t Nick Heidfeld or Andre Lotterer.

“The way I see my career is in Formula E I’d like to stay in FE, and then to retire in FE,” he told The Race at the London E-Prix in July.

This was the same time that his representatives were still scoping out possibilities with other teams, notably Nissan e.dams.

And amid Le Mans’ return to being a manufacturer hotbed, former Audi LMP1 driver di Grassi made clear that his focus was firmly on Formula E and not a return to sportscars.

“I think drivers will have to choose already next season their programmes because it’s such a compact championship and with Gen3 and all the sim commitments,” di Grassi continued.

“I believe the driver will have to choose between going to endurance or staying in FE. You will not be able to do both.

“If I have to choose for sure, I will choose FE.”

Formula E Berlin E Prix 2021

The big question now is if di Grassi’s move to Venturi, knowing full well it is a guaranteed winning package as Mercedes’ customer, will be one in which he simply picks up the shiny pots and pans before looking elsewhere for a final money-spinning two-year deal to see him through to the end of 2024.

As it stands, Venturi has had discussions with at least Stellantis (DS) and Nissan among others about the possibilities of a Gen3 deal after Mercedes vacates the stage at the end of 2022.

But di Grassi is known to usually be at least one step ahead and The Race understands that he could already have some form of agreement for 2023 and beyond with a rival manufacturer.

Could this expose Venturi for 2023?

Team boss Susie Wolff says it’s not yet really on her sonar, which around the treacherous rocks of Monaco probably needs addressing sooner rather than later.

Right now, her “full focus” is that the team she leads is in a good “strategic position” for Gen3 and “not so much focusing on what the driver line-up will be in Gen3.”

“There’s obviously a lot of balls in the air for Gen3 because we lose our supply from Mercedes-Benz, they’re leaving,” said Wolff.

Formula E Marrakesh E Prix 2020

“That means that there is a lot of work ahead to put ourselves in the right position to be competitive throughout Gen3.

“I’m pretty sure if we’re winning races in season eight [2022], then of course there’s going to be that willingness to keep going if we can provide a competitive package in the future.”

What Wolff is also getting with di Grassi is much more than just an experienced and successful Formula E winner.

Curiously there are plenty in the Formula E paddock and in the hall-of-mirrors-esque distorted reality of the wild west saloon of social media that paint di Grassi as a modern-day evangelist.

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The definition of an evangelist is someone who wants to religiously convert someone via public preaching.

Yet, I for one have never sensed di Grassi being especially pushy in this regard other than the occasional descent into social media over-elaboration.

Rather, he simply seems to want to outline facts. Then let you decide on what is the best for you, your mobility and consequently the future world we will all have to share.

Consider this from a chat we had last April, just as the first wave of coronavirus reeked its catastrophic passage across the world.

“Electric cars and vans, especially in cities, must be the norm in a post COVID-19 world,” he said.

“Governments that made all measures to save lives during the corona pandemic cannot anymore ignore the millions of deaths and the socio-economic impact of not taking any proactive action to mitigate air pollution.

“Often hard times lead to important changes.”

We know the world is a complicated place and that human beings can be contrary, so it remains to be seen if these sentiments can be adhered to around the globe.

Apr 24 : Lucas di Grassi's thoughts on the impact of coronavirus on Formula E and F1

How many sportspeople, let alone racing drivers, are thinking about bigger picture subjects such as this? Very few.

Change indeed seems to constantly be on di Grassi’s mind, and it is not just for future generations but right now it is for his own career too.

The bigger picture question is whether his first foray away from Audi in almost a decade is a transitory one.

The Race revealed in June that the plans for an Abt entry to run in 2022 had hit the buffers after the planned investment from SEGI.TV founder Edward Sylvan didn’t materialise in time.

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Di Grassi and either Rast or Nico Mueller would have been part of this, and although the project is temporarily on hold, there is every indication that a longer-term plan for 2023 is already being worked on.

Venturi is likely to look quite a bit different by then through a probable top-line management restructure.

With signs that Formula E’s traditionally most enigmatic team, at last, came of age with two wins and a title challenge from Mortara, it has in Wolff’s words built a bridge to the “next stage of having a driver line-up that we really feel is one of the strongest in Formula E”.

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