until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

The damage limitation and failed Formula E gamble in Mexico

by Sam Smith
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Mercedes EQ and Jaguar Racing were considered to be two of the title favourites for the 2022 ABB FIA Formula E World Championship title, but varying degrees of scrappy races in the opening races may now put into some doubt that proclamation.

While Mercedes has kept within points of early-season championship leaders and its customer ROKiT Venturi, the Big Cat had a meagre return that has proved to be a very unpleasant surprise.

The Mexico City E-Prix saw very different races play out for the two, but at one stage it looked like potentially they could both harness reasonable silk-purse races.

While Mercedes EQ came away with nine points via Nyck de Vries, Jaguar took nothing away from a race that saw it get sucked into Porsche’s flirtatious, and for some of its rivals, deadly race strategy.

Mercedes EQ: Damage limitation

Formula E Mexico City E Prix 2021

The seeds of Mercedes EQ’s second underwhelming race in a row were sown in the first free practice session where both drivers struggled to make the most of an initial car set-up which neither driver was comfortable with.

While rivals Porsche instantly found a serious sweet spot, Mercedes struggled.

In 2022, with reduced free practice time, if you don’t get the setup right quickly you are running in to a strong head-wind immediately.

If teams can get the setup right then all the more time to concentrate on race efficiency which will bring you a fast and efficient race car for qualifying.

If you are chasing the setup and drivers don’t have confidence then in the race the struggles are amplified because of the lost time to learn the efficient driving style to save max energy.

Some big changes were applied before the second session, but little progress appeared to be made although De Vries elected to only run at the 220kWpower mode in an effort to ensure he maximised his group qualifying credentials.

That looked prudent when he, like his team-mate, just made it through into the quarter-finals albeit by tiny margins – Vandoorne by 0.086s and De Vries by 0.04s.

They were performances that impressed their boss Ian James, who told The Race they “did a phenomenal job getting through into the knockout stages” because “we certainly weren’t up at the top from a pace perspective.”

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Pushing above their combined performance weight is not a phrase often used of Mercedes EQ who have worked hard, and yes spent its way to an efficient, reliable, and potent technical package.

But any notions of cakewalks or dominance in Formula E are hokum. Four seasons into a rulesset does not make for a natural hierarchy and James knows it.

“As in Diriyah, it showed to be true and here as well the fact that the competition is so tight, the performances between the teams is so small you really need to maximise every single session that you have,” he said.

“If you start on the backfoot in FP one then you sort of face an uphill struggle for the rest of the event, and I think that that was really symptomatic of what we had here.

“For whatever reason, and there’s something that we need to go back and take a closer look at, we didn’t have the setup or the pace in FP1, we made some adjustments going forward into the next session but as you probably saw from the qualifying performance.”

Therefore, Mercedes EQ had to adapt and do it quickly. You could see that on de Vries and his engineer, Albert Lau’s face when they conferred after the free practice sessions concluded.

That they did so in the race was encouraging but it was a frustrating one for both de Vries and Vandoorne who had to embroil themselves in battles they could have done without.

“It makes the job that much more difficult when you’re in that situation,” adds James.

“I don’t think there’s anything fundamental to worry about, it’s more just maximising every aspect of the package and if you don’t do that, from the outset, you make it very difficult for yourself.”

Jaguar’s Busted Flush

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At the top of the circuit offices amid the splendid theatre that is the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, there sits a splendid statue of Pedro Rodriguez and his kid brother, the mercurial Ricardo.

As a keen enthusiast of racing’s history, Jaguar boss James Barclay will know all about Mexico’s most famous racing siblings.

He’ll know how the sport cruelly claimed the pair and how their legacies were interwoven with success and defeat in equal measure throughout their brief but brilliant lives.

In a sense, Jaguar’s relationship with Mexico is sharing similar rollercoaster attributes. On the same tarmac that it spilt champagne two years ago, it leaked tears of frustration this time around.

It was all due to getting sucked into what it believed was going to be a 39 lap race but in fact, ended up being a lap extra. That it did so by just 1.6 seconds was galling but the fact it elected to gamble made it a slam-dunk error by the team. It wasn’t the only one to fall headlong into the trap, but it was the highest-profile in how deep the dive became.

The frustration felt by Mitch Evans and Sam Bird was immense, as they were hoodwinked into a false dawn, one in which it looked like they were both executing burn from the stern brilliance.

Formula E Mexico City E Prix 2021

But it was a fool’s gold race. One which left the Big Cat licking sizeable wounds after a second consecutive no score. The last time that happened was back in Valencia last April.

James Barclay didn’t shy away from the fact the team has a lot to debrief upon this week and cited its underwhelming qualifying performances so far as being of most concern.

“We have to be honest, we have work to do,” Barclay understated after Saturday’s race.

“We have a package that can compete, but our fundamental issue today was getting more [single] lap pace.

“The qualifying new format showed just how important it is, and we haven’t quite optimised that. We’re only one tenth off, so you’ve got to look at it in context.

“We’re not looking at a huge gap, these are very small margins, so we’ve just got to look into how we take that next step. When you qualify well you can race well.”

Barclay also accepted that the high risk strategy it employed in banking and throwing both drivers destinies into a believed 39 lap encounter was “a big gamble.”

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“Both cars we came through and we were just on the edge of the points so we took the gamble today to be super aggressive and hope it paid off and Porsche would run that race one lap shorter.

“They didn’t, they went two laps and the gamble didn’t pay off. Sometimes it doesn’t, but as a team, we’re here to race to score big points and we took that call today but it didn’t work out.”

As the podium tickertape lazily sailed over the observing Pedro and Ricardo on Saturday, Barclay was left to ruminate on how so many points had again fluttered away and what it might mean for what it expected to be at the very least a title challenge this season.

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