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Formula E

Top five Formula E screw-ups in Mexico

by Sam Smith
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Mexico City has a funny habit of throwing up cruel and anguished catastrophes for Formula E teams and drivers, often on the cusp of a great result.

The race often occurs around St Valentine’s Day, so it seems only fitting that we countdown the biggest heartbreaks at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez as Formula E prepares to visit the venue of the Mexico City E-Prix for a sixth time this weekend.

5 – Oliver Turvey, 2017

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Turvey had endured a traumatic 2015-16 season with the team then known as NEXTEV NIO but had managed to squeeze out better results from his recalcitrant car than reigning champion Nelson Piquet Jr.

Heading into the third Formula E campaign Turvey was at the top of his game again and took a shock pole in Mexico on his 30th birthday.

That this was largely fortuitous due to Daniel Abt’s having his time scratched for a weight infringement didn’t trouble the Cumbrian too much.

But his candles were well and truly blown out on race day after a systems failure wrecked a hitherto faultless race which he’d led comfortably from Jose-Maria Lopez’s DS Virgin entry.

The deflated balloons were partly inflated again a year later when Turvey took his first, and so far only, Formula E podium with an assured run to third behind the similarly-avenging Abt.

4 – Stoffel Vandoorne, 2020

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Vandoorne entered the Mexican race in February 2020 as points leader but was left crushed after shunting his Mercedes into a wall almost within sight of the chequered flag.

A slightly lacklustre qualifying had left the Belgian in 10th on the grid, but he made hay as the race progressed and pushed through to fifth place as the race entered its final laps.

But a crumbling surface was still testing the drivers as Vandoorne fought to repel a feisty BMW driven by Alexander Sims, who had surged through from a lowly 18th on the grid.

On the penultimate lap Vandoorne locked up and smote the barrier, wiping away his front wing and damaging his suspension. Sam Bird stuffing his Envision Virgin Audi into the same wall just a minute before was of little consolation to the shattered Belgian.

3 – Daniel Abt, 2017

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Sadly, Abt’s Formula E career will be forever remembered for a bizarre and infamous esports ringer debacle in May 2020.

While that was completely his own fault, the German had various episodes of outrageous misfortune in a tumultuous Formula E career that spanned over six seasons.

At Mexico City in 2017, he scored what he believed to be his second pole position in the all-electric series, only to see it annulled when his Audi’s tyres came in under the pressure minimum of 1.60 bar.

Abt’s brilliant race from the back of the grid to seventh place at the finish was scant consolation, especially when he learned his team-mate Lucas di Grassi had carved a miracle win after two pit stops and a penalty.

2 – Pascal Wehrlein, 2019

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Leading a race for every metre apart from the last thirty kind of re-defines the words ‘disappointment’ and ‘heartbreak’ but that’s exactly what happened to Pascal Wehrlein in one of the most outrageous and thrilling finales to a race I, and many others, have ever seen.

Wehrlein was absolutely flying in early 2019 after making a delayed debut with Mahindra at Marrakesh when he’d got into a dispute with Mercedes amid contractual shenanigans.

But by his second race in Santiago, he was a genuine potential race winner. He eventually finished second, while in Mexico a few weeks later he looked a shoo-in for his first victory.

He waltzed to his maiden pole and controlled the race, resisting di Grassi in the final stages expertly. But it wasn’t quite expertly enough.

As the final lap began the Mahindra was exactly a percent down on di Grassi but still defending gamely. At the first chicane, the Audi made a move with Wehrlein choosing to bypass the corner and use the escape road.

This, in fact, would have been enough for di Grassi as Wehrlein was slapped with a five-second penalty for the manoeuvre, but no one, least of all the front two, knew this for certain as they headed into the final half a lap.

Di Grassi bobbed and weaved as Wehrlein hit the ropes coming out of the final chicane and at last the Brazilian was able to lay a glove on him.

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Yet it came as the two went for the line with Wehrlein hitting zero on his usable energy. Di Grassi won by 0.220s and sent his team into ecstasy with radios and other sundry pit equipment sent flying.

“I’ve never seen a race like that, I really haven’t,” was Audi team principal Allan McNish’s incredulous reaction right after the race.

“My headset flew off, the radio hit the back of the pit because everyone jumped up, and the back of the pit facia was basically destroyed. It was like when Manchester United came back in the Champions League [final’s injury time] in 1999.”

1 – Lucas di Grassi – 2016

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Di Grassi’s relationship with the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is a complex one.

A lunatic multiple-pitstop win that defied all odds and the above-described shocking last few metres win in 2019 are the two of the three standout memories for Formula E’s most headline-savvy racer.

But it’s the very first Mexico City E-Prix in March 2016 where the Brazilian faced the first of several crisis periods in his early Formula E career.

Renault was dominating the early phase of the championship with Sebastien Buemi taking two wins from the first four rounds and leading the title race from di Grassi.

With Buemi topping qualifying but being beaten to pole by a Jerome d’Ambrosio-inspired surprise, all bets were off for the race.

Ultimately di Grassi dominated after usurping the Dragon driver after the mandatory car swaps and sailed to a then-third Formula E win in dominant fashion.

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As reports were filed and di Grassi left for the after race party, the stewards were filing their bulletin regarding the post-race weight check.

This revealed that di Grassi’s car came in at 886.2 kg and was under the minimum limit of 888 kg and a breach of Art.5.1 of the Technical Regulations. It was black and white, and he was out.

Feb 02 : Can Mercedes be stopped? Formula E 2022 season-opener review

The following day this writer was hosting an FIA WEC press conference at a downtown hotel in Mexico City for the first visit of the sportscar championship later that year. At the very last moment, di Grassi arrived stony-faced.

His professional face appeared for no longer than necessary before he disappeared back into the traffic and smog.

“In season two we brought new [wheel]rims to Mexico, and we were underweight and got disqualified,” recalls Franco Chiocchetti, di Grassi’s engineer at the time.

“I took that hard because it cost him [di Grassi] the title.

“We didn’t speak for a few weeks, so you can say that there was more than an element of revenge in what happened in 2017.”

That referred to when di Grassi eventually won the title after a red in tooth and claw fight with rival Buemi.

Indeed, after the 2017 Mexican race that di Grassi won, Chiocchetti had a rare quiet moment with his charge.

“I whispered to Lucas, and I said: ‘My head is clear now, we have the revenge and we have ticked this bloody box in Mexico. He gave me a big smile. It was a very nice moment’.”

Just a year earlier di Grassi was genuinely questioning whether or not he would continue with the team that would ultimately help him achieve that goal, so for sheer drama the first ever Mexico City E-Prix provided the ultimate in sporting theatre.

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