Photo: Formula E

Bearden Breakdown: Vergne Finds the Championship Formula

By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer

A Championship Statement

With half of the ABB FIA Formula E Championship season complete, the championship favorite has finally been revealed.

Jean-Eric Vergne and Techeetah established themselves as the tour’s top team in a dominant CBMM Niobium Punta del Este E-Prix romp, claiming the Julius Baer Pole Award and leading wire-to-wire to earn their second victory of Season Four.

The run was Vergne’s third podium and sixth top five in as many races this season.

More importantly, it was also a championship statement.

“We are incredibly happy to have extended our championship lead with another 25 points for the win, but also with another three points for the Pole position,” Techeetah Team Principle Mark Preston said. “Jean-Eric has really shown his fantastic talent this week, both in and outside of the car.

“He has really transformed over the last year and is a more mature driver now, which he displayed in today’s race.”

Season Four has truly proven transformative for Vergne.

The Frenchman has competed in Formula E throughout the tour’s existence – making nine starts in the opening season and competing full time in the years since. He’s taken small steps forward in each season, surviving to the end of three more races in his second year, and earning his first win en-route to fifth in the championship standings in Season Three.

Recent trends showed Vergne poised to make another step up this year, but his rise has exceeded expectation.

Just six races into the new season, Vergne has already claimed multiple wins for the first time in his Formula E career. His three podiums thus far are only two away from matching his personal best in the all-electric series, and his 3.0 average finish is less than half of his personal best 7.9 from last season.

Vergne has improved at nearly every aspect of his craft. He survives to the end of races, completes key passes instead of having them executed on him, and finds himself celebrating successful results instead of lamenting what could have been after run-ins with the tour’s best drivers.

The 27-year-old put his progression on display in Punta del Este, fending off a fierce challenge from defending champion Lucas di Grassi in a performance that positioned him well to replace di Grassi as the tour’s next title winner.

The Brazilian challenged Vergne early and often, keeping him on the defensive until the checkered flag flew. Had the Techeetah star allowed any opportunities to the veteran, he likely would have lost the race. But Vergne persisted with a stellar defensive drive, fending di Grassi off by just .447 seconds at race’s end.

“I had an amazing start off the line and had a fair and hard fight with Lucas for the rest of the race,” Vergne said. “Both Lucas and I knew that he had a faster car, so the only way for me to win was to not make any mistakes. One single mistake would have cost me the win.”

The run showed the mark of a champion, adding to Vergne’s lead in the standings as the season enters its second half. Vergne is the first driver to eclipse 100 points, and he now holds a 30-point cushion on second-place Felix Rosenqvist with 109 points. Sam Bird sits just three points behind Rosenqvist in third, but the fourth-place driver – Sebastien Buemi – trails Vergne by a full 57 markers.

That buffer means Vergne can afford to have one bad race without losing his lead – a significant advantage with only six races remaining. But he isn’t feeling comfortable just yet.

“There’s still a haul of points to play for and we’re not guaranteed anything just because we are leading the championship now,” Vergne said.  We’re all going to push even harder now to stay where we are and to further increase the lead.

“If Formula E history tells us anything, the championship isn’t won until the very last race.”

Vergne is correct in that regard. Formula E’s brief history shows that there’s still plenty to race for. All three of the single-seater tour’s previous champions sat second after six rounds.

Nothing is guaranteed, but for the first time this season there appears to be a true championship favorite. Now the onus is on Vergne to maintain his advantage.

Thinning of the Herd

The Formula E paddock entered Punta del Este with as many as six drivers within reach of the championship.

They emerged with only a trio in the hunt.

The sport’s best drivers through the first five races – Vergne, Rosenqvist and Bird – continued their strong seasons with top fives in Uruguay, continuing their championship chases unabated. It were the fringe contenders that fell by the wayside.

Punta del Este proved challenging for Sebastien Buemi and Nelson Piquet Jr. (Photo: Formula E)

Much like the Arizona Wildcats and Virginia Cavaliers in the NCAA Tournament, early contenders Sebastien Buemi and Nelson Piquet Jr. saw their title hopes fall apart early in Uruguay. Vehicle issues plagued both drivers after contact on-track, dropping them out of the race before the race’s 30th lap and ending their days without points.

The results were critical failures for both Buemi and Piquet, who sat fourth and fifth in the standings entering the race with a full-race gap to points leader Vergne. Neither veteran lost their position in the standings, but Vergne’s dominant day meant both drivers dropped an additional race out of the championship picture.

Buemi now trails the leader by 57 points – the largest championship deficit he’s ever faced in Formula E competition.

“It was a bad day for me and I’m feeling very sorry for the team,” he said. “By clipping the wall I ruined our chances of a podium finish. We had a good enough car to achieve such a result as I was in front of Bird who finished third.

“Obviously I’m disappointed, but you can’t rerun the race and now we have to look to the next one. Although it wasn’t perhaps obvious in qualifying I think we were quick enough; that’s the positive aspect I’ll take away with me.”

Season One champion Piquet sits an additional seven points back in fifth, within reach of the drivers behind him and in need of multiple podiums if he is to have any hope of salvaging his quest for a second Formula E title.

“I made a decent start in the race but then after contact I had an broken driveshaft,” Piquet said. “I’d like to thank all the team who worked very very hard to get the car together for the race after qualifying, they did an amazing job.”

Quick Shots

He fell one position short of the victory he desired, but Lucas di Grassi looked like the driver that soared to a Season Three championship in Punta del Este. The 33-year-old qualified on the front row and held a position at the front throughout the E-Prix’s 37 laps. He gave Vergne, this season’s strongest competitor, a fight for the ages before settling for second.

The run wasn’t the sort of dominant performance that lifted the Brazilian to three top-three finishes in the standings before this season, but Punta del Este served as a return to form for him after an early stretch that saw di Grassi take five races to tally points.

“I had the faster car, but (Vergne) defended perfectly,” di Grassi said. “It was possible to score 28 points today, instead it was only 18. But our car is super-fast and now also reliable. I’m looking forward to the second half of the season.”

A championship is likely out of the picture, but di Grassi still has potential to tally another top five points finish and a host of podiums and wins if he and Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler can match their Punta del Esta speed for the rest of the season. That should be their goal moving forward.

He hasn’t been able to match his championship counterparts in victories, but veteran Sam Bird continues to keep his title fight alive with consistency.

Bird hasn’t scored a win since the season-opening HKT Hong Kong E-Prix, but he’s earned five top-five finishes in the opening six races of the year. In Punta del Este the DS Virgin Racing ace finished third to score his third podium of the season, closing to within three points of rival Rosenqvist for second in the standings.

Vergne’s victory kept Bird from closing ground on the lead, but the Briton’s consistency has him sitting just 33 points back with six races remaining. He’s never finished higher than fourth in the standings before, but Bird is well poised to contend until the United States finale if he can continue to maintain the consistency he’s shown thus far.

Daniel Abt’s year continues to be a tale of feast or famine.

The German was left disappointed in Uruguay, finishing 43 seconds off-pace in 14th and failing to score a point after suffering a seat belt failure. One race removed from his first-career Formula E win in Mexico City, Abt endured his third pointless race in six starts.

Abt isn’t entirely to blame for his woes – the whole of Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler have struggled this season. But his Uruguay disappointment stood in stark contrast to di Grassi, who looked capable of winning the race.

The 25-year-old still sits seventh in the standings, which would match his career best finish from Season Two. But his Mexico City run showed that there’s potential for much more this season. A top-five finish is within reach. Abt just needs to find the consistent speed necessary to make it happen.

Dragon Racing’s bounce back continued in Punta del Este.

Jay Penske’s organization appeared to be in dire straits after the season-opening doubleheader in Hong Kong, having failed to show any significant speed en-route to a pointless weekend with a best result of 15th. The performance led Neel Jani to leave the series. Jose Maria Lopez quickly took his place, but the team’s outlook appeared bleak.

In the four E-Prix since, Dragon has proven to be a more consistent contender. Both Lopez and Jerome d’Ambrosio have finished in the points twice, and the organization has been in the running for points in the weekends they’ve failed to garner them.

The company’s best weekend to date came in Uruguay, with their duo finishing eighth and ninth to give Dragon their first double-points effort of the season.

While the run was nothing special, it did show promise. Penske’s squad still has a long way to climb, but they’re heading in the right direction.

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Aaron Bearden is a Contributing Writer for Motorsports Tribune, handling coverage of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and ABB FIA Formula E Championship. A native Hoosier, Bearden has attended races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since he was three years old. He can be found on social media at @AaronBearden93.