By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
Ahead of each ABB FIA Formula E Championship race weekend, Motorsports Tribune offers an in-depth look at the details and storylines going into the weekend’s event(s).
Race(s): CBMM Niobium Punta del Este E-Prix (37 laps, 64.01 miles)
Circuit: Punta Del Este Street Circuit (Punta del Este, Uruguay)
Track Details: Anti-Clockwise – 20 turns, 1.73 miles
Track Record: 1:15.011 (Sebastien Buemi, 2015)
What Happened Last Year: Nothing. The ABB Fia Formula E Championship didn’t compete at Punta del Este during Season Three, going elsewhere after running on the street circuit in each of the tour’s first two seasons.
Weekend TV Schedule
Saturday, March 3
Free Practice 1: 6:55-7:55 a.m. ET (FOX Sports Go)
Free Practice 2: 9:25-10:10 a.m. ET (FOX Sports Go)
2018 CBMM Niobium Punta del Este E-Prix: 12:30 p.m. ET (FOX Sports 1)
Storylines to Watch
The end of Saturday’s E-Prix will mark the halfway point of the season, with six races completed and six remaining.
For some the mark will come at a good time. For others? It’s arriving way too soon.
Points leader Jean-Eric Vergne will likely be happy to see the season transition to its second half. After finishing inside of the top 10 in each of the first three season of the all-electric tour’s championship, Vergne has ascended into the championship conversation with Techeetah.
The Frenchman has just one win – coming back in Techeetah’s one-two sweep in Santiago – but his supreme consistency has delivered him to the top of the standings. Vergne has yet to finish worse than fifth, dropping to no worse than third in the standings after each of the first five E-Prix.
Vergne’s joy to enter the latter half of the year should be shared by fellow title contenders Felix Rosenqvist, Sam Bird and Sebastien Buemi. The trio have combined for three wins, seven podiums and three poles in the first five events, positioning themselves a cut above the rest of the paddock with the season slowly winding down.
On the other end of the spectrum are teams that wish they had more time to right the ship and close their early deficits.
Chief among these teams are Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler, who believe they’ve fixed their early reliability issues and are in position to contend for wins down the stretch. Team namesake Daniel Abt showed his mettle with a win in Mexico City, lifting himself up to sixth in the standings. But the German has a 44-point gap to make up on Vergne in the final seven E-Prix – a deficit of nearly two complete races.
Defending champion Lucas di Grassi finds himself trapped in a greater hole than his teammate. The Brazilian failed to tally a single point until he managed a drive through the field to tally a top 10 in Mexico. He has just three points, placing him a near-insurmountable 78 points behind Vergne, with even eighth-place Edoardo Mortara a full race away.
Teams in the middle still have everything to play for, but mounting the charge at the lead quartet will be a challenge. Any rises to the top of the standings would require a similar multi-podium, consistent effort while the current crop of contenders falters.
The feat shouldn’t be impossible, especially for someone like Season One champion Nelson Piquet Jr., who sits fifth in the standings. But it’ll take a tremendous effort to manage, so they’d best start on it this weekend if they intend to make it happen.
Pit road determining races has been a trend of many forms of motorsport, from NASCAR’s air gun woes to IndyCar’s Sebastien Bourdais earning a victory on strategy and a stroke of late luck. But no where this season has pit road proven to be quite a point of emphasis as the Formula E paddock.
Mid-race pit stops have always been a point of discussion in the single-seater series. The lack of battery power of the current crop of cars has required the tour’s drivers to get out and manually swap cars – a strangely archaic sight given Formula E’s emphasis on pushing the future of technology.
In the past the stops were allotted a minimum time in an effort to keep teams from pushing the boundaries of safety, but shortly before Santiago the ruling was changed, allowing teams to make car swaps as quickly as possible to return to the racing surface.
The new-look stops proved paramount in both Santiago and Mexico City, with multiple positions changing hands and a member of Techeetah’s engineering staff being brushed by one of the team’s cars during a round of pit stops. The incident, while relatively minor, brought back the conversation of safety relative to the stops, though the FIA has thus far stood by their decision to keep the car swaps as they are.
Next season this issue should be resolved. The new cars debuting for Season Five are expected to have enough battery life to complete entire races without necessitating a swap.
But for this weekend – and the rest of the season – expect pit road to be a continual topic of conversation.
Buemi’s Search for Victory
Could this be the weekend that Sebastien Buemi and Renault e.dams make their way back to victory lane?
If previous history is any indication, then the answer could well be yes.
Buemi has been Formula E’s best driver through the tour’s first three seasons, earning 12 victories, tallying the Season Two championship and losing out on a repeat title in Season Three only after missing the double-header weekend in New York City due to a scheduling conflict with the FIA World Endurance Championship.
The Swiss shoe has finished no worse than second in the standings in any season, and he’s been on the podium after 20 of his 36 career starts.
This season hasn’t faired much different for Buemi – he has three podiums, and his 5.8 average finish matches his consistent title run two years ago. The results have the 29-year-old sitting fourth in the standings, 29 points out from Vergne for the top spot.
There’s only one thing missing from Buemi’s championship chase: a victory.
Buemi’s three podiums are the most of anyone on the tour, but the three drivers ahead of him – Vergne, Rosenqvist and Bird – all have one or more race wins to their name. Given the staggered points system in Formula E, the added benefits of winning have helped the trio overcome Buemi’s consistency by surging when it counts.
If he hopes to keep his championship hopes alive, Buemi will need to deliver his Renault e.Dams team at least one victory. In fact, he might even need multiple wins. No driver has managed to claim the title without at least two triumphs thus far.
Thankfully for Buemi, Punta del Este is an area that suits him well.
Formula E made the trek to the Uruguayan city twice in the tour’s first three seasons. Buemi won on both occasions, elevating himself into the title fight in Season One and earning valuable points that helped him claim the championship in his second year.
If he intends to make a similar run this season, another victory in Punta del Este should provide the kickstart that his title hopes need.