Formula E closes out the season this weekend in Berlin

Entertainment

Formula E’s season finale is coming up this weekend in Berlin with a doubleheader of races at the Tempelhof Airport Street Circuit. It’s another two-race weekend, but this one is a little different – for the second race, the cars will go the opposite direction around the track to shake things up a bit.

Last year, the second half of the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Formula E ended up salvaging the season with six races in Berlin over the course of just nine days. They did something similar then – changing the track between three separate configurations, with one being clockwise and two counter-clockwise.

We’ll get into a little Formula E news and a preview of what’s to come this weekend, but first a quick recap of what happened last time out in London.

We started the London ePrix weekend with ominous forecasts of thunderstorms all weekend long, which would have really shaken up the race, especially due to the novel indoor-outdoor circuit design.

But alas, as often happens in Formula E, these forecasts did not turn out. Despite Formula E’s “street” tires, which are capable of running in the wet, there have been scarce few wet races so far, which is a shame since this can shake things up and add excitement to the racing. The track was a little wet during pre-race sessions, but stayed mostly dry during both races (just a sprinkle or two, nothing much).

We also had ominous forecasts that there wouldn’t be much passing or excitement at the race, because energy use would be low at this track and therefore drivers would be able to drive flat-out the whole time, without needing to save energy, which means there would be less strategic complexity to the race. This forecast, too, did not come to pass.

Saturday’s race started with Alex Lynn and Jake Dennis on the front row for their home race. It ended up being a rather standard affair with some solid racing, but none of the crazy drama we often see in Formula E.

Both front row drivers quickly managed to get quite far ahead of the rest of the pack and were mostly battling each other. Sebastian Buemi, Andre Lotterer, and Nyck de Vries were in the next pack, and then the rest of the field was even farther back.

Dennis got in front of Lynn and managed to hold the lead quite well. Lynn attempted to activate attack mode to get past, but Dennis managed to hold him behind even without being on attack mode. Once Dennis activated his attack mode, he pulled several seconds ahead of Lynn.

Eventually Lynn started dropping back due to his tires being worn out, and near the end of the race de Vries managed to pass him for second place while using FanBoost. It felt like the pass was inevitable anyway, but it always feels a little weird for a driver to gain a place because of fan votes.

The race ended with Dennis winning, standing at the top of the podium at his home race in his rookie season. This made him one of three drivers to win more than one race this season, with de Vries and Sam Bird. De Vries and Lynn rounded out the podium positions.

Unfortunately the other British drivers didn’t do nearly as well on home soil. Sam Bird, previous championship leader, retired from the race along with Tom Blomqvist and Alexander Sims, while Oliver Rowland (along with teammate Buemi) was disqualified because Nissan screwed up their energy limiting software. Oliver Turvey was the only other British driver to finish, in 15th place.

The second race was significantly more lively. Stoffel Vandoorne started on pole, but Rowland and Lynn started second and third – another good qualifying session for the Brits. De Vries started in fourth.

The Mercedes cars started off strong, with Vandoorne leading and de Vries managing to get past the Brits, leaving Mercedes in positions 1-2 for the first half of the race. Rowland and Lynn stayed in the fight but Mercedes looked the strongest.

But then, well… things started getting a little silly.

The London track features a tight turn complex that has drivers going through two hairpin turns back-to-back. Prior to the race, many thought that this would cause a lot of crashes, though Saturday’s race was mostly clean through there. But on Sunday’s race this was not the case, and there were crashes galore. Race commentator Dario Franchitti said it succinctly: “and now they’re just driving into each other.”

The crashes didn’t just happen in the double hairpin complex, but various other parts of the track as well. After the halfway point of the race there was so much spare carbon fiber strewn about the track that you’d never imagine all but only two cars were still in the race.

One of those two retirements was Antonio Felix da Costa, who was shoved into the wall on the pit straight by Andre Lotterer. This forced the safety car to come out, and that’s when it got really weird.

Lucas di Grassi, who had been running in ninth place, and was never a factor in the race yet, somehow ended up in first place behind the safety car. It soon became clear that, while the safety car was proceeding slowly down the pit straight (the site of the collision), di Grassi dove into the pit lane, drove at normal pit lane speed, and exited the pits ahead of all the other cars, which he was able to do because of the slow pace of the safety car. He was the only driver to do so.

When the safety car came in, di Grassi was still leading the race, and largely held the lead as questions flew over what would be done about this obviously unsporting conduct. A penalty was handed down to di Grassi, and Audi team principal Allan McNish was spotted sprinting down the pit lane to complain about it.

Di Grassi still held the lead, refusing to serve the penalty, and he was finally black flagged (disqualified mid-race and told to enter the pits) on the final lap, but refused to enter the pits and took the checkered flag despite having been disqualified.

The eventual final podium was Alex Lynn on top making it 2 for 2 in home-race wins for the Brits this weekend. De Vries and Evans rounded out the podium, with Vandoorne having been taken out by Rowland in the hairpin that ruined both of their races. De Vries in particular had a great race, having broken steering since the very beginning but still managing to podium.

The win was plucky team Mahindra’s first since 2019, and their inimitable team leader Dilbagh Gill celebrated by accidentally suplexing Formula E cofounder Alberto Longo.

Bird had a particularly disappointing weekend, going from a win in New York to double retirements at his home race in London. Going into the weekend his main goal was “not to get any more 0-point rounds,” but ended up retiring into both races due to collision damage. And de Vries’s excellent weekend should be noted as well, landing second place in each race – very much a rarity in Formula E to have such a stellar weekend.

So this was another tale of two races – a normal motor race on Saturday, and some sort of insane nonsense on Sunday. Such is Formula E. It’s why we love it.

Formula E News

The most unsurprising news is that Formula E has adopted a rule change to ensure that the pit stop situation from Sunday’s race does not happen again. There will now be a traffic light at the pit exit, which goes red while the safety car is passing by the pits, then turns green once the cars on track have passed the pit lane exit. This is a standard feature of many motorsports and a welcome change.

Audi’s explanation for the situation is that they thought di Grassi had a puncture, but once he entered the pits, they realized he was fine. He was required to stop in his pit box, though, and when he pulled through the box he did not come to a complete stop – but only barely.

We’ve also started to see teams announcing their driver lineups for next year, with a few teams confirming the same lineup and a few drivers moving from team to team. However, since we’re still early in this process, there’s not much to say yet. Jaguar and Porsche are retaining their lineups, Robin Frijns will be back at Virgin, Andretti (which will race without BMW’s involvement next year) will retain Dennis, and Rowland is moving from Nissan to Mahindra. Otherwise, everything is still wide open.

2021 Berlin ePrix race preview

And now we come down to it – the final races of the season. And yet, as we’ve said so many times before: We still don’t know what’s going to happen.

Going into the final race weekend, there are 18 drivers who are mathematically within reach of the championship. Leader de Vries is 6 points ahead of Frijns, who is 8 points ahead of Bird, and then there are eight more drivers within 10 points of Bird.

We could even theoretically see a champion who hasn’t won a single race this season – Frijns, in second place in the championship, has managed two second-place podiums but no wins yet. But he’s finished in every race with no retirements or disqualifications, and that quiet consistency has left him high in the standings.

The teams’ race has been getting closer too. All season it looked like Virgin, Techeetah, and Jaguar were the teams to watch, but after a weekend that wasn’t great for any of them but was very good for both BMW and Mercedes, the race has gotten a lot closer. Virgin is still up top, but with all the points available from two races it’s still too early to call. As far as mathematical possibilities though, all but one team, NIO, still has a chance to win it.

And this win is a big one, because this year Formula E has been granted “World Championship” status by the FIA. This puts it in the upper echelon of motorsports, the highest level of racing according to the FIA. Formula E is only the second single-seater series to earn World Championship status, behind Formula One. Previous Formula E champions are still champions, but this will be the first Formula E World Champion.

As for the track, it’s pretty much the same layout we’ve seen before in previous seasons:

It’s perhaps not the prettiest or most interesting track, driving between a bunch of artificial barriers on a pancake-flat airport tarmac. This offers a lot of freedom to the course designers to come up with something, but it also feels a little bit soulless. It’s a neat idea, though, racing at an airport.

The unique part about this race is that we won’t be seeing the exact same track both days – we’re going to do the track backwards on Sunday. Instead of going counter-clockwise, cars will drive around the track clockwise.

Drivers (those who aren’t rookies, anyhow) have a lot of experience on this track, having raced here six times last season due to COVID-19. The configurations changed between those races, but they’ll still be familiar with the venue, many of the corners, and how the surface reacts and evolves.

No rain is currently forecast for the weekend, though it’s supposed to be wet after the weekend. It’s entirely possible we might see a little something, but let’s be honest, this is is probably just wishful thinking.

This season we’ve seen a lot of wild developments in Formula E – we visited a real racing circuit (rather than a street track) in Valencia where a new rule meant half the cars ran out of their energy allowance, raced on the full historic Monaco circuit in the most exciting Monaco race of any series for several years, raced on an oval track in Puebla, and did the world’s first indoor-outdoor race in London. All along the racing has been tight and the competition for the championship has been fierce.

So as usual with Formula E, we might not know what to expect, but we know to expect something interesting. There’s always something interesting. Tune in for the season finale this weekend and find out what it will be.

There will be two races this weekend, with Sunday’s race starting 90 minutes later than Saturday’s. Saturday’s race starts at 5 a.m. PDT/8 a.m. EDT, 12 p.m. UTC, and 2 p.m. local Berlin time. Sunday’s race starts at 6:30 a.m. PDT/9:30 a.m. EDT, 1:30 p.m. UTC, and 3:30 p.m. local Berlin time. Races will be aired on CBS Sports Network in the US, or if you’re elsewhere, head over to Formula E’s website to find out how to watch the race in your country. Unfortunately, Formula E will no longer upload races to their YouTube channel, though you should be able to find highlights there sometime after the race.


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