Formula E – Seeing (and hearing) is believing

Formula E

By Sam Smith Within touching distance of the Atlantic coastline miles of sandy vistas surround Punta Del Este street circuit. The atmosphere of the place has a dreamy, lilting charm. A Spanish-soaked Zandvoort perhaps. Sand is about the only similarity between this vaguely surreal location for an international motor race and the great Dutch venue on the flat shores of the North Sea. There is a lot to like about the FIA Formula E Championship in Uruguay. It wasn’t just a vision of cleaner, more efficient racing that gives you a sense of being at something so different. There is an inclusivity that permeates through the event and an urban cool that appears to be transcending the sometimes staid and stuffy atmosphere of some other international series. You need a certain amount of adjustment to your expectations and underlying scepticism before seeing the Spark-Renaults on track. On the narrow streets of Punta Del Este they look spectacular and quick but this is due, more than anything, to the considerable sprinkling of sand on the circuit. It tested the natural instinct skills of the drivers and it was no surprise that Stéphane Sarrazin relished the conditions so much, his delicious car control was called upon time and time again… until he smote the barriers after a wild kerb-hopping moment in the race. “Sand rallying… well it is almost the time of year for Dakar,” joked the Frenchman after the first track action on Saturday morning. “Grip levels are zero and there is plenty of sliding so it is fun.” Enjoying the spectacle in the Turn 18 grandstand were two locals who had waited in anticipation for the events since it was announced last year. One of them was Hector Wenderon, from nearby Carrasco, a superb of Montevideo. He liked what he saw. “We cannot believe this is here at our home. It is fantastic for Uruguay to have this fresh championship here,” he said, while imbibing a local beer, amusingly called – Grande Patricia! “I know some of the drivers here from F1 like Bruno Senna, Heidfeld and the young Piquet. So great… so great. The cars look very nice and the sound is like from a video game. Cool noise.” The crowds had their favourites of course, particularly poor Antonio García who blotted his copybook twice in the second practice session at the same turn and ended up in the wall. António Félix Da Costa re-claimed the term ‘all arms and elbows’ from one I Ireland Esq, as he fought his Amlin-Aguri in its bucking bronco dynamics throughout the practice sessions. The Uruguyan fans appreciated his nimble, cabaret, crowd-pleasing reflexes. These were qualities that the Uruguayan racing fraternity recognise from the late Gonzalo Rodríguez of course. Their most competitive ever racer is much missed and it is difficult not to think of ‘Gonchi’ wherever you go as his long-term sponsor, the state owned energy company – Ancap is on billboards everywhere. There were many of those instantly recognisable smiling sun and blue-striped Uruguayan national flags with Gonchi’s name on, decorating the balconies of the hotel and holiday homes edifices high above the circuit. Motor Sport features editor Simon Arron paid a fitting tribute to him in this month’s edition of the magazine and for those who didn’t see him race; it is a highly recommended read. The paddock ambience in Formula E is as relaxed as the spectator experience and with the beach seconds away there was a natural holiday feel to the weekend. Jean-Éric Vergne, fresh from the formulaic world of F1, seemed to revel in the tranquility of it all. “A good way to end the year for everyone and the ambience is pretty cool here,” said the erstwhile Toro Rosso driver who took a sensational pole position on his series debut. “Everything is so new to everyone but the momentum seems to be coming for the championship I think. I’ve enjoyed it.” JEV’s cool demeanour even stayed reasonably chilled despite a certain Austrian doctor in attendance at Punta Del Este. Dr Helmut Marko was socialising in the paddock, chatting to DAMS boss Jean-Paul Driot, who runs one of Marko’s ex-Toro Rosso drivers, Sébastien Buemi. The recently crowned FIA WEC champion is still backed by Red Bull, one of few to have kept the allegiance going after an F1 adventure. “It is too early for me to have a big opinion on this series. It is interesting and different for sure,” was Marko’s brief and non-committal summary of his first look at the championship. Marko was able to witness a fine victory by Buemi in an eventful Punta Del Este race, after the Swiss ace resisted a late charge from Vergne, before the pressure was relieved when Vergne’s right front wishbone broke with just two laps remaining. The groan from the Andretti pit was almost audible. But what about the unique sound of the Spark-Renaults? It won’t be to everyone’s taste but I actually liked the atmospheric metallic whir because it sounded so different and vaguely futuristic. Also noticeable was the amount of fans in the grandstands able to conduct conversations about the race as it played out. In the age of digital communication, much of it faceless and vacuous, there was much irony to ponder here as humans actually spoke to humans! The less said about the incongruous dance music that is played loudly throughout the entire day the better. If it is meant to be a substitute for the lack of track noise it just doesn’t work and grates on most peoples nerves so much it creates a wretched Ibiza-style tinnitus. This, however, is one of only a few minor gripes in a genuinely engaging and innovative new branch of our sport. It needs to be seen in the flesh to be truly appreciated. British fans are set to be given that opportunity with the mooted finale around Battersea Park. Go to Battersea and see Formula E. Leave all your pre-conceived ideas at the entrance and you might just come away with an extra spark in your step. After all, racing is racing and in Formula E all the right competitive ingredients appear to be maturing slowly but readily.

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