Piquet wins Formula E title in London

Formula E News

“Have I won the championship?” asked Nelson Piquet Jr seconds after crossing the finishing line in Battersea Park. “By my calculations, you have, mate,” answered TV commentator Jack Nicholls in an immediate in-car interview. Thereafter, the conversation descended into understandable blubbing as relief and pure joy swept over Formula E’s first world champion.

Piquet learning of his success in such fashion was a fitting end to the all-electric series’ maiden season. From the beginning, Formula E has offered something beyond the norm and, depending on your perspective, something truly refreshing.

The category remains as divisive as Kanye West at Glastonbury among traditionalists, but surely no one can deny it offered great sporting drama as the season concluded with an incident-packed double-header in the leafy London park on Sunday afternoon.

Of course, the two days of racing were far from flawless. As we suspected from our first visit to the circuit when its place on the calendar was confirmed back in March, the park’s roads were too narrow and cambered to allow the drivers to race as they wished. Then there was the nasty bump at the first curve that required the insertion of a temporary wall for the first race on Saturday, enforcing the need for a safety car start. But overnight work to shave down and resurface the offending area, allowing a proper standing start on Sunday, said everything about the ‘learning as we go’ spirit necessary for this form of ‘pop-up’ motor racing.

Before the weekend, Formula E chief executive officer Alejandro Agag (below with Fittipaldi) admitted to relief that the series had even made it to the end of its first season. “I’m extremely surprised and happy about how it has gone,” he said. “It was a really difficult project to make happen. Many people in the motor sport world didn’t think we’d make it. But it’s not only making it that I’m proud of: we come here with very good momentum and the teams are healthy.

“London was the most difficult race to confirm and the one we really wanted. The city is a symbol for us. It has been interesting to see the differences in each place we have gone to, in terms of the interaction with the residents and the authorities. In London, one person who has an opinion can create a huge response from the authorities. One complaint is taken into account. And you know, that’s why I love living here. It’s an example of democracy – it’s England.”

Had the months of negotiation with local resident groups and the support of Wandsworth Council been worth the chase? Some of the drivers might have argued otherwise after their first experiences of Battersea on Saturday morning. Predictions of no overtaking were common, but even if Sébastien Buemi did lead from lights to flag in the afternoon, the race did not lack for tension and spectacle. And the best was yet to come.

Race one results

01 Sébastien Buemi e.dams-Renault
02 Jerome d’Ambrosio Dragon Racing
03 Jean-Eric Vergne Andretti
04 Lucas di Grassi (FL) Audi Sport ABT
05 Nelson Piquet NEXTEV TCR
06 Sam Bird Virgin Racing
07 Nicolas Prost e.dams-Renault
08 Loic Duval Dragon Racing
09 Oliver Turvey NEXTEV TCR
10 Stephane Sarrazin Venturi
11 Simona de Silvestro Andretti
12 Karun Chandhok Mahindra Racing
13 Nick Heidfeld Venturi
14 Fabio Leimer Virgin Racing
15 Jarno Trulli Trulli 2
16 Bruno Senna Mahindra Racing
17 Salvador Duran * Amlin Aguri
18 Alex Fontana Trulli
19 Daniel Abt Audi Sport ABT
20 Sakon Yamamoto Amlin Aguri

*Duran given a drive-through penalty which was converted into a 49 second time penalty

Buemi’s victory had cut Piquet’s championship lead to just five points ahead of the Sunday finale, the Brazilian cutting an uncomfortable figure in the paddock. His state of mind didn’t improve after the rain-affected qualifying session on Sunday morning.

The 20-car field was split into groups of five for the session, with the first enjoying the best track conditions before the rainclouds really burst. Stephane Sarrazin took advantage to claim pole position, while Buemi managed sixth from the second group. Suddenly he found himself in a great position to snatch the title. Piquet, running later in heavier rain, could only qualify 16th with the third title contender Lucas di Grassi ahead of him in 11th. If they finished where they started, Buemi would be champion – all thanks to London’s fickle weather.

But no one could have predicted the drama to come as sun rays returned to Battersea in the afternoon.

Piquet, confident of at least scoring points, made progress right from the start to run 12th. But far ahead of him, Buemi got the jump on Bruno Senna for fifth. The title beckoned for the ex-Torro Rosso Formula 1 man.

Then after the pitstops to switch cars – the most glaringly obvious limitation of the current battery technology – the race began to swing back in Piquet’s favour, against all the odds.

What really cost Buemi the title was his spin at the first corner. He recovered quickly, but not fast enough to stop Senna slipping past to drop him back to sixth. To the end of the race he harried Ayrton’s nephew and was deeply unimpressed with the “snaking” defence he faced. Sébastien made a final lunge at the last chicane, but he had to accept finishing where he had started. It would make all the difference.

From the archive: Alain Prost talks about Formula E (2014)

Race two results

01 Sam Bird (FL) Virgin Racing
02 Jerome d’Ambrosio Dragon Racing
03 Loic Duval Dragon Racing
04 Bruno Senna Mahindra Racing
05 Sébastien Buemi e.dams-Renault
06 Lucas di Grassi Audi Sport ABT
07 Nelson Piquet NEXTEV TCR
08 Salvador Duran Amlin Aguri
09 Oliver Turvey NEXTEV TCR
10 Nicolas Prost e.dams-Renault
11 Daniel Abt Audi Sport ABT
12 Simona de Silvestro Andretti
13 Karun Chandhok Mahindra Racing
14 Alex Fontana Trulli
15 Stephane Sarrazin* Venturi
16 Jean-Eric Vergne Andretti
17 Nick Heidfeld Venturi
18 Fabio Leimer Virgin Racing
19 Jarno Trulli Trulli
20 Sakon Yamamoto Amlin Aguri

*Sarrazin was given 49-second time penalty for exceeding maximum energy usage

Behind him, energy-saving Piquet eked out an extra lap before swapping cars and edged within reach of title contention by climbing to 10th, which became eighth when first his team-mate Oliver Turvey allowed him past and then Nelson demoted Salvador Duran on merit. He had now done enough to claim the inaugural crown – by a single point.

At the sharp end, Sarrazin was coming under increasing pressure from a charging Sam Bird, the local man determined to finish a disappointing campaign on a high. Crucially, Bird’s pressure pushed Sarrazin over the limit of his energy allocation and he took the chequered flag with his power levels flashing at zero per cent. The subsequent time penalty handed victory to a surprised and initially confused Bird.

It all made for great TV, and crucially offered a spectacle to keep the trackside crowd – which neared 30,000 on each day – gripped until the end. Walking around the circuit, it was noticeable how young this audience was, too. There were children everywhere, as families flocked to the park. The weird whine in place of a V8 squall aggravates purists, but it offers no threat to young eardrums.

Agag knows his series isn’t to all tastes. “The motor sport fans have a 50:50 reaction,” he said. “Many of the big names have really embraced it [Ron Dennis and Emerson Fittipaldi were among the faces spotted in Battersea]. Others don’t – and fair enough.

“But we are reaching a family audience. We’ve done a bit of research and families are looking for things to do with their kids at weekends, and that’s who we are appealing to. They are not necessarily motor sport fans, but they think this is a fun thing to do.

“It’s more family friendly because of the noise – only because of the noise. I have four boys between 11 and four. I used to own a GP2 team, but my own kids wouldn’t come to the races…”

Championship result – top 10

01 Nelson Piquet NEXTEV TCR
02 Sébastien Buemi e.dams Renault
03 Lucas di Grassi Audi Sport ABT
04 Jerome D’Ambrosio Dragon Racing
05 Sam Bird Virgin Racing
06 Nicolas Prost e.dams Renault
07 Jean-Eric Vergne Andretti
08 Antonio Felix da Costa Amlin Aguri
09 Loic Duval Dragon Racing
10 Bruno Senna Mahindra Racing

He is keen to play down potential rivalry with Formula 1 and his old friend Bernie Ecclestone – whatever Richard Branson might foolishly think. This is no threat or competitor to Grand Prix racing, although its merits as a promotional tool for car manufacturers are obvious. Citroën will use its DS brand in partnership with Branson’s Virgin team in season two and others are tipped to follow.

The five-year plan to make Formula E a true open series for car builders and power suppliers remains ambitious. Agag and his team are under no illusions that there is a long way to go and much to improve. But as first seasons go, this has to be judged a soaring success. With the support of proper blue-chip sponsors and global car manufacturers, Formula E has given itself a chance at sustainability.

But as traditional rock fans will never have time for rap, in racing there are many who will never accept this electric alternative. That’s OK: those naysayers can always just head to the Goodwood Festival of Speed on the south coast.

The blessing of choice is also the English way.

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