This weekend’s Formula E doubleheader in Saudi Arabia is expected to deliver more overtaking opportunities after the unusually straightforward season-opener in Mexico City two weeks ago, where TAG Heuer Porsche’s Pascal Wehrlein dominated from pole position.
Energy management plays a key part in Formula E races, with drivers starting the race on less energy than is needed to complete a race distance. It’s the resultant energy saving — which forces lifting and coasting, and different braking strategies in order to recuperate energy through regen systems — that allows for a high number of overtakes in races, and a flat-out finish once everyone has saved enough.
Ahead of this weekend’s Diryah E-Prix doubleheader, Wehrlein offered an insight into the unusually low number of overtakes last time out, suggesting that had the race been slightly longer, it might have played out differently.
“There’s a point where the race almost gets flat out because we’ve saved enough energy, but if you are in the slipstream, you just reach that point earlier than the car in front of you,” he told RACER. “I think that point of where there’s not much energy saving going on anymore, that point was reached too fast. If we would have extended the race by two laps, for example, it would have been reached later and I think then it would have still been possible to overtake.
“We don’t have tools like DRS or KERS back in the day which is like an overtaking tool — we don’t have those things. How we help overtaking is by having to save energy, having to lift, that creates opportunities for the car behind to overtake.”
A key ingredient in that early convergence of energy saving was an early safety car, which enabled the field to save energy naturally, outside of race conditions.
“That had an impact because a safety car or full course yellow always means that you’re consuming less energy, and therefore you’re saving more energy and you’re getting to that point earlier,” Wehrlein explained. “But I think just in general the race in Mexico could have been a bit longer and it would have made it a bit easier to overtake.”
Wehrlein did, however, say that races like that add variety to the Formula E calendar, which has famously featured manic races with overtakes into triple figures, leaving polesitters and other strong qualifiers at the mercy of those behind them.
“I can understand that from a fans’ perspective it was probably not the most interesting race,” Wehrlein conceded. “Generally I think the mixture of the season is quite good because then we have some other races where it’s easy to overtake, almost too easy, you don’t want to lead, you always want to be in the slipstream until the very last laps, like a cycling race.
“I think the overall compromise is good. Yes, there could have been improvements done for Mexico, but it’s also nice that at some races qualifying matters and a good starting position is rewarded with a good race result.”
This weekend is expected to be a busier affair, although Wehrlein stopped short of predicting a night and day difference.
“I think this weekend will be similar to Mexico but a little bit easier to overtake, but not much more,” he said. “It will not be a crazy race like we have in Portland or Berlin, but surely it will not be as difficult as Mexico.”
Andretti Global team principal Roger Griffiths offered similar sentiments, saying, “The more energy management we have to deal with, I think the more fun the races become, so I would hope we can get back to more challenging racing and I think that’s what the fans like to see
“It’s great when you have the statistics of hundreds of overtakes over the course of a race rather than perhaps a dozen or so. I certainly think it’s the spectacle that Formula E has become and it will be good if we can maintain that.
“I don’t think it’s going to be quite the same way, perhaps Berlin or Portland was, but I think it’s going to be somewhere between what we saw in Mexico and maybe what we saw at the end of last year.”
DS Penske driver Jean-Eric Vergne, however, pointed out that the lack of braking zones takes away traditional overtaking opportunities, saying, “here there is only really one corner, and you’re basically able to not lift before that chicane and therefore defend position because the rest of the track it’s basically impossible to overtake. There is only one line, the track is very narrow.
“Qualifying is going to be crucial and you want to be starting in front if you want a chance of winning.”
But NEOM McLaren’s Jake Hughes, who took pole position for the second half of last year’s Diriyah E-Prix, highlighted the typical perils of street circuits will make the weekend unpredictable.
“I think as racing drivers we all like the risk-vs-reward element,” he said. “On a street track your mind is kind of forced into a certain tunnel vision. You can’t be thinking about other things — not saying on a qualifying lap we’re always thinking about what we’re having for dinner, but your mind can wander — whereas tracks like this, you’re always in the zone, the track doesn’t allow you not to be.
“There’s a lot of high-speed flowing left and right corners, especially that sequence from Turn 4 down to Turn 14,” he continued. “It’s really nice and every lap you feel like you’re building up to it, you’re braking later, carrying a bit more apex speed, and you get to a certain point where if you’re really confident, you can almost feel like you can never hit the wall, almost, until you touch it — like I did in the semifinal last year — and you realize you’re actually not that invincible. But the track sort of gets you into that mindset if you’re feeling comfortable with the car.”