Friday, January 12, 2018

2018 Marrakesh ePrix Preview

The second Saturday of January features the second round of the 2017–18 Formula E season. This is the second season Marrakesh is on the Formula E schedule and it is the only African round on the Formula E calendar. At 1.86 miles, it is the largest circuit on the 2017–18 calendar though the Zürich racetrack has not be revealed. Last year, Sébastien Buemi won from seventh on the grid after a five-grid spot penalty for an underweight fire extinguisher. Sam Bird was second with Felix Rosenqvist rounding out the podium in his second Formula E start after picking up his maiden pole position.

What Happened Last Time?
The season opener was a doubleheader from Hong Kong. Techeetah's Jean-Éric Vergne took pole position ahead of Bird and Nick Heidfeld with defending champion Lucas di Grassi in sixth and Buemi in ninth. After the first red flag stoppage in Formula E history, Vergne and Bird went on a duel with Bird taking the lead before the start of pit stops. Bird made a near colossal error on his pit stop when he slid and missed his garage entrance on the car switch. Despite the mistake, Bird maintained a seven-second lead after his pit stop.

However, Bird would have to serve a drive-through penalty for not parking his car in the garage but Bird built a large enough gap over Vergne that he remained in the lead after the penalty. Bird would win race one by over 11 seconds to Vergne with Heidfeld in third. Nelson Piquet, Jr., finished fourth in his first race with Jaguar, Daniel Abt rounded out the top five and Andretti driver António Félix da Costa picked up the team's first top six finish in six races. Venturi driver Edoardo Mortara finish seventh on debut ahead of Alex Lynn, Nicolas Prost and Luca Filippi, who picked up a point on debut with NIO with Buemi finishing outside the points in 11th.

Race two started with a lengthy wait for the lights but a technical glitch forced the race to start behind the safety car. Rosenqvist started on pole position but locked up the tires and spun in turn one on the first green flag lap. Mortara took the lead with Abt in second and Rosenqvist down in 11th. Mortara and Abt held the first two positions through pit stops and Rosenqvist had worked his way back up to third.

Mortara held a comfortable advantage over Abt but the Swiss-Italian drive spun with two laps to go allowing Abt and Rosenqvist to go by with Mortara rejoining in third. Abt took the checkered flag first on his 25th birthday. The celebration would be cut short, as three hours after the race Abt was disqualified for the stickers on the car's inverter and motor-generator unit not matching those declared on the vehicle before the race. Rosenqvist was promoted to race victory with Mortara to second and Mitch Evans elevated to the podium, Jaguar's first Formula E podium finish. Vergne finished fourth with Bird in fifth and Oliver Turvey rounding out the top six.

Bird leads the Drivers' Championship with 35 points with Vergne two points back and Rosenqvist on 29 points. Mortara sits on 24 points with Heidfeld and Evans tied on 15 points. Piquet, Jr., sits seventh on 12 points, one ahead of Abt. Da Costa and Turvey round out the top ten tied on eight points. Maro Engel, Alex Lynn and Nicolas Prost are tied on six points. Filippi and Buemi round out the championship on one point. André Lotterer, di Grassi, Kamui Kobayashi and Jérôme d'Ambrosio head to Morocco looking for their first points of the season.

In the Teams' Championship, Mahindra Racing leads with 44 points and DS Virgin Racing three points back. Techeetah sits 11 points back, three ahead of Venturi with Jaguar rounding out the top five on 27 points. Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler has 11 points with NIO on nine points, Andretti on eight points and Renault e.dams on seven points. Dragon Racing is the only team not yet on the scoreboard.

What Happened in the Interim?
The Neel Jani-era at Dragon Racing ended after one round. The team was supposed to have a technical relationship with Porsche but that did not materialize. The Swiss driver finished 18th in both Hong Kong races.

José María López replaces Jani at Dragon Racing. The Argentine driver spent the 2016–17 season at DS Virgin Racing. López finished ninth in the championship with a second-place finish in Paris and third in the season finale at Montreal. He finished in the points in seven of ten starts and missed the New York round due to FIA World Endurance Championship commitments with Toyota. His tenth-place finish at Marrakesh last season earned López his first career Formula E point.

The entry list for the Marrakesh rookie test was released. The test will take place Sunday January 14th, one day after the Marrakesh ePrix. Mahindra leads the Teams' Championship and will have 2012 Formula 3 Euro Series champion Daniel Juncadella and Sam Dejonghe, who ran in the TCR BeNeLux Touring Car Championship in 2017. DS Virgin Racing has brought in Antonio Giovinazzi after he made two Formula One starts for Sauber and spent 2017 as Scuderia Ferrari's reserve driver. Joel Eriksson, runner-up in the 2017 FIA European Formula Three Championship, will also be driving for Virgin Racing.

Techeetah has brought in Porsche factory driver Frédéric Makowiecki and Super GT driver James Rossiter. Mercedes-Benz DTM driver Gary Paffett will drive for Venturi with 17-year old, American-born Moroccan Michaël Benyahia joining him. Benyahia won the 2017 Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 championship. Paul di Resta and 2017 Formula V8 3.5 champion Pietro Fittipaldi will drive for Jaguar. Audi Sport Abt brings in DTM driver Nico Müller and McLaren development driver Nyck de Vries.

Harry Tincknell adds another hat to his collection that already includes Ford GT driver and Mazda Team Joest driver as he will be in the car at NIO with Alexandre Imperatori. Andretti features an all-North American line-up with Indy Lights race winner Colton Herta and DTM champion Bruno Spengler. Formula Two driver Alexander Albon and 2017 All-Japan Formula Three champion Mitsunori Takaboshi will drive for Renault e.dams. Dragon Racing has called in Super GT Lexus drive Andrea Caldarelli and Maximilian Günther, who finished third in European Formula Three, for the test.

What to Look Forward to this Weekend?
Lucas di Grassi enters failing to scored in consecutive races for the first time in his Formula E career while one point from the last four races is the worst four-race stretch of Sébastien Buemi's Formula E career. The opening round can sometimes be seen as an outlier but two bad rounds to start a season can crush championship aspirations. Audi Sport Abt didn't have a poor weekend at Hong Kong. Daniel Abt carried the torch and if it weren't for his disqualification the team would have Abt leading the Drivers' Championship and be third in the Teams' Championship, two points off the top.

This weekend is a bigger deal to Renault e.dams. Audi Sport Abt had at least one car in each superpole session at Hong Kong and most of di Grassi's misfortune was out of his hands. The best qualifying effort for the French team was ninth and the best finish was eighth.

Bird, Vergne and Rosenqvist will look to take early control of this championship and try to keep a gap to di Grassi and Buemi. Bird and Rosenqvist both finished on the podium last year at Marrakesh but a determined Buemi found a way to the front. The good news for those two is it doesn't appear the gap between Renault e.dams and the rest of the field is as great as it was at Marrakesh last season.

It will be interesting to see if any of the Hong Kong surprises maintain the form into Marrakesh. I was skeptical of Venturi and even said Maro Engel would struggle to get 10 points this season and he already has six points. Mortara had a brief lapse cost him a victory but it was still an impressive weekend at Hong Kong. Jaguar picked up a third and a fourth. I think Jaguar has a good car and can be competitive and I am more suspect of Venturi equaling its Hong Kong success.

At the back end of the grid are the two American teams. Da Costa is a good driver and he got on the board early at Hong Kong but I don't think we will see him rattle off sixth-place finishes on a regular basis and I am not sure how long Kobayashi will be in the car as BMW will likely want Tom Blomqvist or one of the manufactures' other factory drivers in the car before the end of the season and before BMW's partnership with Andretti starts next season. Then there is Dragon Racing, which is lost in the electric wilderness. José María López is a smart hire as he has driven in Formula E before but I don't think the car has a competitive pace.

One other notable difference that will occur at Marrakesh is there will be no minimum pit stop time at this round, a first in series history. Formula E had mandated a minimum pit stop time from the inaugural race at Beijing in 2014.

The 2018 Marrakesh ePrix will take place at 11:00 a.m. ET on Saturday January 13th.