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Di Grassi rolls the dice, strikes lucky for Mexico Formula E victory

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Despite sustaining damage on the first lap, taking an extra pit stop and almost falling a lap down on the field, Lucas di Grassi struck gold in Mexico City to win one of the most memorable races in Formula E’s short history.

Di Grassi arrived in Mexico some 29 points behind championship leader Sebastien Buemi, who won all three of the opening rounds and, even after a red-eye flight, was in the mix for a fourth straight victory on Saturday.

Both title protagonists struggled in qualifying, with di Grassi starting down in 17th. The Brazilian was hit on the opening lap, suffering rear wing damage that left the ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport team with no choice but to bring di Grassi in under the safety car early on. Di Grassi squeezed back out still on the lead lap, ensuring he still had a chance of points; anything more seemed unrealistic.

Pole-sitter Oliver Turvey saw his hopes of a maiden victory end early when his NextEV car lost power, handing the lead to DS Virgin Racing’s Jose Maria Lopez. Despite having Nick Heidfeld and Jean-Eric Vergne for close company, Lopez was able to sustain his lead through to the first round of pit stops.

A safety car called in reaction to Turvey’s stoppage prompted di Grassi and Dragon’s Jerome d’Ambrosio to both pit early, with both drivers favoring track position over an energy advantage. The pair ran first and second respectively when the leaders pitted, but with significantly more energy, it seemed a matter of time until they were passed.

A spin for Lopez while in pursuit of d’Ambrosio gave third to Vergne, who had leap-frogged Heidfeld in the pits. Buemi also had an off-track excursion that ended his hopes of points, prompting Renault e.dams to push for the fastest lap instead, something the Swiss driver successfully captured.

When a third safety car period was called, di Grassi’s lead was slashed, appearing to scupper his hopes of hanging on for victory. However, with d’Ambrosio putting up a mighty defence to keep Vergne back, the Brazilian was slowly able to peel away. By the time Vergne made it up to second, di Grassi had already set off into the distance, allowing him to take a remarkable win by two seconds.

Vergne came home frustrated in second place, while Bird rounded out the podium. Mitch Evans took Jaguar’s first Formula E points in fourth, rising up the order after a late crash involving both Mahindra drivers. Teammate Adam Carroll also boosted Jaguar’s points haul in eighth.

Nicolas Prost also recovered from an early pit stop to finish fifth for Renault, with Lopez recovering to sixth. Daniel Abt finished the race seventh, having lost pole earlier in the day due to a tire infringement, with Carroll and Nelson Piquet Jr. following close behind.

Esteban Gutierrez got his Formula E career off to a good start by finishing 10th, meaning he now has as many top-10 results in Formula E as in Formula 1, where he made 59 starts.

The next round of the Formula E championship takes place in Monaco on May 13.

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.