Luke Smith

Formula E returns Monaco with the title fight alive again

Leave a comment

MONACO – Formula E makes its return to the streets of Monaco this weekend following a year’s break with the championship fight between Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi on a knife-edge.

Monaco first played host to Formula E back in 2014 during the all-electric series’ inaugural season as Sebastien Buemi became the first man to win more than one ePrix.

Fast forward two years, and the Swiss driver now has nine victories and a championship under his belt, with his hat-trick of wins to start the 2016/17 season thrusting him to the top of the title standings.

Buemi looked unstoppable at the head of the field until the fourth round of the year in Mexico City, when Formula E’s most dramatic race to date saw ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport’s di Grassi come back into contention.

Despite suffering damage and almost going one lap down, di Grassi rolled the dice on an ambitious strategy that worked out thanks to a couple of safety car periods and some impressive energy saving to get to the end and cross the line first.

With Buemi finishing outside of the points following an off-colour weekend that ended with a 12th-place finish, di Grassi slashed his rival’s advantage in the title race to just five points.

“I watched the race a couple of times and it was difficult to believe! From inside the cockpit, there was a different perspective,” di Grassi told NBC Sports.

“I only managed to win because the team managed to do a fantastic job with the strategy call, and with fixing the rear wing at the beginning. It was a mega race, my best Formula E victory so far. I’m pretty pleased with it.”

So as it has been for all three of Formula E’s seasons so far, the stage is set for another Buemi-di Grassi barnstormer this Saturday. But the Brazilian does not believe that the championship is something to yet have in mind.

“It’s very early to be talking about the championship. We’re round five, there’s another eight to go,” di Grassi said.

“Everything can happen. To be honest, JEV is quick, other guys are quick, Nico Prost is there. We just need that one bad weekend for everything to change again. At the moment we have to focus on winning races and collecting good points and that’s it.”

For Buemi, di Grassi’s revival has not been without its fair share of good fortune.

“I don’t want to sound rude but because they made mistakes it turned out to be some luck,” Buemi said. “I mean in qualifying in Hong Kong, he had a crash and because of that he had an accident in the first lap and because of the accident and because of this there was a safety car, they tend to have a very risky strategy in Mexico and in Hong Kong and it worked out very well.

“So congratulations to them but I am not sure it will be like that every weekend, so clearly I’m going to focus on not doing mistakes myself but they have made quite a few this season already.”

The circuit used in Monaco is similar to that in Formula 1, albeit much shorter. Instead of heading up the hill at Sainte Devote, drivers take a sharp right that leads them down a straight that ordinarily acts as the escape road for the Nouvelle Chicane.

The field will rejoin at the Chicane before completing the rest of the ‘regular’ Monaco lap, heading through Tabac, Swimming Pool and Las Rascasse before crossing the line to complete a lap.

The Monaco ePrix sees the third Formula E campaign edge towards its half-way mark, with the three double-header rounds to close out the season in Berlin (June 10-11), New York (July 15-16) and Montreal (July 29-30) now making up for half of the schedule in this campaign.

Following the Monaco race, the series will head to Paris just one week later on May 20, marking its first back-to-back race weekends.

Follow @LukeSmithF1

IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

IndyCar
Leave a comment

With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Follow @JerryBonkowski