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No room for error in Formula E

Formula E is a tough championship – that’s been clear all along. Completing practice, qualifying and race in just one day is challenging enough but Season 4’s opening qualifying session has shown just how dearly any mistake costs teams and drivers.

Mitch Evans, who scored the majority of points for last-place Jaguar in Season 3, showed an incredibly strong hand in the morning practice sessions. Finishing P2 in the first practice, behind only Sebastien Buemi and setting a new lap record in FP2 with a 1:02.875.

Going into qualifying, it looked almost certain he would be in Super Pole, Jaguar’s first ever entry into the top session and he looked to have the potential to take pole – if he’d been able to get close to his FP2 time then he would have, Jean-Eric Vergne instead taking it at over half a second slower than Mitch’s best.

In the end, he set no lap time – officially, a Did Not Qualify, usually reserved for someone taking a tour into the barriers by pushing a little too hard. Instead, Evans had simply been held in the garage too long to be allowed to set a time, the team’s first potential pole lost quietly.

Team errors happen – Techeetah did almost exactly the same thing in Marrakesh last year, failing to send JEV out in time for his Super Pole lap – but in a tight championship any mistake is so critical it can make or break qualifying and race.

A mistake by Sebastien Buemi during FP2 in Montreal certainly cost him the attempt to defend his championship last season, whether or not Lucas could have won anyway. Less spectacularly, rookie driver Edoardo Mortara joined Mitch Evans in failing to qualify today by clipping a wall heavily during his session, throwing off his teammate’s hot lap so that Maro Engel also ended up low on the grid.

Nelson Piquet Jr might have had an opportunity to redeem Jaguar’s mistake with Evans’ qualifying, had he not locked up on his 200kw lap and ended up far from Super Pole in 10th place. Which is all racing – there will always be someone who didn’t take the corner quite as fast as possible and who ends up behind the guy who did but Formula E’s format really punishes errors.

We asked Jean-Eric Vergne what he could aim for this weekend, before qualifying and he said the priority was to avoid errors – “What are we hoping for? First of all, a weekend with no mistakes is the main goal.”

Vergne mostly managed that, during qualifying – his only potential error was spinning over the timing line, meaning he actually got pole while his car was technically facing the wrong way. He got away with it, in a rare merciful moment from Formula E’s usually punishing judgement.

Sam Bird, who qualified just 0.027 seconds behind Vergne, lost the win in Hong Kong last year due to electrical problems on his second car that took him out of the race. He said yesterday that a lack of mistakes was essential to the weekend, “I need to do my job, the team needs to be good, no mistakes this year – see what happens.”

It’s not a flaw of Formula E that errors are so brutally punished in the racing – compared to the stolid grid penalties of Formula 1, consequences for driver and team errors are just a part of racing. It’s a testament to the series, if anything, that what often decides the races is driver and team skill.

But it stands out as the defining factor today so far – and will almost certainly define the race. Teams and drivers who’ve made errors so far this weekend have a chance to change things tomorrow, as part of the double-header and anyone whose weekend has been flawless so far will be hoping to keep their sheets clean.

Even e.Dams showed in Montreal that they can’t always get it totally right, so skill and technique are still the most important things in Formula E – and why it’s such a competitive championship. Everyone who’s been following and covering it since Season 1 knows that but as we start Season 4, expect it to intensify – even the most experienced rookies should be nervous, heading to the grid and the rest of us just excited for the action.