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Is this the rivalry that defined Gen1?

As we get ready for the Gen2 era, we’re going to take one final look at the Gen1 era and the rivalry that could well have defined the first four years of the FIA ABB Formula E Championship.

Four drivers have taken the title in the first four seasons, with Nelson Piquet Jr putting his superior energy management skills to good use in season one to go down in history as the first ever Formula E champion, before Sebastien Buemi trumped Lucas di Grassi in a fastest lap showdown in season two to win by a mere two points.

di Grassi went one better in season three, then Jean-Eric Vergne was imperious in season four as he romped to the title with a race to spare.

All four are worthy champions of the sport, but two of them could well have defined the Gen1 era.

di Grassi and Buemi will appear as the top two in most of the current Formula E records, including number of wins, podiums, FanBoost votes and career points. Neither driver has yet finished outside of the top four in the championship standings and both have enjoyed the sweet taste of title glory.

Here is the story of their rivalry that may well have defined the Gen1 era of Formula E.

Season one

First blood in Beijing went to di Grassi, who started the last lap in third place but capitalised on the last corner crash between Nico Prost and Nick Heidfeld to become the first ever race winner in Formula E and take an early championship lead.

Buemi took his maiden Formula E victory at the third round of the season in Punta del Este after qualifying fourth and rising up to the lead after a quick pit stop and a penalty for Heidfeld, giving him second in the standings behind di Grassi.

Buenos Aires proved to be a blip for both Buemi and di Grassi as they both retired from the lead at the same corner at different stages of the race, Buemi clipping the inside wall of the chicane before di Grassi’s suspension broke.

Buemi would take his second win of the season at the Principality of Monaco while di Grassi’s triumph in Beijing would remain his only win of the season, but in the meantime Nelson Piquet Jr was gathering momentum with two wins in Long Beach and Moscow. The Brazilian would enter the season-ending double header at Battersea Park in contention for the title alongside Buemi and di Grassi, as well as the long-shots of Sam Bird, Jerome d’Ambrosio and Prost.

Victory in the first of the weekend’s races for Buemi helped him close down his deficit to Piquet in the points, while fourth for di Grassi left him with an uphill battle for the final race.

Senna’s defensive driving in London helped deny Buemi the title

Following the final pit stops of the season, Buemi was in position to take the title before spinning on cold tyres and losing enough places to provisionally leave him second in the standings.

With Piquet in a position to give him enough points to take the inaugural crown, Buemi needed to pass only Bruno Senna to steal the championship and despite late lunges and wheel-rubbing with the Mahindra, Senna offered a robust defence which denied Buemi, while di Grassi lingered in sixth en route to third in the standings.

Season two

The second season was almost all about Buemi and di Grassi, sharing 13 of the 30 available podium spots between them across the course of the season and taking a combined six out of ten victories on offer.

The first race in Beijing set the precedent for the season as Buemi headed di Grassi in first and second, before the latter struck back at the next race in Putrajaya, which saw Buemi miss out on a top ten finish due to a technical issue in his first car.

The duo shared the podium again in Punta del Este and Buenos Aires, with the Argentinian race providing what could be considered as the greatest drive in Formula E’s so far short history as Buemi put on a showcase of overtaking supremacy to rise from last on the grid to finish second, 0.716s behind race winner Bird.

Mexico City proved to be a major hurdle in di Grassi’s title pursuit through a rollercoaster of emotions that saw the Brazilian provide one of the greatest drives of his career after a rear wing change and a safety car period did nothing to prevent him from taking victory in the Mexican capital.

The action did not stop there, however, as post-race scrutineering found an issue with the tyre pressures on di Grassi’s ABT Schaeffler machine, with the Brazilian duly disqualified and victory awarded to d’Ambrosio. Buemi made some important ground with second place.

di Grassi hit back with victories in Long Beach and the inaugural Paris E-Prix, before Buemi’s triumph in Berlin took it to another decider in London. No one could have predicted what would happen in the English capital…

Entering the final race of the season dead level on points, whoever finished ahead of the other would be crowned champion. The much-discussed first lap crash divided opinion, not least between the two men involved as Buemi believed that his rival deliberately went for the crash to win on countback, while di Grassi insisted that the Renault e.dams braked early and caught him out.

Prost looks on as his team-mate is rear-ended

Whoever was to blame, that did not put an end to the championship chase as both made their way back to the pits while their respective mechanics rushed to set the cars up for qualifying mode, with the only option remaining to set the fastest lap of the race and take the vital two points that would win either the crown.

Tactics came into play as di Grassi set the fastest lap before pulling back into the pits, waiting for the opportune moment to re-enter the track and potentially slow Buemi’s attempts down. This came to no avail, however, as Buemi set the fastest time on lap eight before lowering the bar twice later in the race.

di Grassi had no answer to the 1:24.150s set by his rival and duly conceded as he exited his car to accept second in the standings.

Season three

Season three looked destined to be Buemi’s year once again as the Swiss driver won six of the first eight races, the first blot in his copybook being in Mexico City where he qualified eighth and was on course for a top ten finish before spinning at turn one following an attempt at a FanBoost-aided overtake on the Mahindra of Felix Rosenqvist.

Buemi finished the race in 13th and took a single point for setting the fastest lap, but di Grassi’s consistency and victory in Mexico City allowed the Brazilian to close the gap in the standings to five points.

Monaco and Paris gave Buemi another duo of victories, with di Grassi enduring an unusually below-par day in Paris as he heavily collided with Antonio Felix da Costa before later ending the race in the barrier after crashing out on his own. As a result, the points swung heavily in Buemi’s favour as he built up a 43 point lead.

Buemi leads di Grassi through the streets of Monaco

Berlin was a weekend of contrasting fortunes for the Swiss driver as in race one crossed the line in fifth place after rising from a lowly 14th on the grid, but fell foul of post-race scrutineering when all four of his tyres were found to be under the minimum allowable pressure.

Race two saw the Renault e.dams challenge Rosenqvist for the win but after the Swede was given a ten second time penalty for an unsafe release Buemi ensured he finished close enough to the Mahindra to inherit the win post-race, giving him what would turn out to be his final victory of the season. di Grassi performed well and kept up his consistent run of points with podiums in both races.

An unfortunate clash with the 6 Hours of Nürburgring forced Buemi to skip the double-header New York City E-Prix, allowing di Grassi to close the points deficit from 31 down to 10 after finishing fourth and fifth in the weekend’s races.

It then all came down to the season-ending double-header of Montreal, where day one provided enough excitement to last an entire season. A huge crash for Buemi in practice left the Renault e.dams mechanics with a huge task ahead to rebuild his car ahead of the race, while di Grassi went on to take pole position before completing a commanding lights-to-flag victory.

While his rival emerged victorious from race one, Buemi was furious following the race after a collision with the Andretti of Robin Frijns bent his steering, before coming together with Daniel Abt in the pit lane. What happened following the race could not have been scripted…

As a result of day one’s action, di Grassi took over the lead of the championship with only day two left to run before the end of the season. The Brazilian made Super Pole for the final race while Buemi lingered down in 13th on the grid, leaving the Swiss with an uphill climb if he was to retain his title.

With a lot of the attention focused on the head of the field as Jean-Eric Vergne fended off Rosenqvist, Jose Maria Lopez and Bird for his maiden victory, Buemi attempted to claw back as many points as possible but ultimately fell short of the top ten and surrendered his crown to di Grassi, who crossed the line in seventh place and in doing so scored his first ever championship title.

Season four

Both Buemi and di Grassi finished inside of the top four at the end of season four, but neither was to lift the crown as Vergne built on his maiden victory in the last race of season three to produce one of the most dominant campaigns yet, taking the title having finished outside of the top five only once all season.

Buemi finished on the podium four times across the span of the 12-race season, but failed to stand on the top step and wound up fourth in the championship with 125 points, 73 behind Vergne.

di Grassi scored his first podium of the season at the historic Zürich E-Prix

di Grassi endured a season of two halves. A torried run of unreliability meant the Brazilian didn’t get on the scoreboard until the fifth race in Mexico City, but then embarked on an incredible run of seven consecutive podiums, including two victories in Zürich and New York, and recovered magnificently to finish second in the championship. How different might his season have been without his early reliability woes?

While a new contender emerged victorious in season four, the two drivers that have consistently been at the sharp end winning races and championships have potentially defined the Gen1 era of the FIA ABB Formula E Championship.

With new cars, new circuits and a refreshed desire to claim back the crown, season five is set to go down in history as an incredible year for all sorts of reasons, not least the mayhem-filled, adrenaline-inducing racing around the streets of the world.

The statistics tell it all for Buemi and di Grassi: they are first and second in many Formula E records including number of victories, number of podiums in a season and career points, amongst others. Much like Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton are dominating a lot of Formula 1 records, could we consider Buemi and di Grassi to be their Formula E counterparts? Refer to our database for a more concise look at their respective achievements.

Will Buemi and di Grassi continue to set the standard for all-electric racing? Time will tell but there’s no doubt that these two superstars were the leading duo of the Gen1 era and that their rivalry looks set to get even more exhilarating as we towards the Ad Diriyah E-Prix and the rest of the season.

About Topher Smith
Topher is an experienced and passionate Motorsport journalist with Formula E, Formula 1, GP2/F2, GP3 and IndyCar all on his resume. When he isn't at the trackside you can find him furthering his own capabilities and knowledge through his endless search for original ideas and material. Also plays league pool.