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di Grassi on the charge as others lose theirs

Mexico City is always a place of high energy. The fans are charged, the drivers are charged… but this iteration of the E-Prix will be famed for it’s lack of it. The frantic final laps, muddied from team perspective by a half-hour red flag, led to miscalculations across the grid and sweaty palms abound. In the end, Lucas di Grassi was the one to benefit, picking off the unfortunate pretenders to kick start his title challenge.

The E-Prix began with a bang – Oliver Rowland, one of the Formula E rookies this year, launched one of the moves of the season on the two unsuspecting frontrunners ahead of him, taking not just Felipe Massa but also di Grassi for second place with aplomb. At a chicane where a lock up and subsequent pirouette is high, that level of confidence on the brakes was insane.

That allowed him designs on the lead, but Pascal Wehrlein’s extremely smart launch and positioning through the first turn put him in a snug position up front. He’d cleared the danger, and behind him chaos was about to ensue. Stoffel Vandoorne, already low down the pecking order after a desperate qualifying session, was slipping further down the pack while new boy Felipe Nasr was nudged into as spin at the stadium section by Oliver Turvey’s NIO.

But there was a much larger incident on the horizon. Nelson Piquet Jr was eagerly trying to find a way past the DS Techeetah of Jean-Eric Vergne, and it was only a matter of time before the unshakeable challenger and unmovable object came to blows. The only surprise was the horrifying extent of it: Piquet Jr was squeezed out one move too far by the reigning champion, and went ploughing into the back of the Frenchman’s car, smashing the rear wing and heading into seeming orbit.

As he came crashing back to cold hard ground, he collected the unfortunate Alexander Sims in a classic case of collateral damage. It’s one of the biggest accidents Formula E has seen, up there with the Heidfeld/Prost 2014 Beijing ePrix shunt.

The race was then, as we were to see at the E-Prix’s conclusion, thrown into complete and utter disarray. The half-hour stoppage allowed drivers to regain their collective breaths, and DS Techeetah were able to fix Vergne’s ailing machine; Sims’ borked BMW i Andretti Motorsport machine was likewise nursed to full health.

The race re-commenced with some drivers taking their Attack Modes too early; Sebastien Buemi, Massa, Edoardo Mortara, Andre Lotterer, Jerome d’Ambrosio, Vergne and Nasr all banking on the safety car immediately heading in only for it to stay out an extra lap.

This allowed the other drivers an advantage in their hopes of maintaining and dismantling leads, with Wehrlein, Rowland and di Grassi all pulling out a lead over the chasing pack behind to the tune of 2 seconds.

Antonio Felix da Costa appeared to pick up suspension damage in a fraught battle with Buemi, the title disputers barging and scraping each other from the first chicane to the stadium section. da Costa would come out worse for wear and lose momentum, but he was soon to have the last laugh.

The real fun began from here on in. Rowland was desperately unlucky as he banked on taking his second Attack Mode in close proximity of di Grassi, who robbed him of second place with a move of opportunism – not for the last time in the E-Prix. This was a sour omen for Wehrlein’s chances of winning the race, as di Grassi’s higher energy levels and sage experience were advantageous in the fight for the win. Wehrlein managed to hold off the Brazilian’s Attack Mode-fueled advances, but it was becoming ever more clear the Mahindra driver was struggling.

The reason would soon become very apparent: he was on the absolute ragged edge in regards to energy saving. But for the Nissan e-dams duo, they’d have killed to be in his position: it was clear Rowland and Buemi would not make the finish. The calculations teams had made were skewed by the unanticipated by the red flag, and many drivers were facing the very real prospect of running out of charge before the line. This brought the likes of da Costa and Mortara back into play; they’d managed their energy levels to a tee.

And so they would prove to benefit: in the final lap, Rowland and Buemi bowed out as expected in the stadium section, throwing away what would have been a hefty 2nd and 4th finish (enough for 30 points). Wehrlein, meanwhile, was swimming in a cockpit of his own sweat as he toed the uneasy line of keeping di Grassi at bay, while making the line at all. He was forced off at the second chicane by Di Grassi’s aggressive advance, which lead to an investigation.

The fight was admirable, but futile also: the impossibility reared its head at the final corner as the German was forced to coast to the line. di Grassi almost swerved into the wall to get past him, but took the line at the last moment to claim his second win in Mexico City.

Wehrlein would end up receiving a 5 second penalty for his troubles, while da Costa nabbed an unlikely second place to put himself in the runner-up spot in the Drivers’ standings. d’Ambrosio was to be the man to top the table, as he finished an opportunistic fourth on a day where his teammate looked set to snatch the title lead for himself, putting him seven points clear.

But today was an opportunist’s dream, a poacher’s battleground, and although there were more admirable performers it was to be di Grassi’s day. But Wehrlein and Rowland can both hold their heads high; for rookies in a demanding series, they didn’t half show what they could do, and what champions they could smoke. When they had the charge in their tanks, that is.