Round 4 of the 2019-2020 Formula E championship in Mexico City was a challenging one for the BMW i Andretti team as a result of a disappointing qualifying performance. But Alexander Sims was able to drive a measured and calculatedly aggressive race to storm to a 5th place finish from 18th on the grid.
Max Guenther, though, had an absolutely forgettable weekend four weeks on from his storied triumph in Santiago. As a result of Sims’s excellent drive and the combined misfortunes of other championship contending teams, the BMW i Andretti team actually left Mexico City having extended their championship lead.
Qualifying + Pre-Race Considerations
Two victories on the trot plus three front row starts in three races meant that BMW Andretti were leading the constructors’ championship heading into Round 4 and also universally regarded as one of the favorites for the Mexico City ePrix. It also meant that both Sims and Guenther would participate in Group 1 of qualifying, and this would prove to be their undoing.
Just as it had in the last race in Santiago, changes to the track layout would play a large part in qualifying and the race this weekend. Two chicanes on the oval sections of the track, most notably at the final curve of the lap, were removed, allowing for great free-flowing racing and record top speeds. On the flip side, this also meant that energy management was even more crucial than it had been last year (as the cars would be running at full throttle for longer), and tire management could prove to be an issue as well due to the insane lateral loads on the left tires going through the right-hander curves.
In addition, a new section of the track was added — a new left-hander at Turn 3 led to a double right-hander “quasi hairpin” of sorts, which was immediately followed by a straight leading into a new overtaking opportunity at Turn 9, entering the stadium section. The drivers would also have to deal with multiple surface changes — one at Turn 1, and another one at the left-hander at Turn 3. Mistakes at Turn 3, in particular, would prove costly during the race for several drivers, including championship contenders Sam Bird of the Envision Virgin Racing Team and Stoffel Vandoorne of Mercedes-Benz.
Qualifying began at 11:45 local time, with both BMW Andretti drivers among the first six cars scheduled to roll out onto the track. The expectation was that track evolution would not play as large of a role here as it had in Diriyah and Santiago for the previous rounds of the championship, but that expectation would be turned on its head. Sims was the first runner on track. He would set the benchmark time with what appeared to be a relatively clean lap besides a slide at the exit of the dusty Turn 3. However, when the times of his competitors started to fall in, Sims’s lap was shown to be way off the pace, and Guenther’s was the next-slowest lap, 2 tenths quicker than Sims. Both BMW Andretti cars were around a second off the group-topping pace of
Sam Bird, and the pair of them would drop down the order as cars in the subsequent qualifying groups took the track, eventually finishing qualifying in 18th and 20th places.
Speaking to reporters after the session, a perplexed Sims lamented that the balance of the car was off from what he had expected from the Free Practice sessions, and that affected his confidence in pushing the car to the limit. He remained cautiously optimistic for the race though, stating that the Mexico City track offers plenty of overtaking opportunities.
Before the race, it was announced that the Attack Mode policy for this race would be three activations, each lasting for three minutes. This was an attempt to spice up the strategic element of the race and keep team strategists on their toes. The Attack Mode activation zone was once again placed on the inside line in the stadium section of turns 10, 11, and 12.
It would be 16th on the grid for Max Guenther and 18th on the grid for Alexander Sims, after the two Mahindra cars of Pascal Wehrlein and Jerome d’Ambrosio took their gearbox penalties. At the start of the race, pole sitter Andre Lotterer of Porsche made a relatively poor getaway, allowing Jaguar’s Mitch Evans to pull alongside him. Lotterer would squeeze Evans towards the inside wall, but the aggression would backfire as Lotterer ran out of room at Turn 1 and was forced wide onto the grass, losing several positions.
Luckily, the start was clean behind this initial conflict and Guenther and Sims were able to make it through the first lap relatively unscathed, which is not always the case in Formula E races. Amid all the usual chaos that surrounds the first few laps of a Formula E ePrix, Guenther dropped a few places to 18th, and Sims was only able to recover to 16th place while cars around the pair of them made better starts.
Less than five minutes into the race, the safety car was deployed to remove Nico Muller’s Dragon car from the Turn 1 barrier after the Swiss driver outbraked himself attempting to overtake Nyck de Vries’s Mercedes-Benz around the outside of Turn 1. It was a heavy hit straight into the barriers, but luckily Muller emerged unharmed from his cockpit. The new-look BMW i8 that operates as the safety car for the series would lead the pack through the pitlane to make room for the track marshals to work on extracting the Dragon car from the barriers.
With 35 minutes (+1 lap) remaining, the safety car pulled back into the pitlane, allowing the race to restart. 5 kWh of energy was deducted from each driver’s amount of usable energy in accordance with the new regulation for this season. Two minutes later, Nissan’s Oliver Rowland would become the first driver to take Attack Mode, setting off a chain reaction whereby almost every driver took attack mode in the next few minutes.
Arming oneself with Attack Mode definitely came at much less of a cost at Mexico City compared to in previous races, as the activation zone was barely off the racing line. As a result, most cars were able to activate Attack Mode without losing a position, even when the cars directly behind them were right on their tails. Sims and Guenther were fruitful in their Attack Mode endeavors, with Sims sliding up into 13th and Guenther passing Daniel Abt’s Audi to move up into 15th position.
At the midway point of the race, a large gap was beginning to develop between the top 7 cars and the rest of the field. But drama ensued — Techeetah’s Antonio Felix da Costa attempted an overtaking maneuver on Nyck de Vries, who squeezed da Costa nearly into the wall on the start/finish straight.
De Vries had activated his FanBoost in an attempt to defend the position, but somehow lost all ability to brake at Turn 1 and went straight on, wiping out Virgin Racing’s Robin Frijns (who was having a great race up until then). All the action would promote Sims into 11th place, just outside the points, and move Guenther into 14th.
This was when Sims’s charge really began. With a full season’s amount of experience behind him, Sims had been able to retain about 2% more battery charge than most cars around him by driving relatively conservatively in the first half of the race. And with 16 minutes (+1 lap) left on the clock, Sims got past Oliver Rowland for 10th place and then followed that by passing the recovering Virgin car of Robin Frijns for 9th place.
He then activated Attack Mode for the second time during the race, putting it to good use by blasting past Edoardo Mortara’s Venturi car for 8th place with 13 minutes (+1 lap) to go. Five minutes later, Sims made a great move down the inside of Audi’s Lucas di Grassi at T1 to steal 7th place from last year’s race winner.
Guenther, in the meantime, was not having the same luck as Sims was. He was overzealous in his Attack Mode-assisted move on Jerome d’Ambrosio, going too deep into Turn 1 and losing out. Sims had activated Attack Mode (for the third time) as well with 6 minutes (+1 lap) to go and was making hay, setting the fastest lap of the race on Lap 31 in his pursuit of Stoffel Vandoorne in 6th place. Then with a mere 3 minutes (+1 lap) to go in the race, Sam Bird, running in 2nd, went off the racing line at Turn 3 trying to defend from da Costa, lost grip, and plowed headfirst into the barriers. That would promote Vandoorne into 5th and Sims into 6th.
Sims kept the pressure on Vandoorne even after his Attack Mode stint had ended, and the pressure he placed on the championship leader would eventually pay dividends as a small mistake at Turn 3 sent Vandoorne spinning into the Turn 3 barrier as well, handing 5th place to Sims. That would be the last lap of the race, and Sims would complete his comeback drive with a 5th place finish! Guenther, on the other hand, finished a difficult race in 13th place and was later promoted to 11th due to the disqualifications of Jaguar’s James Calado and Virgin’s Frijns, both for momentarily exceeding the 200 kW charge rate towards the end of the race.
In the end, Alexander Sims would score 11 points for 5th place + fastest lap, cementing his status as a championship contender this year. With the qualifying format of Formula E, the top cars will inevitably have races where they qualify towards the back of the field. And in such a tight series, being able to salvage results even when starting further down the grid is imperative to maintaining consistency in what is expected to be a very close championship.
Saturday’s race was no doubt a humbling learning experience for young Max Guenther, who as of now has never been able to convert a lowly grid position into a strong race result. If he is to contend for the championship this season, he must learn to be able to perform well no matter where he starts the race. Managing a race from the front requires a vastly different skill set and mindset compared to slashing through the field from the rear end of the grid, and both are invaluable skills that a Formula E champion must master.
The next ePrix will be in Marrakesh, Morocco, and the BMW i Andretti team will be hoping to extend their championship lead again in Africa. Last season, BMW Andretti’s drivers da Costa and Sims were running 1st and 2nd before colliding into each other. The team will no doubt be looking to build on their strengths and learn from their mistakes as the Formula E circus moves on to Round 5 in a mere two weeks’ time.