Part of the appeal of the double headers that have populated the Formula E calendar this season is that drivers get an immediate shot at righting wrongs after a poor first race or keeping momentum rolling after a promising first race. While Maximilian Guenther would be hit by even more misfortune in the second race in Valencia, it would be ecstasy for teammate Jake Dennis who claimed his maiden Formula E pole position and victory in only his sixth ever Formula E race.
It had been a rather rough season up until then for BMW i Andretti rookie Jake Dennis. As a series, Formula E has a very high learning curve, with drivers needing to adjust their entire mentality towards conserving energy and ensuring that the tires are at the proper operating temperature, all while driving fast and racing against rivals. In addition, Dennis had been a victim of bad luck in Qualifying multiple times this season, putting him at an immediate disadvantage for the corresponding races. But that all changed in Valencia for Round 6 of the FIA Formula E world championship.
The race on the previous day had taken place in wet conditions from start to finish. The very next day, however, the track was beginning to dry. With no rain through Qualifying, the track became successively drier and drier as cars took to the track. As a participant of Group 4 of Qualifying due to his relatively low points haul over the season up until then, Dennis would go out for his qualifying lap when track conditions were at their best.
And he would make the most of it, as he would go fastest of all cars during the session and take P1 in the group stages! His qualifying through to Super Pole was undoubtedly the product of a little bit of good fortune, as the six drivers in Group 4 ended up taking the six spots in Super Pole, demonstrating the large advantage it was to have gone out last on track for qualifying. Nevertheless, Dennis still had to beat out five other cars in his group, and it was truthfully about time that Dennis got some good luck in Qualifying. His teammate Guenther was not so lucky, setting a time that would have placed him around the fringes of the top 10 but getting it deleted due to a track limits violation. He would start the race from 24th and dead last.
In his first Super Pole session, Dennis would have the privilege of going out last on track due to his having put up the fastest Group Stage time. This would once again turn out to be an advantage, as the track continued to dry even further. But that was only part of the equation — Dennis still had to do his part by taking advantage of the track conditions. And that he did, pulling off a monstrously quick lap that was more than 0.8 seconds quicker than what anyone else managed in Super Pole! In addition, the lap was over 3 seconds quicker than the lap he had set in the group stages, further cementing the effects of track evolution.
The prevailing school of thought before the race start was that Jake Dennis was actually in an unenviable position starting from pole position. With the long start-finish straight and a headwind coming from Turn 1, it was widely accepted up and down the grid that the slipstream would be
extremely powerful in this race. The idea of a slipstream is that running closely behind another car reduces the drag of the car behind, thereby allowing it to save more energy. It is an idea carried over from cycling, where the rider in the lead routinely drops back into the pack so that he or she can take a turn at being in the slipstream. Several team personnel and the TV commentators touched on the idea that Dennis could find it advantageous to willingly relinquish the lead at certain parts of the race.
You don’t want to lead this race, they emphasized, you only want to be leading on the final lap of the race. With the track perfectly dry by the time the cars lined up on the grid for the race (first standing start in Formula E for a long, long time!), the grip levels would be high enough such that the cars would be at full throttle for longer, making energy conservation even more critical.
It would be a huge challenge for Dennis, leading his first Formula E race with so much to consider. Speaking to the TV crew before the race, Dennis revealed that the car changes a lot over the first five or six laps, then settles down once the battery energy regeneration begins. He also admitted that he had no idea what he was planning to do for the start of the race and was looking forward to a poker game of sorts with regards to the slipstreaming.
Jake Dennis lined up alongside Mahindra driver and good friend Alex Lynn on the front row, with the two NIO cars of Tom Blomqvist and Oliver Turvey starting behind them. In 5th was Andre Lotterer, who had actually qualified second but got docked three positions for his antics during the previous race, and 6th was rookie Norman Nato. Two-time champion Jean-Eric Vergne started in 7th, and some pundits saw him as one of the favorites to win this race given the fact that the only six cars starting ahead of him were cars from Group 4 of Qualifying, meaning that those drivers were in the bottom six of the championship standings.
In the first standing start since Round 2 in Diriyah, It was a good start from Dennis as he held the lead from Lynn, who tucked in behind him going down the main straight. Max Guenther made a strong start from the caboose of the grid as well, climbing up to 21st by the end of the first lap and then making a move for 20th. Compared to the previous day’s race, everyone was well-behaved in the first few laps, with no notable incidents occurring. The Attack Mode activation zone would open up with 41 minutes (+1 lap) to go in the race.
As the laps of the race unfolded, Lynn remained stuck to Dennis’s gearbox, but never made any noticeable attempts to pass the BMW Andretti driver for the lead. The running order was Dennis then Lynn, followed by Turvey, Nato, Blomqvist, Vergne, and Lotterer. Six minutes into the race, energy levels for all the cars flashed on screen for the first time, and the BMW Andretti team would be pleased to see that Dennis had about the same amount of usable energy, if not more, compared to the rest of his peers in the top 7. Lynn was the exception, as the Mahindra driver had been saving energy masterfully behind Dennis and had fractionally more usable energy remaining compared to anyone else.
But a Formula E race wouldn’t be a Formula E race without the action, and drivers started making moves a few laps later. Nato attacked Turvey for the final podium spot but failed, leaving him vulnerable to the advances of Blomqvist right behind him. But in his pressuring of Nato, Blomqvist actually fell victim to a cheeky pass from Vergne! Further down the field, Guenther was making progress as well, getting past both Virgin cars of Nick Cassidy and Robin Frijns to move into 18th.
At this time, none of the leaders had taken Attack Mode. This would be something to consider for Dennis and his team — should he take Attack Mode and drop back behind his rivals to do some slipstreaming? The problem was that all the cars in the field were so heavily bunched together, perhaps due to Dennis keeping the pace slow in order to conserve energy. Vergne was told at this time over the radio that he would lose three places if he took Attack Mode, so something similar was probably true for Dennis. Lynn and his crew, in the meantime, seemed to have a clear cut idea of what to do, and his race engineer dropped in via radio to remind him to “remember the strategy” for Attack Mode. Many experts speculated that their plan was to take Attack Mode whenever Dennis did, in order to stay right on his tail.
With 29 minutes (+1 lap) to go, Turney and the NIO team were the first to blink, with the Englishman dropping out of third place to activate Attack Mode. The team had done well finding a gap for him, and he in fact only lost one position, to Nato, in the process. With that catalyst, the action started kicking off on the next lap. Dennis did extremely well to pull a slight gap over Lynn, then armed Attack Mode. Lynn, Nato, and Vergne all followed suit. It could hardly have gone any better for Dennis — he barely retained the lead over Turvey, while Lynn dropped into third behind the NIO driver. Dennis then took the opportunity to pull a slight gap of around 1 second to Turvey to ensure himself some breathing room.
Lynn, who at this time could be considered Dennis’s fiercest competitor for the win, took until the end of his Attack Mode period to clear Turvey and get back into second place. Once he had done so, he wasted no time in getting back to his favorite place: barely one meter behind Dennis. Lynn’s team encouraged him, telling him that using some extra energy to catch up to Dennis was a fine tactic. More action was happening at this time further back — there was a bit of a kerfuffle at Turn 14 among the drivers running towards the back of the field, and Guenther dropped back into 21st after getting blocked by some wayward cars. Further up, the NIO team’s relative lack of pace was unfortunately beginning to show, with Nato and then Vergne both getting past Turvey to climb into third and fourth. Lotterer, in the meantime, leveraged a later activation of Attack Mode to now get past Vergne into fourth place.
With the race about halfway over, the BMW Andretti team would breathe another sigh of relief as the energy levels were displayed on TV once again, showing that Dennis still had basically the same amount of usable energy remaining compared to the chasing pack. He had done remarkably up until then to ensure that he had not overconsumed on energy while running in the lead with no slipstream available to him. 21 minutes (+1 lap) remained in the race, though, so there was still a long way to go, and Nato was slowly catching up to the leading duo of Dennis and Lynn. Lynn, though, was instructed over radio to just keep saving energy behind Dennis.
Unfortunately for Lynn, what seemed like a foolproof plan was foiled with about 17 minutes (+1 lap) to go. Nato had reeled in the leaders and was running right behind Lynn when he messed up his braking into Turn 9 and tapped the rear of Lynn’s Mahindra, sending Lynn wide onto the gravel. As the contact was minimal, Lynn would be able to recover and rejoin the race, but by then several cars had gotten by him and Lynn had dropped to 7th place. With his closest pursuer gone, Dennis took that chance to activate Attack Mode for the second and final time, easily maintaining his lead as Nato took Attack Mode as well. Guenther took his second Attack Mode around this time as well, making good use of it to make his way up from 17th to 14th.
Audi’s Rene Rast had been on a charge. Having started from 14th, he and his team were extremely aggressive on Attack Mode, activating it early on both occasions to rise up the running order. The relatively slow pace that Dennis was dictating at the front of the field worked out to Rast’s favor, as he was able to consume energy more heavily to make his overtaking moves, and then conserve energy in the slower-moving pack. He made quick work of the entire midfield and with 10 minutes (+1 lap) remaining, he was actually running in 4th position! However, he and Oliver Rowland, who was running one spot behind him, were slightly down on usable energy remaining compared to their peers in the top 10. They would have to start conserving more energy in the final few minutes of the race.
To make things even better for Dennis, his closest challenger Nato was given a five-second penalty for the incident with Lynn. After 24 laps, Dennis led Nato by 1.5 seconds, and there was another 1.5 second gap back to Lotterer in third. 7 minutes (+1 lap) remained in the race. A couple of laps later, Lynn was able to continue his recovery by breezing past Rowland and Rast to get into 4th.
Even though it looked like smooth sailing for Dennis at this point, there was still one more hurdle for him to navigate. As the clock ticked down towards zero, his engineer got on the radio, urgently telling Dennis to slow down. Why? It was an issue similar to that in the previous race where the drivers were forced to do one extra lap due to the timing, and the BMW Andretti team wanted to ensure that Dennis crossed the line to start the lap after the clock had run down to 0. This would shorten the race by one lap. Dennis duly obliged, but in doing so, the gap from him to Nato decreased significantly. It was a one-lap sprint to the finish, and Dennis would hold off both Nato and Lotterer to take the checkered flag first and take his first ever Formula E victory!
Second place would go to Lotterer after the Nato penalty was applied, and Lynn would be happy with his first career Formula E podium as well. Guenther, in the meantime, managed to finally clear Cassidy towards the end of the race. In addition, the two Jaguar cars had slowed down significantly, expecting there to be an extra lap to the race. Since there was not, they lost out and Guenther was able to get past them as well to finish 12th in the end, a solid recovery drive from the young German.
But all the focus was on Dennis — in only his sixth Formula E race of his career, he had produced such a finely controlled masterpiece of a race where the team strategy and Dennis’s execution worked flawlessly. Although the school of thought in the paddock was that it would be detrimental to be the leader of this race, Dennis proved everyone wrong with his lights-to-flag victory where he never relinquished the lead of the race. Despite being in a disadvantageous position with no slipstream to benefit from, he was able to control the pace of the race to ensure that he never ran into issues with energy conservation.
Alex Lynn offered some interesting insights on the race strategy after the race. Speaking with TV reporters, he revealed that he had been under strict orders to not overtake Dennis for the lead until fewer than 7 minutes remained in the race. While this was a sound strategy that could have resulted in a Mahindra victory had events unfolded differently, I would argue that this actually ended up making things easier for Dennis in today’s case.
Generally, the driver of the car in the lead of the race is disadvantaged both because he has no slipstream but also because he has to defend from the cars behind. And with the threat behind him almost non-existent for the first half of the race, Dennis was able to drive in a very conservative way, lifting and coasting frequently and still remain in the lead. This is why the overall pace of the race was a touch slow compared to pre-race expectations. But in the end, it is not how fast you get to the checkered flag that matters — it’s that you get there first. Dennis and the BMW Andretti team gave a masterclass in that in the second Valencia ePrix.
Looking forward, Dennis’s 29 points (+1 for topping Qualifying group stages, +3 for pole position, +25 for the victory) rockets him up to 8th in the drivers’ championship standings, while the BMW i Andretti team escape the bottom of the constructors’ championship standings and move up to 7th. While Dennis’s performance was absolutely marvelous, he will still have a lot to prove before he announces himself as a championship contender. The circumstances in this race with the permanent race circuit and the jockeying (or lack thereof) for slipstreaming as well as the changing weather conditions of Qualifying all played to Dennis’s favor today, and that may not be the case in the future. The next race would be a potential classic: the Monaco ePrix, running on the full Monaco Grand Prix configuration for the first time ever.