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Blast from the past: 2023 Diriyah E-Prix

Written by Jacob Awcock, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

On a cold, dark night in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, Formula E descended on the city following a tantalising opening race in Mexico City which Jake Dennis dominated and, undoubtedly, came into the race as the favourite. 

Close on his tail was fellow Porsche powertrain driver Pascal Wehrlein, who had been strong, but not strong enough in Mexico. Kelvin Van Der Linde would also start his first ever single-seater race for ABT Cupra, replacing Robin Frijns, who had suffered a wrist injury on the first lap in Mexico. 

Yet, to everyone's surprise, it was Sebastian Buemi taking his 15th Formula E pole position, from the McLaren of Jake Hughes, starting only his second ever Formula E race. Meanwhile, Wehrlein could only manage ninth, while his championship contender was no better than eleventh on the grid. 

Elsewhere, two other drivers started their 100th race; both Sam Bird and Jean Eric Vergne would start their 100th race, in third and twelfth respectively. However, only 21 drivers lined up for the race as a heavy crash at turn 11 in qualifying meant Max Gunther was unable to start the race, and would have to wait for the following race, also in Diriyah, 24 hours later.

39 laps awaited, as the drivers began their customary burnouts — in an attempt to get some heat into the tyres. In the last seven Diriyah E-Prix, the pole sitter had held his position at the end of the first lap, so Envision were quietly confident of a victory on the cards. 

As the start lights went out, Buemi got a good start and led into the first turn. Further back, Sam Bird was getting involved with the younger drivers; Hughes in the middle, and Ticktum looking to the inside as the trio went into the first corner three-abreast, as Hughes came out on top, holding second position. 

The race start; Image Credits: Getty Images

The same couldn't be said for his teammate Rene Rast, though, who was a passenger to Mitch Evans steaming down the inside, the pair making contact and running wide. Miraculously, both drivers managed to maintain their original positions. As they returned onto the track again, a chain reaction occurred. 

Mahindra driver Oliver Rowland slowed down to avoid the slower Rast, and Evans who had forced him to the outside of the track and very close to the wall. His teammate Lucas Di Grassi had to slam on the brakes to avoid contact with his teammate. 

While Di Grassi escaped unscathed, the same could not be said for Antonio Felix Da Costa, who went into the rear of the Brazilian, damaging his front wing and causing him to take an uncommon pit stop. A safety car would be required, though, to retrieve the Porsche’s stricken front wing.


It only took a single lap for the marshalls to work their magic, before the race was up and running again. Buemi led once again, with all the drivers behaving themselves on the restart. Da Costa had exited the pits just as the safety car had come in, meaning he had very little time to catch up to the pack. 

Meanwhile, after a sensational qualifying, Oliver Rowland’s race was beginning to unravel, as he trundled into the pits to repair damage inflicted by da Costa on the opening lap. His teammate Di Grassi, was the sole Mahindra in the points, and had some defending to do with championship leader Jake Dennis tucked up behind the Brazilian. 

Back up at the front of the grid Buemi was beginning to extend his lead, and was leaving second place Jake Hughes to fall into the clutches of the flying Sam Bird. The Brit could see the green Envision of Buemi pulling away into the distance, and knew he had to clear his fellow Brit if he still wanted a chance of claiming victory. 

As the pair headed into turn one, Bird sensed an opportunity and dived down the inside, catching an unsuspecting Hughes off guard and relegating him to third place. Bird was on a charge now and shot after Buemi. 

Bird had caught the Envision after just three more laps, and in an identical move to the one on Hughes, took the race lead. The main question though, was: Had he used too much energy in moving up the field, and would this affect him come the end of the race?

Following Mexico, many had tipped the championship battle to be fiery and full of wheel-to-wheel action, but there was very little of it for both Wehrlein and Dennis. The pair sat sixth and ninth, having made very little progress up the field. 

Wehrlein though was close to the back of Rast but not close enough to pass him, although he remained close enough to capitalise on a mistake from his fellow country man. 

As the field headed into the first turn, Rast locked his front tyres, sending him straight into the run off. He tried in vain to rejoin and maintain position, but Wehrlein needed no second invitation, and shot round the outside of the papaya McLaren. 

With Wehrlein making progress Dennis had to do something if he wanted to keep in touch. On lap nine, he activated 2 minutes of attack mode by running off line at turn 19, but gaining a power boost. He lost one position, but immediately looked to reclaim it, and gain on Wehrlein and the chasing pack. 

He did exactly that just one lap later, sending one down the inside, and into ninth place, but up ahead, Dan Ticktum diving in for attack mode had allowed Wehrlein to move up into fourth place, now under a second off a podium spot. 

While one rookie was going well, another was struggling. Young Sacha Fenestraz was stuck in the plagued Nissan, down in sixteenth. As the young Frenchman went to take attack mode, he missed the entry point completely and went steaming into the wall, damaging his front wing and dropping him to eighteenth place. 

While one driver was having a bad day, another's was becoming a nightmare. Evans was dropping down the order yet again. Pushing to try and pass Rast in fifth, he looked to the inside but recognised he was too far back. As he pulled behind Rast he locked his front tyres. 

Somehow he avoided contact, but instead went straight on, losing not one, but three places, promoting Dennis up to eighth place. They say bad things come in threes and the third was just around the corner for Evans. 

His first lap adventure off track resulted in a five-second time penalty for causing a collision with Hughes. Any chance of scoring points was beginning to disappear, and rapidly. 

With his championship rival sitting pretty in fourth place, Dennis knew he had to gain positions and close the gap to Wehrlein, whilst managing his energy. The Porsche powertrain had proved dominant in energy management so, with Andretti running under the Porsche powertrain as well, Dennis had to close in quickly. 

In front was the Envision of Nick Cassidy, the impressive Dan Ticktum, and McLaren new boy Rene Rast all in between him and Wehrlein. First up on the list was Cassidy, and he was cleared swiftly and with little effort as the Kiwi went for attack mode, allowing Dennis to sweep on by. 

Next up was Ticktum who was dispatched quickly in a similar manner. The only problem was Rast and now built a sufficient gap between him and Ticktum enabling him to take attack mode without losing any positions. Dennis now had a mountain to climb if he wanted to pass the papaya roadblock up the road from him. 

Things were about to get a whole lot worse for Dennis as he could only watch Wehrlein breeze past Hughes, who had taken attack mode, and move up into third place, charging after Buemi.

As the race hit half distance, all eyes were on the energy figures that were about to be released. As they popped up, it was revealed Dennis had 2% more energy than most in the top six, and was in the best position come the end of the race. 

Wehrlein also was in a good position, with 1% more energy than everyone else apart from Dennis; once again, the Porsche powertrain had proved its phenomenal ability to save energy. With this announcement, things began to go Dennis’ way and a glimmer of hope appeared. 

Wehrlein was struggling down in third to clear Buemi upfront, while Dennis took his remaining attack mode, maintaining position. Now in the same position as before, and with extra energy Dennis knew that the next two minutes would be crucial, if he had any chance of finishing on the podium, let alone winning the race.

As the clock ticked down, Dennis was unable to make any more progress and, despite being stuck right behind Hughes and having much more pace, could not get past. Up front, Buemi had taken his final attack mode, allowing Wehrlein to slip through and close the gap to Bird in the lead, who had also taken attack. 

All of a sudden the top six were packed tightly together, and no one could call who would win. 

Bird trying to hold off a charging Wehrlein for victory; Credit - Getty Images

With 2% more energy than Bird, Wehrlein fancied his chance of claiming the lead, and pressured the Jaguar ahead. Lap after lap he looked to the inside, but could not get past until lap 25 when he made an ambitious lunge down the inside. Ambitious. 

Just like Evans did earlier on, Wehrlein went steaming down the inside and into the runoff losing the lead he held for a millisecond, and also the time he had gained on Evans. All the while, Dennis was sitting behind, watching his championship lead slowly slip away. 

It didn't take long for Wehrlein to close back up to the rear of Evans but, as before, he could not find a way past. 

Meanwhile, Dennis’ opportunity was growing with Wehrlein held up in front he could have a chance of reeling him in, provided he passed Hughes in the next few laps. With ten laps to go, Dennis made his move and dived down the inside of the McLaren, promoting himself to fifth place, and set off after Hughes’ teammate Rast. 

Somehow this progress through the field had not impacted Dennis’ energy figures, and he held his 2% advantage over the rest of the field. 

Yet, the constant following of Bird had clearly impacted Wehrlein, and he now had an energy advantage of under 1% to everyone apart from Bird in front, not as significant as before, and something that could heavily impact him come the closing stages of the race. 

Yet it was not time to activate panic mode, and all-out attack yet in the Porsche garage. They still had one more trick up their sleeve; an extra minute of attack mode. This would be of help to the German in his attempt to pass Bird, but as the pair went down the straight on lap 31, Wehrlein appeared much closer than before. 

He looked to the inside and braked later than Evans, moving himself into the lead and with an attack mode still to be taken. If he could pull a suitable gap allowing him to take attack mode and maintain the lead, it would surely be the race win for him. It was slowly dawning on Dennis, while sitting in fourth place, that the lead was slipping away from him.

The final person to take his attack mode was Buemi in third place. Having started on pole position he undoubtedly felt that an opportunity had been missed, could he have pushed earlier or would all this have been futile when it came down to the efficiency of the Porsche powertrain. 

His teammate Nick Cassidy had a fairly uneventful race down in sixth; unable to make much of an impression upfront, but more points were to be gained for the Envision team, crucially moving them ahead of both Jaguar and McLaren in the constructors championship. 

With five laps to go Wehrlein had managed to extend the gap to two seconds, and took attack mode for the last time, hoping to extend his lead to Bird in second place. Yet the dynamic was set to change once again. 

Having been promoted to second place when Buemi took his final attack mode, Dennis had gained rapidly on Bird and, as Wehrlein took attack mode, managed to pass his fellow Brit for second. 

With more energy and five laps to go the race was on; even at such an early stage in the championship, the win could be the difference between second and third in the standings, so it was crucial for both drivers to take the spoils on offer.

As the laps began to tick down, battles were beginning to emerge all around. Dennis had now closed to within half a second of Wehrlein, and was pushing hard, in the hope of a second win while Rast and Cassidy were nose to tail further back, with Rast having to dramatically conserve energy at every corner. 

With a lap to go, Dennis looked to the inside of the first corner. No way through. He followed through the rest of the lap with no way through. He looked to the inside of the last corner. Too far back. 

As the chequered flag fell, it was Wehrlein who won in Diriyah, with Dennis just half a second behind. Bird came home to take third while Buemi claimed a disappointing fourth. Rast managed to hold on to fifth place having run out of energy on the line. 

Cassidy claimed sixth ahead of Vergne and Hughes, who dropped down the field towards the end of the race. Lotterer took ninth, bringing valuable points to Andretti helping them maintain top spot in the constructors championship. 

Evans was tenth, following a five second penalty being applied following the opening-lap nutcase. Dennis held on to his championship lead, cut to just one point to Wehrlein, who held a twenty-point gap to third place Buemi. 

It was quickly becoming a duel for the championship, but it was still very early days. The next round would also be in Diriyah the following day, where Dennis would look to bounce back, and attempt to extend his championship lead once again.


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