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From São Paulo to the motorsport scene: The Di Grassi effect

Written by Jacob Awcock, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Di Grassi made his name for the ABT outfit in the series; Credit - Andrew Ferraro

Its safe to say the start of the 2024 ABB FIA Formula E season has not gone the way Lucas Di Grassi or his home faithful would have wanted it to go: not a single point on the board; an uncompetitive car in the ABT Cupra and a teammate who, supposedly, seems to carry all the team’s hopes with stronger performances in the first three rounds. 

Yet, the Brazilian will return to his hometown of São Paulo this weekend, in the hope of rejuvenating his season, as well as leaving a lasting impact in his hometown.

Hometown boy

Formula E world champion, Formula One driver, and a 24 Hours of Le Mans competitor, Di Grassi has certainly been around the block when it comes to competing in motorsport. He began karting aged 13, competing across the Americas. His speed and talent were visible, most notably when he won the prestigious Pan American championship.

His pedigree was clear, and in 2002 he was snapped up to Brazilian Formula Renault where he shone, finishing second in the standings in his debut year; just seven points adrift off eventual winner Sérgio Jimenez. 

In his final season before moving to Europe, Di Grassi claimed another runner up spot, this time in South America Formula 3, but his ability was obvious for all to see, and a move to Europe to compete in the big leagues was on the cards.

Di Grassi competed in the International F3 series in Europe; Credit - Speedsport Magazine

2004 saw this big move arrive, and Di Grassi headed to Europe to compete in the International F-3 series, where he stood out on a global stage, claiming a podium at the Macau circuit, a race that just in a few years time would become one of the most prestigious for up-and-coming drivers

At the same circuit, the next year Di Grassi went one step better; winning the Macau Grand Prix and becoming world champion in the process. 

Formula 1 teams began to take note of the young Brazilian sending shockwaves through multiple paddocks and in 2005, having won third place in the English Formula F3 championship. The Brazilian was called up by world champions Renault, who aimed to help him progress through the junior racing series. He had come so far but one hurdle still was in place between him and Formula 1: GP2.

Di Grassi was placed in the Durango team, alongside Spanish driver Sergio Hernάndez, in a mighty impressive field consisting of drivers such as Lewis Hamilton and fellow countryman Nelson Piquet Jr. 

In a largely uncompetitive season, the Brazilian managed to muster eight points overall, but a move in 2007 saw Durango become ART, a team which had tasted championship glory just one year ago with youngster Lewis Hamilton, who led them to both driver and teams’ championships. 

Di Grassi finished runner-up in GP2 in 2007; Credit - Eurosport

Despite a nervy start the Brazilian managed to secure himself as a championship contender with consistent performances as well as a first win in the Istanbul sprint race. 

Yet it was not to be, and he claimed another runner up spot, finishing just nine points off champion Timo Glock. Despite a growing relationship with Renault, Di Grassi returned to GP2 after a few rounds and nearly pulled off a shock championship charge, but could only manage third overall. 

2009 saw Di Grassi’s determination for a Formula 1 drive increase monumentally. Renault seemed to fancy replacing one Brazilian with another, following Piquet’s lackluster performances but opted against the idea of a driver switch up. 

Honda were considering Di Grassi as a driver for them and he even tested the Honda RA108 before the team withdrew following the financial crisis of the day, with Brawn GP opting for the experience in the form of Rubens Barichello. 

More bad luck struck, as the FIA ruled in-season testing was to be banned, meaning Di Grassi was released from his role as Renault test driver, leaving him with a mountain to climb if he wanted to break into the big time. But 2010 would be a gift for Di Grassi, one he had waited a long time for. 

Le Mans was a career milestone for Di Grassi Image credits: Getty Images/ Manuel Blondeau Corbis

In late 2009, it was announced that Di Grassi would be one of two drivers to drive for the newly established Virgin Racing. 

He would be partnering 2007 GP2 champion Timo Glock; a feisty pairing to say the least, and Di Grassi wasn't tipped to be the better of the two; Glock was predicted to beat Di Grassi across the whole season, which could have had big implications on Di Grassi’s future. 

But in the end the predictions were slightly wrong, and Di Grassi finished ahead of Glock in the standings based off of race finishes. The largely uncompetitive and unreliable Virgin car meant that Di Grassi didn't manage a single point all season long, and he departed the team following the season finale in Abu Dhabi. 

Following the anti-climax of Formula 1, Di Grassi opted for a different path as a Pirelli test driver (which he still is today) where he would drive the company's Toyota F1 car and test new tyres for upcoming seasons. 

While doing this a new series arose which appeared to interest the Brazilian in the form of Formula E. His technological experience and knowledge was invaluable to the series designers, who recruited him to help develop the new all-electric car for the debut season in 2014.

Image Credits - Sam Bloxham

2014 saw him claim the most podium finishes of any driver in the inaugural Formula E campaign but he would eventually fall short of a world championship, finishing in third place.

Would 2015 be any different, though? Having battled resiliently throughout the season, Di Grassi, again, had to settle for runner up in the championship, losing out by just two points to eventual winner Sebastian Buemi. 

However, his resilience and determination throughout the season, as well as some standout performances gave him the chance to participate in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans, with his team finishing fourth. 

A rejuvenated Di Grassi returned to Formula E the following year, following his French excursion, determined to claim the championship third time round, which he did in dominant fashion. 

Claiming two wins and seven podiums the Brazilian finished over 20 points clear of second-place man Sebastian Buemi and walked away from the final round in Canada with the championship under his belt.

That would prove to be his first and only world championship in Formula E and luck hasn't been on his side following it. Having left the Audi Sport ABT outfit in 2018, Di Grassi failed to match his previous performances, and since then has only managed four wins across five seasons with multiple teams. 

This year he returns to ABT but the team has changed monumentally since his last time with them and are now a rear end runner instead of a front row runner.

Image Credits - Simon Galloway
Disappointing return

Mexico didn't go as planned for Di Grassi in any sense having failed to progress out of the group stage in qualifying the Brazilian could not match his teammate, Nico Muller’s, early pace and ended up retiring the car after just three laps. 

In the team’s 100th race, lap three seemed to be their undoing: Di Grassi retired while Muller was spun into the wall by Antonio Felix Da Costa. While he did continue in the race he couldn't manage to progress any further, and stayed in 17th place. 

The next round in Diriyah did little to improve the mood around the team and for Di Grassi. 18th on the grid, two tenths off his teammate's best time and both cars couldn't progress through to the knockout stages of qualifying. 

While Muller made progress forwards at the beginning of the race Di Grassi made no progress at all, and stayed stuck in 18th. He would finish one place below in 19th, while his teammate would occupy the position Di Grassi once held, 18th. 

The same tale seemed to be told in round three where, early on, Muller managed to progress further than his 17th place grid slot up to 15th, while Di Grassi gained one position to move himself up to 20th. 

Having run out of energy on the last lap, Di Grassi trundled to the finish line at the back of the grid in 18th place, while his teammate benefited from the three retirements to finish 13th; the highest finish all season. 

These early performances have certainly set the foundations for a potentially disappointing campaign for both ABT and Di Grassi. 

The Brazilian has never failed to score points in any season during his time in Formula E, but the current performance of the ABT machine seems set to continue for many races to come. 

However, he is no stranger to adversity, and similarities can be drawn to the 2017-18 season where, with ABT, he took the team to second in the standings, despite no scores in the first four rounds of the season. 

If he has any hope of performing a similar turnaround, he will need to bring his wealth of experience to the fore, and what better place to kick it off than at home.

Home hero for Brazil?

It is safe to say that Brazil is not short of motorsport talent, especially in Formula E. Currently, there are two Brazilian drivers on the grid: Lucas Di Grassi and Sergio Sette Camera; Di Grassi is, undoubtedly, the most successful out of the pair. 

He and Nelson Piquet Jr both have a world championship to their name, placing Brazil as the nation that has produced the most Formula E world champions. 

Yet it took the country nearly ten years to produce its first ever E-Prix and it chose the location of São Paulo, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, but also one of the areas in Brazil with the highest poverty rate of 19%.

For years São Paulo has had high poverty and crime rates but the impact of Di Grassi could help change this. Image Credits: Getty Images/Victor Moriyama

While already hosting the Formula One event, it was crucial for São Paulo to host the Formula E: A growing sport in both exposure and interest means a greater audience to the city, the economic benefit from the event can go towards reducing the poverty hanging over the city like a dark cloud. 

But more importantly it gives the population of São Paulo a dream; the opportunity to work in motorsport. Personalities like Lucas Di Grassi would be big role models to the people of São Paulo, encouraging them to work towards a career in motorsport. 

Di Grassi is, and will continue to be a key figurehead in this drive for São Paulo, and promotes the city on the global stage. The boy from Brazil grew up in São Paulo, and will have seen evidence of this first-hand, looking to help in whatever way he can to improve this. 

He already is a strong advocate of using technology and sport as a field for promoting international sustainability, and has represented the UN several times at different events promoting improvement in LICs (low income countries) and how this can be done through sport and technology. 

São Paulo and the whole of Brazil will be urging Lucas on this weekend to get back to points scoring ways and revitalise his 2024 campaign. 

Yet, in the front of his mind will be the urge to show the people and more specifically the youth of Brazil what can be done through hard work and determination. His story will be told to many across the weekend, and will hopefully inspire many to pursue their dreams, whether that be in motorsport or another field of work.


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