The Mexico E-Prix produced one of the most memorable and exciting races in recent history. It also demonstrated why criticism of Formula E's race format and 'gimmick' rules is unfounded
The ending to last weekend's ABB FIA Formula E race at Mexico City simply could not have been any better had it been scripted.
After both Nissan e.dams drivers ran out of energy at the start of the final tour, dropping them from podium contention to 20th and 21st, longtime race leader Pascal Wehrlein's car hit 0% and shut down just 50m from the finish line.
As the Mahindra Racing driver lost drive within sight of the chequered flag, Lucas di Grassi nipped around him, squeezing his car between Wehrlein and the pitwall, to snatch victory from what only a few seconds earlier had looked like certain defeat.
That Wehrlein would get a five-second penalty which dropped him from second to sixth in the final results (for cutting the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez's first chicane in his battle with di Grassi earlier on the last lap) didn't matter. The Audi driver won on the road in thrilling fashion, capping off a sensational race.
From a brilliantly bold move at Turn 1 by rookie Oliver Rowland, to the spectacular crash between Jean-Eric Vergne and Nelson Piquet Jr, and the ultra-tense chase of Wehrlein from Rowland and di Grassi - it really had it all.
Even without the last-lap drama, it would have gone down as a perfectly good event. Yes, there weren't that many overtakes, but a good motor race doesn't necessarily need to have them. A case in point being Vergne's defensive masterclass to deny di Grassi in Punta del Este last season.
The story of the race ultimately stemmed from three rule changes FE and the FIA have brought in for the 2018/19 season: the qualifying groups set in championship order, attack mode, and the 45-minutes-plus-one-lap race limit.
Oliver Rowland, Nissan e.Dams, Nissan IMO1 leads Lucas Di Grassi, Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler, Audi e-tron FE05
Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / LAT Images
"If you calculate to finish and be at zero energy, and let's say the leader is crossing the line at 44 minutes and 58 seconds, you need to do an extra lap," he said at Valencia last October, unaware of how painful and prophetic his words would go on to be.
"And if you have no more energy, you are going to be stopped on the side."
Given the drama of the Mexican race, and that it all stemmed from the new regulations, there is a case for saying that FE's current rules are the nearest to perfection in motorsport.
First off, yes, that is an entirely subjective statement. And in this case it applies entirely to the 'excitement factor' of racing. But here's why such a take works. FE's fifth season has so far produced four different pole position winners and race victors. And this is also a consequence of the new rules.
The first, that the series' group qualifying format now requires those drivers placed highest in the championship to take to the track first, was intended to create random grids. And it's succeeding.
FE reportedly told the teams and drivers that running in the first group has historically made no difference to drivers from that set making it into superpole - but that hasn't stopped Sebastien Ogier-like complaints about the downsides of running first on the road.
The consequences of this were demonstrated most dramatically at last month's race in Santiago, where a delta deficit of 0.5s meant none of the group one runners was able to escape, and they started well down the field - Vergne, the fastest of the group, was in P13.
And although the difference between groups wasn't as pronounced for the first runners in Mexico (and Sam Bird stopped with a suspected driveshaft problem that also led to Robin Frijns blocking Jerome D'Ambrosio and ruining the Mahindra driver's lap in that segment), the top group one runner was Antonio Felix da Costa, who just squeezed into superpole and ultimately started fifth.
Jérome d'Ambrosio, Mahindra Racing, M5 Electro leads Pascal Wehrlein, Mahindra Racing, M5 Electro
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images
In fact, after starring in qualifying and the race in both Santiago and Mexico City, Wehrlein, who ran in group four and two at those events, now faces the toughest test of his three-race FE career so far, by having to prove he can produce similar performances from group one in Hong Kong.
The attack mode system is designed to shake up the racing in FE's Gen2 era now that mid-race car swaps have been consigned to the championship's history books. After a slightly low-key first outing in Saudi Arabia (where the activation zone was changed before the race so the TV graphics highlighting the area weren't in the correct spot), the system has had the desired effect.
The activation zone placement provides a pre-race talking point and an in-race possibility of something unexpected happening. We've already seen such scenarios eventuate from a variety of causes, such as Oliver Turvey's clash with Felipe Nasr early on in Mexico, and Rowland losing second to di Grassi there with a big slide after a puncture in qualifying forced him to race on an old set of tyres.
The higher power mode also guarantees action, either through increased overtaking, or by being just enough of an advantage to make a tricky pass possible. We saw last weekend, on a track where passing was a challenge for the drivers, higher power providing an incentive to have a go.
Pascal Wehrlein, Mahindra Racing, M5 Electro Oliver Rowland, Nissan e.Dams, Nissan IMO1, Lucas Di Grassi, Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler, Audi e-tron FE05 as Sébastien Buemi, Nissan e.Dam, Nissan IMO1 activates attack mode to join the others
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images
Without it, Wehrlein would likely have held on to secure a famous defensive win and taken the lead of the championship in the process. But the reality, he explains, was that by "overconsuming a bit of energy in the beginning" and using Rowland "as my reference" for speed and therefore energy usage, it ended in defeat.
The Nissan drivers were running a race their software had mistakenly told them would be a lap shorter than it ultimately proved to be, so Wehrlein was lured into pushing too hard. Then his battle with di Grassi meant he couldn't lift "for one corner 10m earlier, 20m earlier", which would have saved enough energy for him to get home as the winner.
Buemi estimated that Wehrlein crossing the line with "nine seconds" left on the clock triggered the 45th lap Nissan couldn't manage, which demonstrates the fine margins the timed race format can produce.
It should be noted that FE's rules, new and old, do have their problems. Fanboost, for example, is utterly contrived (and possibly open to exploitation). It's also increasingly irrelevant.
The original concept was to give fans the chance to directly influence the result by voting for their favourite driver to get an advantage - along the lines of a TV talent show, with an added video game element.
Attack mode has annexed the championship's gaming-inspired mantle and the extra power afforded to fanboost has rarely produced a pass of note lately. Certainly in season five and to a large extent in season four, too, when powertrain efficiency really became the deciding factor in passing moves in FE races.
There was a school of thought that with more manufacturers than ever racing in FE this season, they would all simply throw simulation resources at negating the unpredictability expected from the new rules. The fear was that this would lead to a convergence of strategic approaches.
Tom Dillmann, NIO Formula E Team, NIO Sport 004 battles with Daniel Abt, Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler, Audi e-tron FE05
Photo by: Zak Mauger / LAT Images
It could also be argued that the rules - particularly the qualifying group order and attack mode - are gimmicks. There's no denying that - they are. But what series doesn't have gimmicks introduced to improve racing? Formula 1 has DRS and high-degradation tyres.
DTM and IndyCar have push-to-pass, and the former has DRS as well. NASCAR tolerates drivers biffing rivals out of the way to win races, something that appears to be encouraged by the series' fanbase.
Sportscars, hailed as the purest form of racing by its devotees, is utterly stuffed with convoluted rules that impact on racing (Balance of Performance, Equivalence of Technology, set stint lengths for drivers and fuel usage, different driver rating categories - it's almost endless).
Even series that should be gimmick-free, junior single-seater categories, usually come with at least one reverse grid race and, in the case of Formula 2 and the new Formula 3 championship, overly sensitive rubber.
While on the "FE isn't pure race racing" point, anyone making this argument needs to have a serious rethink. In 2019, since the potential audience has more options for consuming sport and ever-expanding ways to spend time and money, motorsport just has to appeal to casual viewers and hardcore fans at the same time. It simply must if it's to survive in the long run.
The FE rule set isn't quite perfect yet. There is one significant problem with time-limited racing: in a race that features a full-course yellow or safety car period, the need for any energy saving (and therefore the creation of points of conflict between the cars that are better or worse at this) is greatly reduced.
In that case, the drivers can then push flat-out to the flag. It's a point reigning champion Vergne has been making throughout the season so far. Races not being energy-limited reduces the chance of the Mexico finale happening again at other events.
"I understand the thought because they want to make it hard when it's on the cusp between two laps and we saw that ," explained BMW Andretti driver Antonio Felix da Costa after taking second behind di Grassi in Saturday's race.
Antonio Felix da Costa, BMW I Andretti Motorsports, BMW iFE.18
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images
"Not only are you burning time and you're saving energy, as soon as we have a safety car or whatever the race basically becomes almost energy unlimited. We start going flat-out and it's very hard on the tracks where we race to overtake. That kind of goes against the main idea of creating excitement."
So, with that in mind, FE should take the way its new rules impact on the racing further. The attack mode variation is still yet to be anything other than two four-minute periods in the 225kW mode, although Motorsport.com understands that this stems from the FIA seeking to prove the concept works before tweaking it.
Well, it does, so let's have it shaken up. Eight one-minute activations sounds like glorious chaos, even if Audi team principal Allan McNish wisely pointed out the mathematical consequences: up to 176 activations of attack mode each race.
"That's a lot," he said. "Just think about it from Jack and Dario's . It's maybe too much chaos. But I'm sure just at the point where we start to understand it, they'll change it."
A way to spice up the time limit approach and increase the likelihood of races being energy-limited action crescendos would be, as Vergne has suggested, to add time or laps on after race suspensions. Stopping the clock during these periods would also work.
FE appears to be a lightning rod for criticism from motorsport observers and fans alike. In some cases - its controversial choice of race locations, complex rules, and the juxtaposition of green messaging while accruing a large carbon footprint by flying tonnes of equipment and hundreds of people across the world - this is completely justified.
But its quest to produce a product that supplies brilliant races should not be a reason to beat it. There are many reasons to agree that FE's current rules are the closest to perfection in motorsport, and it should be pretty clear where the conclusion on that debate from this particular piece is set. But it's ultimately completely fine to disagree.
Panning a series based on unsound arguments is not. FE attracts criticism like few other series, but if the finish to the Mexico City race and the rules that helped to create it can't convince people of the championship's merits, perhaps there is no hope for them or the motorsport they profess to love.