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Software Scare & Shanghai Showdown: China’s FE Return Heats Up

FORMULA E greets its fans with the Chinese greeting “Ni hao” ahead of its eleventh and twelfth rounds in the world championship series. 

The People’s Republic of China returned as hosts to the Formula E (FE) calendar, but this time in a different city from its first stint (a Beijing street circuit), in Shanghai.

Nicolas Prost (e.dams-Renault) leading the way in the first Formula E street race in Beijing, China, 2014. Picture: Formula E.

The Chinese double-header is the home race for the ERT team, which is one of the few original FE teams to have joined from the start in 2014 and remained in the series, having undergone various name changes.

Prior to ERT, they were known as NIO 333, but when they started, they were known as the China Racing Formula E Team. 

The Shanghai International Circuit welcomed the FE championship following its hosting duties for the Formula 1 Shanghai Grand Prix held back in March.

It is a shortened version of the Shanghai International Circuit, with the long back straight removed, so the cars will instead drive through turn nine with a chicane ending the lap, making the final corner a right-hand turn rather than the usual left. The length of the FE circuit is 3.051 km, with Attack Mode positioned between the first and second corners.

Dramatic start to the weekend

The first practice session got off to a strange start. A red flag came out shortly after it began due to a software update issue that caused some cars to lose power.

Home team ERT’s Sergio Sette Camara and Dan Ticktum were among the affected drivers, along with Porsche’s Antonio Felix da Costa and Pascal Wehrlein (below), and Mahindra’s Nyck de Vries.

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“It all went to crap in the first braking zone. Five or six cars stopped after turn 1,” Ticktum told Formula E’s presenter, Nikki Shields. 

“When several cars have braking problems, it becomes dangerous. And if six or eight cars can’t take part in the session, that’s also ridiculous,” Ticktum said.

After a nearly hour-long delay, the 30-minute practice session restarted and finished without further interruptions. Jaguar’s Mitch Evans took the top spot on the grid as the fastest in the session, sans any more red flags, 0.025s ahead of Andretti’s Norman Nato and DS Penske’s Jean-Eric Vergne.

Drivers’ championship leader and fellow Jaguar driver Nick Cassidy finished 11th, while McLaren’s Sam Bird claimed 16th in his first outing since his return from hand surgery.

Cassidy leads the championship by two points clear of Porsche’s Wehrlein following his strategic victory in Berlin, which spurred his title charge. 

Cassidy felt that the Shanghai circuit will likely bring the peloton style of racing that the cars experience when competing on traditional race circuits rather than street circuits.

A “peloton style of racing” refers to races where the cars stay very close together for a significant portion of the event, similar to a group of cyclists in a road race.

This style helps with battery management to avoid early battery depletion, benefits from slipstreaming (drafting) behind other cars, and in many cases creates close battles and numerous overtaking attempts.

“I find, because of these races, as soon as you don’t take risks, you get shuffled back very quickly,” Cassidy told Motorsport Week.

“So, I need to keep the same mentality—when I’ve been aggressive and decisive, it’s working, so I’ll stay like that. 

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“I’ve found that in races where I’ve been more gentle, I get pushed around more. It’s been good learning in the last year and a half, and I’m just trying to take all the learnings from each weekend—how I approach races, what works and then apply it to the next one,” he said.

Nick Cassidy during free practice on the Shanghai International Circuit. Picture: Formula E

Following that dramatic start to the weekend during the first free practice session, three tenths split the top six drivers in the end, the drivers gave a sneak peek into what to expect in championship double header.

Team principals reaction

Andretti team boss Roger Griffiths voiced concerns about a potential issue related to the batteries in all the race cars. 

He echoed the suggestions made by Ticktum and told Formula E’s TV presenter, CB Saunders, that he suspected a recent software update might be to blame and believed that there could be a mistake or “bug” in the update.

“When we arrived here, the WAE engineers were updating the cars. So I suspect that something’s gone astray in that software update. Or maybe there’s a bug in it.”

Bad reaction to software upgrades?

While it is yet unclear as to the ultimate cause of the issue, motorsport news outlet The Race reported that the issues may be related to the changes prior to the Berlin E-Prix (another double header) regarding FE’s attack mode feature. 

It was announced back then that the duration of FE’s Attack Mode was to decrease from eight minutes to six minutes for the race, and then cut again to four minutes in the second race. 

This was a measure meant to protect the cars’ batteries for the rest of the season’s double headers by reducing the times cars spent at the batteries’ maximum output, which was usually used during qualification sessions. 

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While the issue was resolved on Friday, Shanghai’s double header will also have a reduced attack mode time of six minutes that must be used before the end of the race. 

The special China-Formula E connection

China is no new face to the exhilaration of the FE series championship as a previous race host in a dramatic race that set the scene for that season’s championship battle.

In 2014, the first-ever FE race to kick off the fight for the FE championship was held in the streets of Beijing and had a tumultuous conclusion. 

Lucas Di Grassi, a long-time FE racer, won his first race with the Audi Sport ABT team, which was decided by a dramatic turn of events in the final corner rather than a standard race finish. 

Nicolas Prost (son of F1 racing champion Alain Prost), then driving for e.dams-Renault, was leading the race when, heading into the final corner, Venturi’s Nick Heidfeld attempted to overtake Prost. 

Contact was made between the two cars, which caused Heidfeld’s car to spin and crash violently into the barriers.

Heidfeld (black) makes contact while trying to overtake Prost (yellow). Picture: Youtube

Di Grassi, who was running in third place, benefited from the accident and crossed the finish line first to claim a dramatic victory.

Lucas Di Grassi grabs a historic win in a dramatic end to the Beijing E-prix. Picture: Formula E.

Race one (round 11) of the FIA Formula E Shanghai E-Prix takes place at 9 a.m. on DSTV channel 215 (SS Motorsport), and race two of the Shanghai E-Prix takes place on Sunday at 9 a.m. on the same channel.

By Mpho Rantao