Puebla 2021 – Technical Problems for Formula E

One of the risks that comes with writing opinion pieces is that sometimes said opinion either changes on part of the writer or is proven to be completely wrong. For that development to happen within only a matter of weeks, however, is quite rare. On 8 May 2021, the author wrote a column defending the oddity that was the 2021 Valencia E-Prix. The events of the time felt not, as many had claimed, as a problem with the ruleset but a logical extension of the brand identity of Formula E.

In a moment of prescience, there was one part of the article that truly would prove itself relevant much earlier than most would have foreseen.

“However, this is not a justification for complacency. There are many issues that need to be fixed. One thing the FIA must address at first opportunity is the tremendous amount of post-race penalties. It is one thing to have lots of penalties within the race – NBA games are still popular even though they often are a referee showcase more than an actual athletic contest – but if you leave fans wondering too often whether the results they have seen will stand, fans will lose interest. Inevitably, too many post-race result changes will more and more cause the feeling in audiences that their time has been wasted. This is a luxury you cannot afford in today’s world with its copious forms of entertainment.”

Special AAt least on a subconscious level, the series is operating as if their exclusive arrangement with the FIA made its rules unquestionable. This attitude has culminated in an event that somehow managed to be even more farcial than a race in which the majority of participants were artificially made unable to actually finish the race.

For those not in the know, a quick recap of events: the Puebla ePrix on 19 June saw Porsche driver Pascal Wehrlein control the race from pole position. Despite an early challenge from the BMW Andretti cars, he proved able to keep P1 and was clearly the best driver on the Mexican circuit. Shortly before the finish, viewers were informed that Wehrlein was investigated for a technical infringement. Without any further information, the media were speculating about a five-second penalty and Wehrlein was told to extend the gap as much as he possibly could. However, as soon as the rightful winner crossed the line, he was dropped to the bottom of the race order chart as the decision was revealed: disqualification for Wehrlein (as well as his teammate André Lotterer and the two Nissan e.Dams cars).

Special BAs audiences were “treated” to Lucas di Grassi tastelessly celebrating an unearned victory with donuts before making the disqualifications all about him in the podium interview with German television, there was only despair and silence on Wehrlein’s part. The world eventually learned that Wehrlein and the others were disqualified for a tyre infringement, as unregistered tyres meant Michelin were unable to track the legality of tyre pressures. Porsche placed a protest about the disqualification, the results of which are unknown at the time of writing.

Now, anyone who has read the Valencia article will notice how the author justified Formula E’s strict rulebook and post-race disqualifications and will obviously ask where the difference lies?

There are two key factors that vary that make this development unacceptable. The first issue is timing. Many issues that result in post-race disqualifications were either only recorded in post-race scrutineering or were a product of in-race conduct. This is clearly not the case. As Porsche themselves explained, the tyres were the same used in qualifying. They were mounted on the car at the deadline for tyre registration (ten minutes before race start)  and it was a mere technical issue that prevented the report. If Michelin and the FIA cared enough, the penalty could have been announced before the race even was underway, as Pascal Wehrlein himself pointed out in an emotional social media post. Therefore, announcing the decision mere seconds after Wehrlein has crossed the line is either laziness and incompetence or outright malice and/or a desire to have race-closing drama. Hanlon’s razor suggests the former, but neither explanation is able to justify this decision. Even Alejandro Agag admitted that the penalty was poorly conveyed and confusing to fans of the series, including the man’s own children.

The second one is the excessive harshness, even by the standards the series had already established. Punishing tyre irregularities, be they based on actual physical differences to the standard or based on administrative error, is a necessity. There is both too much risk and too much illicit gain on the line to ignore the rules. However, a full disqualification for such issues are very rare in other forms of motorsport and usually either involve extreme derivations or outright malicious intent. The author states with the utmost confidence that no other racing series in the world would have disqualified Porsche and e:Dams for the breach of this rule.

“Why does this matter?” would be the obvious response, “as long as there is internal consistency, even excessively harsh punishment is acceptable, right?”

The issue is one of trust.

Like the rule of law, rules in sports require that participants (and audiences, obviously) have faith in both the purpose of the rules and the fair execution thereof. Such an extremely strict penalty, delivered to Porsche and the public the way it was delivered, undermines said trust. Disqualification is the harshest punishment mechanism in Formula E short of race bans. Ignoring those, anything that earns a team or a driver a disqualification says that said conduct is the worst rule violation that said team/driver can commit. Because of Formula E’s excessive and unchecked use of disqualifications (more drivers were disqualified in the eight races of this Formula E season than in the 199 Formula One races held in the 2010s), it devalues the severity of the punishment.

In fact, as insufferable as di Grassi faking sympathy with Wehrlein was, it did accidentally raise a good point. How do we know that the various Audi disqualifications throughout the years were actually the product of genuine rule violations? In fact, Daniel Abt found himself disqualified for a similarly trivial violation. Given that a problem with the reporting system is enough to get you removed from the race results, how do we not know that the “non-standardised components” that got di Grassi disqualified from the 2015 Berlin ePrix was not just an unregistered rag used to wipe the chassis clean? When your rules cause fans to question whether Audi, a brand that has an at-best nodding acquaintance with the idea of “following rules”, were actually innocent victims, the ruleset should be replaced as soon as possible.

Special CThis loss of trust, unlike the “mere” chaos at Valencia, is also much more grave in terms of the other commercial factors that were mentioned in the first article. Neither manufacturers nor sponsors can spin this into anything positive. It can be pretty sure that Pascal Zurlinden, Porsche’s head of motorsport, will have some explaining to do within the company in the upcoming week. There is no corporate gain for any manufacturer involved in the series when a team is cruelly punished like this. Any head of motorsport looking at Formula E will now have a nagging thought in the back of their minds: “Will the rules screw us when/if we enter?” With no team being safe from the hammer of judgment (nine out of the twelve teams on the grid were disqualified at some point during this season – Audi, Virgin and BMW Andretti being the sole teams with unblemished records), it stands to reason that the rules will indeed screw any team. At some point, Occam’s razor forces a dire acknowledgement of the situation. What is more likely? Nine teams, the majority of which have factory backing, all drown in their own incompetence or the rules being an incoherent nightmare of overregulation?

Plus, Formula E’s driver pool will also certainly have paid attention to how easily they can be robbed of their own work. If Pascal Wehrlein questioned whether to continue to take part in Formula E in the hours after the race, it would not be hard to blame him. He made clear just how ridiculous he considered the penalty, matching the author’s statement that the penalty was very excessive and that he would have accepted a lesser, more reasonable one. Another penalty on Sunday certainly was not helping matters, this time for not using fanboost “properly” – in fact, in this scenario, he was punished for not giving himself an advantage. Given that even with the increased power of current Formula E, the cars are hardly faster than GT3 cars, attracting the best drivers in the world (outside of the very best of Formula One and IndyCar, it is safe to say that the best open-wheel drivers on the planet drive in Formula E at the moment) is still essential for Formula E and events like these do not help.

Special DNow, understandably, there are many fans that will not care about the “backstage stuff” and just want close racing and a tight championship battle with twists and turns. However, there is one thing fans subconsciously understand: there is no value in evenness if it feels unrepresentative of the actual state of affairs. To use a current motorsport example: there is a reason NASCAR’s popularity took a major hit when the Chase for the Cup was modified to decide the champion in a winner-take-all race. Wehrlein was set to take the lead in the championship at this event and take a lot of momentum after three races without a point. Instead, he is twenty-four points off the championship lead, currently held by Edoardo Mortara. History will not care, and neither will Mortara (or whomever the eventual champion will be), but the audience will at least subconsciously remember that weekend Pascal Wehrlein had 31 points taken away in cruel fashion.

Now, the author has no delusions about the impact of his writing. As has been established, the FIA are not reading gprejects.com and thus there will be no reform coming (even ignoring that the current FIA president is less interested in improving motorsport), unless pushed for by the promoters. Manufacturers will not flee the sport in masses. Sponsors and the media will not be pushing for changes, some reporters have even defended the penalty on Twitter.

This article is merely an expression of disgruntlement of one hardcore fan; a fissure of the Formula E fanbase at the microscopic level. Losing the author’s respect for the series will mean nothing to Alejandro Agag. Though in the interest of fairness, Agag himself said that there is a need for improvement from Formula E as far as this subject is concerned.

For someone who still wants Formula E to be great, despite their contempt for the events of the first Puebla ePrix, there are only two things left to do: hope that improvement comes quickly and hope that Porsche’s appeal results in a change to the penalty.

Sources: Autosport, motorsport.com, motorsport-total.com, Porsche, racefans.net, Sat.1, The Race, Twitter

Image Sources: Porsche, Jaguar Racing

Update: Porsche withdrew the appeal against Wehrlein’s disqualification according to motorsport.com, citing worry about causing harm to the sport while also maintaining that the penalty was unacceptable. While the spirit of the move was undoubtedly commendable, it only heightens the damage of the events to the reputation of Formula E.