On the back of a season as fiercely intense as 2016, trying to sum things up is one of the last, big challenges. With Felix jetting across the Atlantic for his first taste of American racing, debuting in the DTM, dipping his toes into the waters of GT competition and bursting onto the electric scene in Formula E, picking out the cream of the crop from a year lived literally flat out is far from easy.
Yet in this December special, that’s exactly what we’ve set out to do. Portioned out in steps leading up to Christmas, we’ll present the definitive top five moments of 2016 – each personally selected and ranked by Felix, and described in his very own words.
Today: early electric promise…
The Marrakesh success
Category: FIA Formula E Championship
Location: Marrakesh, Morocco
Result: P3 / pole position
Having spoken about those other races on this list, with characteristic circuits and surroundings, I think Marrakesh was very different to all that. I didn’t get much of a taste for the place; the layout of the track was quite straightforward, being flat with run-off areas and so on. Also, unlike all the other circuits we go to in Formula E except Mexico, it wasn’t a street track. Still, I rate that weekend as one of the outright best of my career, and probably the strongest of all for me in 2016 in terms of pure performance.
Being a rookie in Formula E, I had only done one previous race – the season-opener in Hong Kong. It was a fantastic place to have a race, right in the heart of the city, and it gave a similar vibe to the Macau Grand Prix. Perhaps with those two cities connected by just a short boat ride, that was maybe to be expected.
Then we got to Marrakesh, which was all different. I didn’t check the surroundings out that much; I think the most cultural thing I did was a camel ride in the desert on the Thursday! Instead, we got down to work pretty much straight away. It was the longest and fastest track in Formula E history, and those characteristics had a huge effect on energy consumption and strategy. It was another cup of tea compared to Hong Kong, so we just had a lot to do.
With Formula E rounds being one-day events, it’s a very busy schedule once we get going. It begins in free practice, where you need to hit your race simulation targets and quickly decide on your baseline plan.
Also in practice, you have one full-effect, 200 kW lap in each of the two sessions, and that’s all you get with that setting before being thrown into qualifying. It gives you very little time to prepare.
Added to that, the Marrakesh track was particularly difficult because of its many big braking zones. Running 200 kW instead of 170 kW has a huge effect on top speed, which means you have to brake earlier in qualifying than in practice, but still take into account the changes in grip from track evolution. It’s basically a guessing game, but that’s exactly what I find so interesting. You need to be more adaptable in Formula E than in anything else I’ve ever raced.
Qualifying is normally crucial. The circuits are very tight and leave little room for overtaking, so you need to start towards the front of the grid. The field is exceptionally strong, so even a tiny mistake – like a slight lock-up – can put you P10 instead of P1.
Having said that, in Marrakesh I actually felt quite confident of making it through the group stages of qualifying and reach the top five Super Pole part. Things had been going well in practice and I noticed there were probably three or four of us who had a bit of an edge over the rest. It also turned out to be true.
From the outside, Super Pole probably looks like a repeat of qualifying but in a top five shoot-out shape. In reality, it’s much more complex than that. The tyres we use are a bit like those in Formula 1; great grip on the first few laps, and then a significant decrease before they stabilise.
In Super Pole, you use the same exact set you used earlier on in qualifying, and they now have a heat cycle in them coupled with more wear. That means you have to rethink once again and adapt your driving style. On my Super Pole lap, I was being a bit more refined – still on the edge, but without over-driving. Some might have seen my powerslide charge from the first phase of Marrakesh qualifying; that’s the kind of driving you can’t afford in Super Pole.
When my engineer told me on the radio that we’d taken pole, I was obviously excited. It was more than we could ever have expected so early on in the season. I think it was the best pole position of my career in terms of the performance itself.
I felt no added pressure going into the race; on the contrary, to be honest. Starting up ahead allowed me to do my thing, uninterrupted. The start procedure in Formula E is pretty straightforward – it’s mostly about reaction time – and I managed to get away well off the line and keep the lead throughout the first stint.
As the race wore on, however, I slowly came to realise how new everything actually was. It’s not like in Formula 3; if you’re leading there at the end of lap one it’s half the job done, but Formula E has a whole lot of strategic elements to it. You need to control your pace, save the energy and be clever about everything you do. Coasting is part of the game and you need to nail that, each corner, each braking zone, each lap.
I opened up a gap of about five seconds before the pit stop, which was pretty much exactly what we needed given the fact we pitted a lap earlier than our most immediate rivals.
What caught us out was the second stint, where we lost more time than we should have done. We were never going to be the quickest on track at that point because we had to go a lap longer than the guys we raced, but for a variety of reasons we faded off slightly more than we’d hoped. We learned from it and with a bit more experience in the future, it should be fine.
A few laps from the end, Sébastien Buemi and Sam Bird managed to catch up and get ahead. It was a shame, obviously, but at the time I wasn’t thinking about it too much. You need to focus on your own race and your own strategy, and you never know what will happen on the final lap. People have run out of energy before and it can bite you very, very quickly. I also knew P3 was safe, and I certainly didn’t want to risk that.
Experiencing that success in Marrakesh with all the guys at Mahindra Racing – a team I’m already feeling very much at home with – was a big thing for me. Formula E is still very new to me, but I really like the concept and I think it suits me as well. I love the kind of challenge it represents; you need to be quick and clever at the same time. It’s a championship going places and it’s great to be a part of that. I’m really looking forward to getting back out there with the team in 2017.
Coming up next: #1
Previously on the list: