Da Costa on pole as rains disrupts qualifying | Formula E

Antonio Felix da Costa took his first Formula E pole position as heavy rain at Saudi Arabia’s Ad Diriyah circuit disrupted practice and qualifying for the first round of the new Formula E season.

Practice sessions were delayed and then cancelled due to the conditions. With activities running behind schedule the qualifying format was change, to the confusion of at least one team.

Though rain is relatively rare in Saudi Arabia, showers had been forecast for race day. Sure enough, it started late on Friday and by the early hours of the morning had become a torrential thunderstorm.

First practice was cancelled. Second practice was initially postponed, then also cancelled after the track failed to drain. Although local organisers had taken steps to improve drainage at the UNESCO world heritage site, and marshals were out in force with brooms, there seemed to be no way to clear pools of standing water in the lower areas of the track until vacuum trucks arrived.

A 35-minute practice session was run, with only minor interruption, immediately before qualifying but with so little track time and under pressure not to crunch the pre-race schedule any further, race organisers chose to alter the qualifying format.

Instead of four groups followed by a Super Pole session with the top five drivers, qualifying was split into two groups for fifteen-minute sessions, with times combined to directly decide the grid.

Groups for qualifying had originally been decided by the championship order of the previous season, where applicable – which is to say, the order of the cars currently occupied by each driver, whether or not that was the car they had ended the season in. This already complicated system was confused further when the groups were combined so that one and three became group A, and two and four became group B, as follows:

Group A: Jean-Eric Vergne, Lucas di Grassi, Sam Bird, Sebastien Buemi, Daniel Abt, Edoardo Mortara, Jerome D’Ambrosio, Antonio Felix da Costa, Tom Dillman, Robin Frijns

Group B: Felix Rosenqvist, Andre Lotterer, Mitch Evans, Nelson Piquet Jr, Oliver Turvey, Stoffel Vandoorne, Maximilian Gunther, Gary Paffett, Felipe Massa, Oliver Rowland, Alexander Sims

It was assumed the first group would be at a disadvantage for, with water still clearing from the track, each run on the all-weather Michelin ridged tyres would help improve the track surface. Despite no need to save tyres, due to the almost-total lack of running earlier in the day, teams entered a game of chicken to see who could wait for other drivers to clear the track the longest.

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With one exception: new full-season signing Tom Dillman was out first and alone for nearly ten minutes, circling on 200kW laps after confusion over the format had led NIO to believe drivers were allowed to run more laps.

Formula E qualifying only permits a driver to run an out-lap, a hot lap (at a maximum of 250kW power, this season) and then a cool-down lap. With an extended session, this had turned into a grey area Dillman looked to be taking advantage of – and then was potentially penalised for as he came under investigation without even starting his 250kW lap.

With minutes to go, other drivers appeared on-track – actually creating some traffic when Dillman’s Halo LEDs finally let up with the magenta flash that indicates full qualifying mode. A crowded final few laps ended cleanly – with fastest man at pre-season testing Antonio Felix da Costa taking the top time at 1:17.728.

Audi suffered a disaster, with both drivers at the back of the session in ninth and 11th, only split by Edoardo Mortara, driving carefully following a practice session crash.

Group B emerged to what should have been improved track conditions, rain no longer falling. HWA’s new-to-Formula E driver Gary Paffett went out first, for a somewhat scrappy lap where he only hit 250kW extremely intermittently, following a heavy slide in the first sector.

Not-quite-rookie Oliver Rowland also went out early, managing to slightly improve on Paffett’s time to grab tenth place but unable to match teammate Buemi after hitting a wall.

Stoffel Vandoorne, in his first ever Formula E qualifying, managed a superb hot lap to set a 1’18.490 that saw him displace Sam Bird from the top five but the rest of the session was dogged by red flags.

Lotterer was on for a potentially decent lap, despite a couple of mistakes before the session was red flagged due to new driver Maximilian Gunther’s Dragon car stopping on track. On the restart several drivers still had to set a time, only for a confusing finish when Felix Rosenqvist hit the wall at turn 18.

The session was red-flagged for a second time, though on this occasion it seemed to be because a marshal had waved the flag before getting an instruction from race control. Alexander Sims’ time, in particular, might have been affected.

Final classification has not yet been released, pending a decision on the investigation into Dillman’s session. However, with no challengers to his time, it seems as though Antonio Felix da Costa has claimed his first Formula E pole and the first for Formula E’s second generation.

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Group A

Group B

Combined times

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Formula E

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Driver Time
Stoffel Vandoorne 1’18.490
Andre Lotterer 1’19.317
Mitch Evans 1’19.712
Oliver Rowland 1’19.755
Oliver Turvey 1’19.912
Gary Paffett 1’19.929
Alexander Sims 1’20.367
Felipe Massa 1’20.407
Nelson Piquet Jr 1’21.489
Maximilian Gunther 1’21.883
Felix Rosenqvist 1’23.037
Driver Time
Antonio Felix Da Costa 1’17.728
Tom Dillman 1’17.893
Jose-Maria Lopez 1’18.113
Sebastien Buemi 1’18.269
Stoffel Vandoorne 1’18.490
Sam Bird 1’18.511
Jean-Eric Vergne 1’18.571
Robin Frijns 1’19.036
Jerome D’Ambrosio 1’19.077
Andre Lotterer 1’19.317
Lucas di Grassi 1’19.527
Mitch Evans 1’19.712
Oliver Rowland 1’19.755
Oliver Turvey 1’19.912
Gary Paffett 1’19.929
Edoardo Mortara 1’20.330
Alexander Sims 1’20.367
Daniel Abt 1’20.385
Felipe Massa 1’20.407
Nelson Piquet Jr 1’21.489
Maximilian Gunther 1’21.883
Felix Rosenqvist 1’23.037
Driver Time
Antonio Felix Da Costa 1’17.728
Tom Dillman 1’17.893
Jose-Maria Lopez 1’18.113
Sebastien Buemi 1’18.269
Sam Bird 1’18.511
Jean-Eric Vergne 1’18.571
Robin Frijns 1’19.036
Jerome D’Ambrosio 1’19.077
Lucas di Grassi 1’19.527
Edoardo Mortara 1’20.330
Daniel Abt 1’20.385