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Magic Moments of 2017: The Miracle in Mexico

Sam Smith looks back on Lucas di Grassi’s famous victory in Mexico City earlier this year…

Photo: Formula E

The air is famously thin in Mexico City.

So perhaps we merely hallucinated Lucas di Grassi’s win at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodrigues last April. Because even by Formula E standards, this was a pretty outlandish race.

As unlikely victories go, the Aztec Gods were smiling on Lucas di Grassi, and if their famous propensity for revenge ever foretold an epic struggle, then it was on that unforgettable Saturday.

Twelve months earlier, the Brazilian had left the place in turmoil as a potentially title-shifting win was taken away from him when his car was found to be underweight.

Di Grassi attended a WEC press conference the very next day, and while his courteous professionalism shone through as it always does, behind the smile a fire raged. It was one that took weeks to die down, but a full year to fully extinguish.

One year on, the shadow of misfortune appeared to be looming for the Audi Sport Schaeffler ABT team once again when pole sitter Daniel Abt was sent to the back of the grid for a tire-pressure anomaly.

Di Grassi too could see no end to the Mexican curse. A dreadful qualifying saw him just a few places further up from Abt on the starting grid.

Lap 3 of the race saw further dejection as di Grassi pitted with a shattered rear wing after being hit by Engel’s Venturi at one of the chicanes.

Some great work by the ABT team replaced the wing, but now surely di Grassi was nothing but a ‘zombie car’ only able to chance an arm for fastest lap?

Then things started to turn. Six laps before the halfway stage his engineer Franco Chiocchetti piped up over the radio.

“Box, box Lucas, box now.”

The team had elected to roll the dice, and at that stage there was little else it could do. It was a gamble also taken by Jerome d’Ambrosio who was also starring in his own Formula E’s zombie picture after also hitting early issues.

Chiocchetti takes up the inside story from here.

“There was no thinking at the time that Lucas first pitted that we needed to do something extraordinary,” he tells e-racing365.

“We had a similar scenario in Hong Kong and we got a podium from a very difficult race. So these things do not happen completely by luck. We had learned some things from that Hong Kong race and we adapted to them.

“I remember thinking after the rear wing change and we were half a lap behind that it can’t get any worse than this.

“Sometimes the decisions you make come from the gut or they come from pure fact and analysis. There is always some luck involved, but still there is some ‘calculated luck’, shall we say. We ended up having three Safety Cars in that race.

“When we did the pit stop on the second occasion we thought it might be looking quite good but then the third one came out, well we thought we were screwed. It also got deployed, in my opinion anyway, quite unnecessarily [for Loic Duval’s briefly stopped Dragon car].

The eventual win was really made possible by d’Ambrosio. It was the Belgian who held back a frustrated Jose Maria Lopez and Jean-Eric Vergne for many laps, allowing di Grassi to stretch a gap at the front after the final safety car.

“Lucas did a great job in driving with mostly no brakes and just re-gen,” recalls Chiocchetti.

“It was a strange scenario that Lopez and Vergne couldn’t overtake d’Ambrosio, but we later found out he was getting the wrong numbers for the lap countdown.

“Again, a bit of luck for us, because he was running more aggressively than he had to and staying flat on the main straight.”

There was a spooky payback here for di Grassi, for it was 12 months prior that the Belgian had gratefully taken the maximum score after the ABT driver had felt the full force of the FIA technical staff for his underweight car.

“In season two we brought new rims to Mexico and we were underweight and got disqualified,” says Chiocchetti.

“I took that hard as it cost him [di Grassi] the title. So you can say that there was more than an element of revenge in what happened this year.

“The fact we went on to win the title makes it all the sweeter. I actually get Goosebumps just thinking about that weekend in Mexico and what it all meant for us as a team.”

In the garage after the race, I remember the almost tangible atmosphere of shock.

A year earlier I’d been in the same box after the race and the team could barely comprehend what had just occurred. The feeling was similar this time, only now for all the right reasons.

I approached Chiocchetti, who looked slightly detached, like he’d just witnessed something he was struggling to take in. He was in a victory daze.

“Knowing that we had banished that memory from the year before, well man that felt good,” he remembers now.

“I whispered to Lucas after the podium, I said: ‘My head is clear now, we have the revenge and we have ticked this bloody box in Mexico.’

“He gave me a big smile. It was a very nice moment, one I will always remember.”

Sam Smith is e-racing365's Formula E Editor. A 20-year veteran in motorsports media, including press officer roles in both the FIA Sportscar Championship and at Lola Group, Smith is a well-known face in the Formula E paddock, where he served as series editor for Motorsport.com from 2014-17. Contact Sam

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