Daniel Abt’s Sunday night party should have been one for the ages, one that would have deservedly seen the perennially unlucky Audi driver awake on Monday with a head so sore it would deserve only the treatment of his notoriously amusing Twitter GIF library.
Over the course of Sunday he did indeed celebrate his 25th birthday, even though the 25 points that went with it were now in the welcoming hands of another.
The dramatic twists and turns in Hong Kong lit up the night just as the sky-scrapers cast a dizzying neon over the still bustling paddock. It has become something of a theme in Formula E.
Yet, outside the confines of the teams’ packing their equipment away, there was a worry that another E-Prix had been decided by the technical staff and stewards huddled in a un-remarkable temporary office. They were there checking, not clever technology or the latest ‘between the lines’ innovation from Audi boffins, but barcodes!
Fans that had tuned into see a dramatic and enthralling race with multiple sub-plots and late-race incidents that were tossed ‘manna from heaven style’ to headline writers around the world, now had to digest that the real winner had sprayed his Mumm champagne from the second step of the podium.
Formula E is tapping into new audiences around the world right now and they are doing it well. Not even its harshest critics could disagree with that.
Maybe it’s not tangible just yet, but in time, as society drives less with the advent of autonomous vehicles, Formula E and indeed motorsport will have to start fighting to just maintain and try and find new ways to grow its audience. Confusing that audience, whether by design or not, is seriously un-cool to the new kids on the block.
The hard reality, though, is that the regulations by which this complicated sport is run can have no grey lines; black and white must rule.
Whereas the sporting regulations have degrees of tolerance, the technical regulations must be as rigid as the monocoques which glance the walls of the world’s cities in which they race.
I have some sympathy for the rules makers, though. Motorsport is perhaps the most complex, the most nuanced and technically challenging sport in the world. It needs density and clarity for there to be no questions open to manipulation or down right cheating.
The sports’ history has hundreds of case studies of such nefarious plans, and who is to say that it still does not go on to some degree?
With such rigidity of regulations comes some inflexibility in application though. Witness Abt’s disqualification for what is essentially an administrative error.
So, is it time to form a menu of sanctions for differing offenses? Maybe even have a bespoke ‘Ombudsman’ who could sit and rationalize what sanction should be given to a driver or team who gained no specific performance advantage during a race.
Surely there needs to be a realization and scope for flexibility of punishment, especially in such a forward thinking championship as Formula E.
A yellow/red card system? Perhaps a points scoring basis dependent on the seriousness of the offence?
All these sound possible, don’t they? But the reality is that the FIA is highly unlikely to consider any such procedure and quite frankly it’s hard to see how they can adapt such a ‘legal style’ design of the technical rules in such a complex sport. Look at the regulations and you will see legal semantics throughout. This is not by accident.
We really don’t know the forensic details of Audi’s case, or more pertinently the cause of it. Was it just an administrative error or could it have been something more than that, something that pushed the envelope too far?
As it stands, we know that all parts in the car were correctly sealed and homologated but the corresponding numbers on the MGU did not match up. It appears to be a minor administration error which had a hard impact on Abt and Audi Sport’s first Formula E weekend as a full factory effort.
Of course, the rumors started to fly, as they so often do in closed knit racing paddocks. This must be “manufacturers being creative” said some, “they must have made their own seals in an effort to constantly update parts post homologation and have the ability to reseal them” said others.
To be clear, there is no firm basis to any such allegation whatsoever and they must be treated as completely unsubstantiated.
Let’s go back to that word – perception. Formula E is an FIA-sanctioned and governed championship, so therefore it has to adhere to their rules of engagement and technical accuracy.
Yet, with Formula E being the self-acknowledged window for the future of our sport, perhaps it’s time for a consideration of what Alejandro Agag often coins as ‘a future laboratory for racing.’
Of course, I’m taking his words out of context here, but why not apply an ombudsman or a disciplinary system which the audience would understand? It is they after all, who will be buying these future electric cars from the manufacturers over the next two decades.
It’s a fraught argument. One with potential pratfalls, particular when you have multiple manufacturers coming in and pushing the envelope of every competitive angle.
Believe me, the tricks that take place in motorsport could make one’s hair curl in wonder.
Technical staff masquerading as spectators, sitting in grandstands and using military-spec binoculars and mini-telemetry screens reporting and spying on their opposition?
Sounds ever so fanciful doesn’t it? But it has happened in an international championship over the last three years. That is how seriously manufacturers take their racing, and how creative they can be.
If anything can change then it should change here in Formula E. Not even the stewards and the legal folks at the FIA could argue that changing a result after the race is a wholly satisfactory situation in this age of such fast paced leisure and sporting time consumption.
So, another incident-filled E-Prix will live long in the memory.
Yet, like the candles on Daniel Abt’s 25th birthday cake, the sporting aspect didn’t quite sparkle as brightly this time around, and as a championship, Formula E should be wary of immediate perceptions as well as future ones.