Motorsport.com was given privileged access to the Amlin Aguri pit and its driver-to-team communications during the latest round of the FIA Formula E Championship. Sam Smith explains what transpired.
There is a wealth of knowledge and experience as we nervously amble around the Amlin Aguri cars on the starting grid for the first-ever Berlin eprix. Both cars had difficult qualifying sessions with Salvador Duran starting 16th and the team’s star driver Antonio Felix da Costa an unaccustomed 19th.
Two of the team's directors are overseeing the engineering team on the grid. Team principal Mark Preston and technical director Peter McCool transferred their collective racing nous from successful F1 stints at the team’s DNA link – Super Aguri F1.
Directing operations for da Costa is Chief Engineer Gerry Hughes. A highly-respected engineer, previous incumbent of senior technical/strategic positions at Jordan and Caterham F1 teams, Cosworth and the Rahal-Letterman Indycar operation.
Hughes has a tangible rapport with da Costa and together with race engineer, Joao Correia, and they have created a team that has already garnered a fine win at Buenos Aires back in January. Today though, they will earn their corn from the back row of the grid.
“Set brake bias,” states Hughes in clipped tones as da Costa is about to start the race.
The event begins and the instantly recognisable ocean-blue Amlin Aguri Spark-Renault sweeps through and overtakes Bruno Senna, Charles Pic and is soon on the tail of team mate ‘Chava’ Duran. There are a few close inter-team moments and the atmosphere in the pit box tightens.
As the action rages Hughes and da Costa are communicating each lap, proffering to each other the energy management data. “OK, settle down, target energy,” says Hughes at the start of lap two.
Power is restricted to 'race mode' (150kw / 202.5bhp) and it is key that the team judge the amount they can build a strategy with during the 48 minute race.
“Energy on target but save as much as possible in this train,” Hughes continues on lap three as da Costa, in 14th position, sits behind a long snake of cars.
He slips inside Duran on lap four and soon despatches Miami winner Nico Prost, a slowing Jarno Trulli and then Sam Bird. On the cusp of his mandatory car swap, the brilliant da Costa has come from the back of the grid to a superb eighth position.
Motorsport.com is privy to all of Amlin’s strategy secrets via the ‘comms’ between Hughes and da Costa, particularly the management of the energy being used. We have chosen not to include much of this detail to protect the teams’ plans and tactics.
As the team get ready for the stop, the heady atmosphere crackles. There is silence before Hughes pipes up: “Strategy as planned, good energy.”
The pit box is cleared and da Costa pits on lap 17.
Pit stop drama
Motorsport.com cowers in the corner of the box and gets as far away from the actual cars as is physically possible, yet we still get a bird’s eye view of the change. It is totally unique in motorsport as the Portuguese shows his agility by lithely hopping out of car one and in to his second Amlin Aguri car.
Belts are done, he is held momentarily by Hughes, pit lollypop in hand, and then it is…Go, Go, Go in a futuristic whir of electrical energy.
He’s released. One side of the team garage settles back down, the other goes through the same procedure, as Duran enters with a damaged front wing and pits on the same lap as da Costa for his car change.
Da Costa returns to the fray in seventh position after jumping Nelson Piquet Jr, but soon word comes through from the FIA that he has undercut his allocated minimum pit stop time.
The news is greeted by muffled curses and some incredulous looks. The margin of going under the allocated time was just 0.3s. To compound the air of despondency, Duran is also penalised for the same infraction. Sometimes, this is racing.
Just when things appeared they could not get worse, da Costa loses his car to pit radio. A team member is deployed to the pitwall to give information out the old fashioned way with a pit board. Hughes communicates to him the energy consumption data he needs to know for the remainder of the race. It is all done with decisive authority.
“We practice the stops in the practice sessions and like everyone else attempt to get it as close as we can to the limit,” says Preston after the race. “This time there was a slight miscalculation. In the heat of the race the pit in and pit out can be slightly quicker and it haunted us.
“The penalty is harsh for a small amount under but rules are rules and we got it wrong today.”
They both take their drive-through penalty. It costs da Costa four places but the tenacious racer digs even deeper. The red mist inspires him further to set his fastest lap on 1m24.758s, which is also the third quickest of the race overall.
It is little consolation to him or the team though as he rattles of the final laps in 12th position. This soon became 11th after Lucas di Grassi’s disqualification, but no points meant a downcast Amlin pit after the race.
Post-race post mortem
For Hughes there was immense frustration yet a realisation that had the penalty not occurred da Costa had the track position and pace to be fighting for a podium.
“The bottom line is we need to get qualifying right,” says a pragmatic Hughes post-race. “Everyone in the team can do a better job in giving Antonio a better qualifying car and he acknowledges himself that it can be improved as an all-round package over the one lap. In the race we are right there on the consumption and pace wise we are in the top five at least.
“What we must not forget is that the team was essentially a start-up,” continues Hughes. “The vast majority of the other teams were already operating as such. We are still finding our feet in the first season in operational terms and we knew there would be an element of a learning experience in season one. We are building some really good and solid foundations in this team for the coming seasons and I know we can become a real force.”
An hour after the race da Costa is chatting to team personnel in the garage and mingling with his team. Plenty of drivers have already gone home but the Lisbon resident is rallying his team and picking over the bones of the Berlin weekend in his usual professional manner.
“As a team we will re-evaluate the way we do the pit stop I’m sure,” said the Portuguese. “The last few races we were just a tenth or so over so we had been pushing it on the stops. This is only the second time I have not scored points and it hurts but we will be back stronger in Moscow for sure.”