Motorsport.com's Top 10 Formula E drivers of 2016/17 - Part 2

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Motorsport.com's Top 10 Formula E drivers of 2016/17 - Part 2
Sam Smith
By: Sam Smith
Aug 9, 2017, 11:06 AM

Motorsport.com's countdown of this season's best Formula E drivers continues, as Sam Smith reveals his top five performers of the 2016/17 campaign in part two of our top 10.

Part one recap (click here to read):

10.  Daniel Abt

9.   Mitch Evans

8.  Oliver Turvey

7.  Jose Maria Lopez

6.  Jean-Eric Vergne

Sam Bird, DS Virgin Racing, in the press conference
Sam Bird, DS Virgin Racing, in the press conference

Photo by: Patrik Lundin / LAT Images

5.  Sam Bird

DS Virgin, fourth in the standings

In some respects, it was a season of what could have been for Bird.

After heroics in 2015/16 where Bird more often than not tamed and maximised a generally recalcitrant steed, season three saw a calmer environment for the British driver to shine with DS Virgin Racing.

His glory days did come, but they just took a while to do so. While he should have won at Hong Kong but failed after a software glitch, it was actually at Marrakesh where his season began to take shape.

There, Bird finished a comfortable second to Buemi. Yet, it became evident that Bird expected much more and that he knew he had a true race-winning car beneath him.

There were moments of sublimity among the disappointment of a mid-season depression for Bird.

His move on Jerome d’Ambrosio in Mexico was hands down the best overtake of the season. Still, there was an air of frustration that the anticipated results were not as forthcoming and this drove Bird to the occasional error.

The breakthrough came at New York, and it was with an assured performance as has ever been seen in Formula E.

It was merely further evidence that he is one of only a few essential drivers if you want to go and win races in this complex discipline of motor racing.

Nick Heidfeld, Mahindra Racing
Nick Heidfeld, Mahindra Racing

Photo by: Patrik Lundin / LAT Images

4.  Nick Heidfeld

Mahindra, seventh in the standings

Heidfeld ahead of Bird and Vergne? Yes, and this is why.

The experienced German had by far his best season in Formula E, and largely, although not exclusively, Heidfeld should take a significant amount of credit for Mahindra’s emergence as a race-winning force.

Heidfeld is far too classy to ever loudly trumpet such a sentiment, but the fact remains that it was largely he who developed the Mahindra M3ELECTRO into such a potent threat.

The crucial detail in developing this year’s cars was understanding the new lighter and more nuanced Michelin rubber for season three, and in this Heidfeld was a great weapon to deploy.

The call to use these tyres was made relatively late (in May 2016) when a lot of teams had already started developing their season-three cars.

Mahindra was widely acknowledged to have grasped them quicker and in a more understood manner than most others. Heidfeld’s ultra-sensitive touch was instrumental in harnessing this knowledge.

A succession of third-place finishes (five in total) was not enough reward for a successful season. A win was certainly a possibility in Berlin but ill-fortune meant it was Rosenqvist and not Heidfeld who again took the headlines.

The German acknowledged himself that Rosenqvist’s early pace made him re-appraise his driving. As ever, Heidfeld did this without fuss but instead maximum diligence and drive.

It is for these reasons that Heidfeld, who matched and beat drivers a decade and more his junior, deserves to be recognised as a supremely adroit driver, and one who is as big an asset to Mahindra as Buemi and di Grassi are to their respective teams.

Felix Rosenqvist, Mahindra Racing, in the press conference
Felix Rosenqvist, Mahindra Racing, in the press conference

Photo by: Patrik Lundin / LAT Images

3.  Felix Rosenqvist

Mahindra, third in the standings

There is a solid argument to state that the mercurial Swede should be number one in this list, and if this were the case then there wouldn’t be many detractors.

A victory, three pole positions and four other podiums is a remarkable haul in a rookie season.

We shouldn’t have been majorly surprised considering Rosenqvist’s pedigree, yet still it was by far the best performance by a rookie since the advent of Formula E.

Yes, there were mistakes, notably at Hong Kong and New York, but these were inevitable due to the quirks of racing the present Formula E cars on the limit and in a rookie year.

There were precious few dud weekends for Rosenqvist in season three, and for a freshman driver to be the best average qualifier is just one standout fact from a quality first season in the category.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect was Rosenqvist’s work ethic. It was one which saw both he and teammate Heidfeld develop into by far the best and most consistent pound-for-pound squad in the paddock.

Rosenqvist has a golden future ahead of him. The big question for Formula E is, can it keep hold of him beyond season four? It seems that Ganassi’s gain will be Formula E’s loss in 2019.

Sébastien Buemi, Renault e.Dams
Sébastien Buemi, Renault e.Dams

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images

2.  Sebastien Buemi

Renault e.dams, second in the standings

How can a driver as good as Buemi, and who won 50 percent of the races last season, not be 'numero uno' in an evaluation of the season three drivers?

The answer is complex. For all his supreme domination and clinical victories, Buemi still made significant mistakes on his way to just falling short of retaining his title this season.

These errors were at Mexico City, where he spun and lost points, and also at Montreal where he stuffed his car into the wall during practice and triggered a chain of events which saw the disappearance of another dozen points in the opening race.

The errors which cost him the title were not exclusively Buemi’s though. His team was also culpable at Berlin and Montreal, with those faults costing a net 22 points.

That is just two fewer than the total he missed out on the title by - and if you add the Mexico City points, Buemi would be champion. These are ifs, buts and maybes, but they will be questions bouncing around his head for most of the summer.

The reigning champion was sublime for the vast majority of the season. Coming away from Buenos Aires in February, it looked like missing the New York races might be a mere inconvenience rather than the disaster that it eventually became.

There is a big question mark over his Berlin disqualification, which was probably the real crux of his failure to retain the championship. Whatever the team did with the tyres, the risk backfired and set forth a truly abject title run-in.

Of course, the clash with WEC and missing two races was not Buemi’s fault, but the lingering worry of missing them probably drained energy and momentum when they need not have done so.

Indeed, the decision to take such a risk (with the tyre pressures in Berlin) was probably born out of fear of what New York might bring in his points reduction. Yet, he went to Canada in charge of his own destiny with a 10-point advantage over di Grassi.

Montreal itself was merely the result of all this festering tumult. Buemi wound himself up into an incandescent fury which burned so bright it threatened to completely engulf his reputation.

For all this drama though, Buemi is still a class act in the cockpit and in several criteria is clearly the best driver in the championship. Of that there is no doubt, evidenced by his usually sublime and dominant wins.

There are many with short memories in motorsport. Buemi then could feel the need to remedy key aspects of his modus operandi next season and plot a conclusive revenge.

Should he do so, the competition had better brace themselves, because when he sets his mind to it, the Swiss can be simply unbeatable.

Lucas Di Grassi, ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport
Lucas Di Grassi, ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images

1.  Lucas di Grassi

Abt Schaeffler, first in the standings

The champion and a worthy one, di Grassi certainly earned the crown this season during a superb campaign.

Yes, he made a mistake or two, with Paris being the most public when he collided with Antonio Felix da Costa in a move which smacked of desperation. And, yes, he was outqualified by teammate Daniel Abt too often for his own liking.

There will be those tempted to slightly denigrate his success due to contesting two more races than chief rival Buemi. But, the bigger picture was that pretty much everyone was a couple of races behind by mid-season anyway, such was Renault e.dams' early-season domination.

The way di Grassi approached the final four races was the mark of a champion. Unfazed and focused, despite having to undergo an operation on a leg injury and miss racing at Le Mans for Ferrari, the Brazilian never lost the faith in making his breakthrough as a champion. His performance over the Montreal weekend was as good as any seen in the championship.

Di Grassi is a true proponent of all the messages that Formula E endorses, and seldom has there been a driver who has bought in more wholeheartedly to a racing concept than him. He even had an official Formula E email address in the early days, when he was not a competitor but an employee in a test driver role.

The main reason, however, for di Grassi heading all his peers this season was the basic fact that he won the title in a car that, at best, was the second-most competitive package - and sometimes was the fourth or fifth.

To take the title showed laudable levels of determination, skill and guile. These were three attributes which suited the wily Brazilian down to the ground.

The start
The start

Photo by: Alastair Staley / LAT Images

The rest... 

To be frank, Maro Engel, Nicolas Prost, Nelson Piquet Jr and Robin Frijns all could have taken the final spot in this list, such was the closeness of competition this season.

Engel had an enormously frustrating first season but showed his speed and quality on several occasions. However, rotten reliability (usually gearbox related woes) and a lack of momentum from race to race hurt him enormously. He did however show on numerous occasions in qualifying that he has the talent and speed to be right at the front.

Prost contributed well to Renault edams teams title hat-trick with points scores in all but the final race. The fact he is not in the top 10 is no reflection on any drop-off of his considerable abilities, more that the level of the championship went through a bigger step change in season three than ever before.

Piquet toughed out another hard season with NextEV and usually fought the fight, but there were some other occasions when he frankly faded in to obscurity.

Of course it can’t have been easy for the inaugural champion, especially due to the limitations on testing and developing. The bright spots included pole at Hong Kong and a fighting fourth at Monaco. Undoubtedly, Piquet cannot tolerate another season like this one, and a move to another team will not be a surprise.

One of the major disappointments this season was Antonio Felix da Costa, who we know is blindingly good and capable of winning races.

Both he and teammate Frijns had little opportunity to stretch their legs in the Andretti ATEC-02 and any chance of good points scores were limited to one off occasions such as Hong Kong and Mexico City.

The latter should have seen their best finish of the season but a team error on the minimum pit stop time seemed like a perverse metaphor for a desperately tough season where the overdriving of the cars by both drivers became a desperate feature.

On the whole, just like the Andretti drivers, it is impossible to accurately gauge an overall performance for the Faraday Future Dragon Racing pairing, Loic Duval and Jerome d'Ambrosio, such was the paucity of opportunity to fight on an even playing field in the races.

The American squad had a wretched season with a litany of errors, largely made by the team, again making it almost impractical to fully gauge either driver, who are both excellent Formula E racers and in d’Ambrosio’s case a race-winning one.

Yet this season the despondency seemed to get to both and the once harmonious team saw its usual confidence crumble and with it also went trust and capability. The team, which once punched well above its weight, was by season's end down on the canvas, waiting for the bell.

Stephane Sarrazin brought his usual flair to first Venturi and then Techeetah after Esteban Gutierrez vacated his seat with a whimper. The French veteran showed he still has much to give at this level with a third place at Montreal, but it remains to be seen if his new ventures as a team owner in endurance racing will sound the end of his Formula E career.

Sarrazin’s replacement at Venturi, Tom Dillmann, did a respectable job to claim four points finishes and he deserves another chance next season on the evidence of his first foray in to Formula E.

Adam Carroll cut a dejected figure by the end of his first season and it was difficult not to feel some sympathy for the Ulsterman. He had long since worked hard to get back into single-seaters after years in GT racing but his season with Jaguar was disappointing.

The car was obviously not an easy one to make an impact with, yet the qualifying stats of 9-3 in favour of teammate Mitch Evans don’t read easy for Carroll. Then again, Carroll often got the smelly end of the stick in races, and none more so than when the team split their strategies in Montreal.

Suffice to say that there is a lot more to the story than initially meets the eye, and in time some of Carroll’s frustrations with his situation will undoubtedly come to light.

Mike Conway, Pierre Gasly and Alex Lynn all took in one-event cameos, with Gasly scoring a fine double points finish in New York and Lynn grabbing the headlines with a rookie pole at the same venue. Both would be major assets to their teams in season four.

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