It was another doubleheader weekend, meaning that there would be one race on Friday and another race on Saturday. While the first race would deliver little for the BMW i Andretti team for how much it promised, the second race would see drivers Jake Dennis and Maximilian Guenther come home with a solid haul of points.
Puebla I, or the first race in Puebla, constituted Round 8 of the 2021 Formula E World Championship. It was probably the best Qualifying session of the entire season for BMW Andretti — both drivers made it into the Super Pole session for the six quickest drivers from the group stages. Jake Dennis set a fantastic time that saw him take P3 on the grid, less than a tenth of a second off the lap time of polesitter Pascal Wehrlein. Guenther, on the other hand, made a mistake in his Super Pole lap and would settle for a still-excellent P5. It would be the fifth time Guenther advanced to Super Pole and qualified in the top 6. He leads the whole grid of drivers in this regard.
The general consensus before the race was that this would be a race of attrition, with the track being very difficult on both energy management and tire management. With a long start-finish straight with a headwind into Turn 1, drivers would be on full throttle for a significant portion of the lap. And with the unique oval banking at Turn 15 leading to the start-finish straight, the tires would certainly take a beating, lap after lap. Speaking with the TV crew prior to the race, Dennis echoed the words of his countryman Sam Bird in describing the challenge of balancing tire saving and energy saving. He also added that he felt a lot more calm and relaxed starting from towards the front of the grid as opposed to starting in the thick of the midfield.
At the race start, cars on the clean side of the grid (the odd-numbered positions) seemed to have the advantage. This effect was exacerbated by the fact that Oliver Rowland, starting in P2 in his Nissan, had electronic problems on his car that resulted in him having to do the entire race without radio communication with his team. But crucially, it also resulted in him bogging down at the start and dropping all the way back to 13th. His slow start hindered the progress of Jean-Eric Vergne, starting P4 directly behind him. Guenther took advantage of this and sped past both of them heading towards Turn 1. Then at Turn 1, Guenther got on the brakes extremely late, locking his tires and diving down the inside of teammate Dennis to snatch 2nd place. With polesitter Wehrlein having made a solid start, the two BMW Andretti teammates Guenther and Dennis were 2nd and 3rd right after the start.
Carnage ensued quite early in the race. Rookie Nick Cassidy was involved in an incident that saw him plow into the wall just after Turn 8, bringing out the safety car. His race was, unfortunately, over. The safety car stayed out until 37 minutes (+1 lap) remained in the race, and then it was time to go racing again. The order was still Wehrlein 1st, Guenther 2nd, and Dennis 3rd. Attack Mode activation was also opened at this time.
With 34 minutes (+1 lap) remaining, Wehrlein made the first move of the race, swinging into the section of track just outside of Turn 8 to activate Attack Mode. This dropped him into 3rd place, and for one glorious lap, the BMW Andretti drivers were running in 1st and 2nd places. This, however, did not last long, as Wehrlein quickly made use of the extra 35 kWh of power at his disposal to glide past Dennis at Turn 1 for 2nd place.
Approximately 30 minutes (+1 lap) remained in the race when Guenther went for his first Attack Mode activation. With the BMW Andretti cars not having quite as much pace as Wehrlein’s Porsche, Guenther had not been able to build up as much of a gap to the chasing pack. He would drop into fifth position upon activating Attack Mode, but would make quick work of Lucas di Grassi in the Audi to get back up into fourth. At the conclusion of his Attack Mode period, Guenther would recover 3rd place by passing Vergne into Turn 1.
Right after this, Dennis took Attack Mode, losing three positions to drop into fifth place behind Edoardo Mortara and just ahead of di Grassi. On the following lap, Wehrlein’s race strategy took a turn for the aggressive as he took Attack Mode for the second (and final) time, despite the fact that over half the race was still yet to run. He was able to emerge from the Turn 8 ‘loop’ still in the lead of the race. Vergne went for Attack Mode as well, but was smashed into the wall by Alexander Sims while attempting to rejoin the circuit. At this time, Guenther was running in 2nd while Dennis was running in fourth. However, the amount of usable energy for both of them was just a sliver less than that of some cars around them, such as Wehrlein’s Porsche. In addition, the condition of Guenther’s tires was hard to tell, but he had had several lock-ups following his initial burn at the start of the race. Unfortunately, this would come back to bite him towards the end of the race.
But with 20 minutes (+1 lap) to go, Guenther was still doing great. He activated Attack Mode for the second and final time, dropping to 3rd behind Dennis as Mortara had also taken Attack Mode from 3rd place. Guenther quickly dispatched Dennis at Turn 1 of the following lap to move into 2nd. At this point, Dennis was one of only two of the frontrunning drivers to have an activation of Attack Mode still remaining. This would become a problem because later that lap, Sam Bird was smashed into the wall coming out of the Attack Mode activation zone while rejoining the track in similar fashion to what happened to Vergne just over five minutes prior. With Bird’s Jaguar wrecked, the safety car was brought out to ensure that it and the driver could be cleared away safely.
The safety car stayed out until 12 minutes (+1 lap) were left in the race, and the race was under way once again with Guenther in 2nd and Dennis in 3rd. Guenther, though, was struggling a tad on energy management so Dennis was able to get the jump on him at Turn 1 to move into 2nd place. At this time, news of a technical investigation on race leader Wehrlein and the Porsche team were announced. This put Wehrlein’s race victory in doubt, despite the fact that the German had driven a flawless race up until then.
The action was heating up behind him, and with 7 minutes (+1 lap) to go, Mortara had a look at the ailing BMW iFE.21 of Guenther, attacking into Turn 1 but locking up. Dennis then took Attack Mode, dropping from 2nd all the way to seventh. Guenther soon caved in to the inevitable, as his tires were not in good shape after a long and intense race. He was passed by both Mortara and di Grassi into Turn 1, and then Rene Rast in the second Audi was able to barge past as well. Antonio Felix da Costa tried to get in on the action too, but was thwarted by Guenther. Dennis then overtook da Costa to move into sixth, and then got by Guenther as well.
In the final minute of the race, di Grassi was able to overtake Mortara for 2nd place. Guenther, meanwhile, had a nightmare final lap, dropping all the way into 13th. His tires were cooked. Dennis, meanwhile, somehow lost a position to Sims to cross the line in 6th.
After the race, the results of the technical investigation on Pascal Wehrlein and his Porsche were announced: the team had declared the incorrect allocation of tires on Wehrlein’s car. As such, Wehrlein was disqualified from the race. An amazing maiden victory (for both the driver and the team) was cruelly taken away for a clerical error that undoubtedly played no part in their strong performance during the race. Gutting!
As a result, the podium steps were taken by di Grassi, Rast, and Mortara, in that order. Dennis took a fine fifth place and collected 10 points for the team while Guenther finished outside the points and was left licking his metaphorical wounds after the race. Of course it was a disappointment to come away with only 10 points on a day where the two BMW iFE.21 cars were running in the top 3 for much of the race, but there were still positives to take from the race. Qualifying pace was fantastic and both drivers drove well during the race, and the team and drivers would get a chance to rectify things a day later in the Puebla II ePrix.