Dre’s Race Review: Formula E’s 2024 Sao Paulo ePrix

Sam Bird’s first win in nearly three years provides a shot in the arm the series badly needed. Dre on Formula E’s return to Sao Paulo.

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Dre Harrison Reviews



Read time: 6 mins

“Bird Up.”

Welcome back to the part-time series of Dre’s Race Review – Formula E edition. Given the series had to spend nearly two months on the shelf after Hyderabad’s last-minute cancellation, all the momentum and early excitement about the early season was gone due to politics and a calendar competing against the World Endurance Championship that many of its drivers double-dip. 

And let’s be honest, the series didn’t do itself any favours to start 2024, which I’ve written about in detail here already. The massive paywall to the UK audience, the disjointed broadcasting team, Mahindra’s AI influencer nonsense, and the lack of genuine action. The series’ self-fulfilling prophecy of “peloton” style racing didn’t work in Mexico or Saudi Arabia, with overtaking at a premium and Pascal Wehrlein untouchable early on. 

But sometimes, the story writes itself. One of the series’ genuinely great presences is back in the winner’s circle. Let’s talk about Sam Bird.

Sam Bird is a part of Formula E’s furniture. Of the 35 drivers who took part in the series’ first season a decade ago, Sam’s only one of five drivers still here. He’s second on the all-time appearances list with 118 out of 120 races. He’s second on the all-time wins list with 12.  And while he hasn’t won a World Championship within the series yet, he’s won a race in 8 out of the 10 seasons Formula E has existed. The definition of a series mainstay.

That felt like it was at risk last year. Sam’s career stagnated at Jaguar, just as they became one of the best teams in the series. He couldn’t match perennial contender Mitch Evans for pace and energy recovery. And worse still, he wrecked Evans twice in 2023 at Hyderabad and Jakarta. Jaguar, probably steaming they left a pair of titles on the table, made a power play to bring in Nick Cassidy instead. I thought that might be it for one of the series’ greatest veterans, but McLaren threw him a bone as they took over the Mercedes factory squad and Rene Rast left the series to head back to DTM and Sportscars. 

Bird has been solid so far this season, and to be competitive is a big step forward for a McLaren team that largely struggled in 2023. Hughes was a fast learner and Rast has been quick in just about anything you put him in, but Nissan’s powertrain has hampered them, often the third or fourth wheel in a series that Jaguar and Porsche have dominated in recent years. 

Don’t get me wrong, the Racing Gods gave Bird every shot to win this one in Sao Paulo. He got his Attack Mode activations in early before we got two safety cars – one for debris just off the racing line and the other for Nick Cassidy’s front wing collapsing underneath him. Nissan still seems to be struggling in terms of battery conservation and regen compared to their rivals, and Mitch Evans, Pascal Wehrlein and a late-charging Jake Dennis all looked in better positions to win down the stretch.

But Bird dug in, stayed with a surprisingly conservative Evans down the stretch, and nailed one of the greatest passes in Formula E history. Up there with Da Costa’s last lap outside flex in Cape Town. With two corners to go, Bird goes round the outside of Evans into the penultimate corner and then slams the door shut at the final bend to take McLaren’s first Formula E win and Bird’s first since New York 2021. 

Passes like that are why we love Motorsport and put up with so much of its bullshit. Formula E is losing some of its social relevance and good faith, as people are more distracted by the myth of synthetic fuels and the embryonic rise of hydrogen tech. But when it hits, it hits very, VERY hard, and Bird’s overtake is one of those moments that will go viral and buy it some much-needed goodwill. Shoutout as well to Tom Brooks who was sick as a dog and still made an exceptional call on commentary. 

McLaren, a team that’s desperate to extend its brand as a racing manufacturer into the greater Motorsport world (IndyCar, Extreme E, Formula E, the World Endurance Championship too via United Autosport), needed this win as it tries to combat the big hitters in F-E as a customer team. Bird, a driver who was starting to lose his foothold as a mainstay in the series, needed this. And Formula E, a series that often feels out of place in the greatest Motorsport landscape, needed this. 

I thought this phrase was going to apply to that trendy fitness gear that had a smart monitor installed into your exercise bike. But it’s become the backbone for what racing in Formula E is. 

A lot of these Formula E races play out the same way. A massive leading group and everyone sticking together as the leader doesn’t want to lead, and goes as slowly as reasonably possible to try and save battery, while the followers can inevitably save more by lifting and coasting more than the others and being more efficient by using slipstream. And chances are, the field will get their Attack Modes in early because the risk of getting hung out to dry on a late Safety Car is just too great. (And I don’t care what you tell me, Attack Modes were not supposed to be used like that when they were created, how they’re more used for defence than offence)

So in the end, Sao Paulo ended up a lot like the most famous example of Formula E’s new style of racing – Portland 2023. It was a race that had 400+ overtakes but often felt meaningless and messy given the wideness of the home straight and the fact the race only really kicked off in the last 10 minutes when the cars started truly stretching their legs.   

I ask… is this okay? When I watched Portland, I got to write about it for The Race and I said that it was a fun one-off in a vacuum, but I wondered if it was too contrived to work out in the long run as you’re implying that 75% of your race isn’t worth watching. As someone who’s only recently got into cycling, that sport can sometimes play out the same way. Some stages are built for a sprint finish at the end after three hours of riding. Some stages can lend themselves to breakaway attempts and mountain stages that can have a dramatic effect on tour standings.

Can Formula E consistently do that, especially when that format hasn’t worked for the majority of 2024? Sao Paulo had a superb finish, but the first three-quarters of its race probably wasn’t worth watching. It looks great on a five-minute YouTube highlight reel, but is it something that viewers will keep coming back for? Not sure in the long run. 

Max Gunther got two 20-place grid penalties for changing his gearbox and inverters during the weekend. Because he couldn’t serve all 40 places on the grid, he had to take a 10-place stop-and-go penalty during the race, despite the F-E website saying otherwise at first. Still, damn good recovery from Maxi to get in the points, just a shame the pack battle at the front was focused on so hard, no one got to see it. 

I think Formula E race control needs to be a bit more abrupt about the “Meatball” flag after Nick Cassidy had his front wing held together with vibes after his earlier hit. Eventually, the whole thing collapsed under his car and sent him hurtling towards the wall. All of that could have been avoided with a black and orange. I know Formula E has always been a bit more argy-bargy than most, but that means being tighter on the regulations.

Bird’s miracle pass very nearly didn’t count given there was a local yellow at the pit entry board, only about 100 metres in front of where Bird made his move. Well timed.

Jake Dennis had a 2.2% battery advantage on Pascal Wehrlein but his car overheated so badly he had to limp it home, and I love that Oliver Rowland came out of nowhere and stole a podium finish at the line. FOR YORKSHIRE, etc. Another spice in on the rack of Sao Paulo’s great finish. 

About the Author:

Dre Harrison

Somehow can now call himself a Production Coordinator at the Motorsport Network, coming off the back of being part of the awkward Johto Era at WTF1. All off a University Project that went massively out of hand. Weird huh?

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