Was FE’s new qualifying system a qualified success?

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Stoffel Vandoorne and Jake Dennis did not physically stand back-to-back in the Diriyah paddock to take 10 paces, turn and fire. Yet, their duel for pole ahead of Formula E’s 2021-22 season opener was met with the same anticipation, trepidation and tension as a stand-off in a Western film – as 22 drivers were whittled down to the final two in the qualifying battle.

To continue the Wild West shoot-out metaphor, Vandoorne proved to be the driver with the itchiest trigger finger and claimed pole – while Dennis’s gun jammed at the final moment, leaving the Brit to recoil in presumed agony as Vandoorne blew the smoke away from his revolver’s barrel.

Formula E’s new qualifying system, when explained either by word of mouth or in carefully considered prose, sounds complex. There’s a multitude of permutations at play, especially since the eventual pole winner has an impact on where those eliminated in the group stages will start the race. But when played out on-screen, it’s deceptively simple. Four cars progress from each group and, from there, qualifying plays out in a nifty little tournament format.

Diriyah’s opening race was the first opportunity to see the new qualifying in action. There was something of a dress rehearsal in testing, but it didn’t really follow the format – it was largely for the TV crew to get their overlays and timing data in order. The qualifying session was the first proper run-through.

It was alright on the night. The preliminary group formats brought their own level of drama, and it’ll be even more action-packed when all of the following group sessions are sorted by championship position. Each group for the opening session, with one driver from each team in each group, was packed to the rafters with drivers all capable of reaching the duels. Thus, there was always going to be a few drivers who were going to be left disappointed in missing the top-four cut-off.

In Group A, new Venturi signing Lucas di Grassi and Jean-Eric Vergne were arguably the biggest-hitters left on the cutting room floor, while 2021 FE runner-up Edoardo Mortara spilled a top-four place with a presumed brake problem in the Group B session, leaving Andre Lotterer to pip him at the post. Mitch Evans and 2019-20 champion Antonio Felix da Costa were also left to watch the duels from the side-lines after exiting from the second group session.

In the knock-outs each driver had one shot to progress – with the duelling drivers spread out by about 20 seconds. Lotterer’s quarter-final with Robin Frijns was the first cab off the rank; the Porsche driver kicked off strongly, but his Envision rival began to hit back and had the early advantage – the timing overlay showing a fantastic back-and-forth battle through the sectors, tiny gaps leading to a natural ebb and flow. But by the end Lotterer just shaded that encounter, dispatching Frijns by less than a tenth with a stronger final sector to move into the semi-finals.

Sam Bird and Robin Frijns compare notes after qualifying

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Dennis’ duel with Sam Bird was just as closely contested, with the Andretti driver prevailing over the Jaguar man, while Nick Cassidy (Envision) had a first-sector advantage over Vandoorne – but the Kiwi couldn’t keep up the pace in the middle sector and also went for an early bath. Mahindra’s Oliver Rowland, who’d been mighty in practice, locked up at the start of his quarter-final and handed control of…

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