Formula E

What could have been: An ex-F1 ace’s thwarted Formula E career

One of the high points of Formula E’s sophomore 2015-16 campaign was the exploits of Robin Frijns and Antonio Felix da Costa, punching above their weight with their original season one powertrains for the Andretti and Aguri teams respectively.

Both could have won the second race at Putrajaya, Frijns ending up third – the best result all year for an S1 powertrain – after crabbing around the final laps on three wheels Gilles Villeneuve style with broken right-rear suspension. The Dutchman took the top spot in Autosport’s seasonal top 10 driver rankings while da Costa, for reference, was ranked fifth. Both are now top-billed fixtures in the series, Frijns a regular winner with Envision Virgin and da Costa the outgoing champion at DS Techeetah.

Under different circumstances, Vitantonio Liuzzi could well have joined them in starring with the original powertrain in 2015-16, had the Trulli team decided to follow Andretti’s lead in abandoning its own concept when pre-season testing was plagued by issues.

Instead, Jarno Trulli’s eponymous outfit made the ill-fated decision to plough on with its flawed Motomatica JT-01s and the team sunk after missing the first two races – Liuzzi’s single-seater career proving an unwitting casualty in the mess.

Things had started on an altogether more promising note when the ex-Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Force India and HRT Formula 1 driver received a “really last-minute” call-up to replace Michaela Cerruti for the season one round in Miami, where he was coincidentally on holiday.

Liuzzi had a late call-up to deputise for Cerruti at Miami in 2015, and is shown the controls by team boss Trulli

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Despite not arriving at the makeshift street track without a helmet, suit, shoes or gloves, Liuzzi acquitted himself well on debut in gear borrowed from his team-mate and team boss, though was hampered by a problem with starting his second car. This would become a theme in subsequent races, but he’d done enough to be kept on for the remainder of the season (though he missed the London finale due to a clashing GT Asia commitment).

“It was a funny coincidence but in the end it worked really well,” he says of the Miami weekend. “It was a really nice first race and a good first gauge of the Formula E car.”

His only points finish came with ninth in Berlin, an event where Trulli famously qualified on pole, but Liuzzi had advanced from 11th on the grid to fifth prior to the car swaps when another issue starting his second car dropped him down the order.

“I was pushing the throttle and I had electricity feeling in my leg, it was like itching. Luckily when I jumped out, nothing happened because I was part of the static car, but actually there was pure electricity going through my body” Vitantonio Liuzzi

“All the races I did in that season, I always had a pretty good pace, especially in the race,” he says. “I was able to manage pretty well the consumption of the battery and driving pretty fast, but we were still struggling on a single lap time.

“Berlin was a good opportunity because the car was showing good performance in qualifying, but it didn’t work for me as good as for Jarno and I lost the chance to be in the top five. But in the race, straight away I had good pace, I went into P5 and I was managing the position pretty easily until the pitstop.”

Liuzzi was satisfied that “we were looking strong and positive for the future”, but that future wasn’t to be a long one. For Season 2, Formula E opened up its powertrain regulations to allow teams to develop their own units. Trulli, who had signed Salvador Duran to partner Liuzzi, partnered with Motomatica but the powertrain was perennially unreliable and the team failed to complete a single timed lap in testing at Donington Park as bugs persisted.

“I think neither me or the team really understood what was really going on,” he says of that “really frustrating” period. “It was a nightmare that season, because every-thing that could have gone wrong – it was definitely going even worse!

Showings with spec car at the end of first season gave Liuzzi false optimism for the future

Showings with spec car at the end of first season gave Liuzzi false optimism for the future

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“We were not even able to drive one metre out of the garage, the car was always breaking down. Every time you touched the throttle, even when you were in the garage, something was failing in the car, sometimes the battery, sometimes the engine.”

One incident that befell Liuzzi typifies the insurmountable problems the Trulli team was facing.

“Once I was in the garage, I was pushing the throttle and I had electricity feeling in my leg, it was like itching,” he recalls. “I was saying, ‘Guys, there is something wrong because the car isn’t moving but I feel itching in my right leg’ and they said, ‘No, this cannot be possible’.

“Luckily when I jumped out, nothing happened because I was part of the static car, but actually there was pure electricity going through my body. It could have been a pretty dangerous situation.”

Liuzzi is under no illusions that “Jarno and the Trulli team, they definitely made the wrong decision” by not electing to follow Andretti in abandoning its problematic powertrain when the extent of the glitches became obvious.

Instead of freighting its powertrain with the rest of the Formula E paddock to Beijing, it elected to organise private transport to allow more time to fix the problems – only to miss scrutineering, claiming that its engines and inverters were stuck in customs.

Matters didn’t improve at Putrajaya, where the Trulli cars failed scrutineering’s requirement to pass additional safety checks. Soon after, its exit from the series was confirmed, with Jaguar Racing taking over the entry.

“The engine manufacturer was struggling and kept trying to solve the problem but never really got on top of it,” Liuzzi says. “Jarno and the team, at one stage they had the opportunity to go back to the Season 1 engine and the battery but they decided to go ahead in this adventure until they definitely collapsed.

Trulli made it to Putrajaya, but the car failed scrutineering and it proved the final straw for the team

Trulli made it to Putrajaya, but the car failed scrutineering and it proved the final straw for the team

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“All the decisions I think in that season were really difficult to take and were often pretty wrong. It completely didn’t work and was a no-go season, but everybody was trying to do the best to put the car on track because obviously they were losing a lot of money and it was a really big shame that it ended up that way.

“It was a really difficult and upsetting season because to go to two races and not even be able to make one metre was really frustrating.”

The timing was doubly bad for Liuzzi, who was on the single-seater comeback trail after spending two seasons in the Italian Superstars tin-top series, and a dual attack in Super Formula/Super GT in 2014.

“I was mature enough, experienced enough, fast enough to stay there for a longer period. It started pretty well, pretty promising, but after that it didn’t work” Vitantonio Liuzzi

“It was a really big shame because I was part of that boat that sunk” he says. “Unfortunately, the most of the seats were already taken at that stage and I didn’t find any other spot, so that’s why my Formula E involvement stopped.

“At that time of my career, I was really focused on Formula E and I thought it could have been a really good second life of my career after Formula 1 obviously because I was mature enough, experienced enough, fast enough to stay there for a longer period.

“It started pretty well, pretty promising, but after that it didn’t work. In a way, I always say that I have been one of the drivers that has always been in the right spot at the wrong time. But this is part of the game…”

Today Liuzzi can often be found in the Formula E paddock as an FIA steward, and coaches drivers in Super Trofeo, Italian GT and Formula 4. Now 41, he’s not raced in a top-level series since 2017, instead plying his trade in a virtual environment for AlphaTauri in F1’s Eseries, but maintains he’s not retired.

“I am looking for some seat in GTs but only if I find something really worth it, with a manufacturer link,” he says. “At the moment nothing serious came together so I am waiting. I am still hungry to race but I am waiting for the good situation.”

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