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How Abt was given new hope after its shock Formula E Berlin qualifying result

Abt Cupra has endured a difficult start to the new-for-2023 Gen3 era in Formula E following a late decision to return to the championship. But there was a glimmer of hope amongst the rain clouds as the team took a shock front-row lockout in Berlin which has renewed its morale

Nico Müller, ABT Cupra Racing, Robin Frijns, ABT Cupra Racing

Photo by: Andreas Beil

The unpredictability of sport is what keeps fans coming back for more. And while the race results from the recent Formula E double-header in Berlin followed a somewhat familiar pattern, with New Zealanders Mitch Evans and Nick Cassidy taking the spoils for Jaguar and Envision Racing respectively, qualifying saw what might have been the biggest surprise of the season so far.

Abt Cupra is enduring a tough season, to put it mildly. In fact, it’s probably fairer to say the German squad is suffering its most difficult campaign than at any other point in its illustrious history. This is the same Abt squad that took Lucas di Grassi to the 2016-17 Formula E drivers' title and just a year later secured the teams’ title – not to mention its various successes in other motorsport categories.

But fast-forward five years and the squad’s fortunes couldn’t be more different. Prior to the two races at the Tempelhof Airport Street Circuit the team had not scored a single point in the previous six races. That turned into seven on the bounce after Saturday, when Robin Frijns led home team-mate Nico Muller down in 14th and 15th, some 25 seconds off race winner Evans.

But with the help of a wet qualifying session ahead of the second race on Sunday, the team sensationally locked out the front row for its home event with Frijns beating Muller to pole in the final duel.

“It was a really emotional moment to be honest when we saw both cars in the final, you saw some tears in the garage,” team principal Thomas Biermaier told Autosport. “It was one of my best moments in over 20 years of motorsport.”

While the performance raised a collective cheer from the media centre and soggy spectators in the grandstands, it also raised eyebrows from other teams up and down the pitlane. How could a team that had yet to register a point this season take a comprehensive front-row lockout, even if the weather had played a part?

Biermaier was quick to dismiss the notion that the team had implemented anything radical, saying rather that lots of little things had added up to produce the big result.

“I think in wet conditions the mechanical setup is a little bit more important than the software settings, or it has more influence. Also the tyre pressures and things like that. It’s not one specific thing,” he said.

Robin Frijns, ABT CUPRA Racing, M9Electro, Nico Muller, ABT CUPRA Formula E Team, M9Electro, Sebastien Buemi, Envision Racing, Jaguar I-TYPE 6

Robin Frijns, ABT CUPRA Racing, M9Electro, Nico Muller, ABT CUPRA Formula E Team, M9Electro, Sebastien Buemi, Envision Racing, Jaguar I-TYPE 6

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

The poor run of form has likely allowed the team to explore out-of-the-box ideas with regards to the Mahindra powertrain and setup of the new-for-2023 Gen3 machines, which for Abt only arrived days before pre-season testing in Valencia.

The decision to return to Formula E after a year out due to Audi’s exit from the all-electric single-seater series had been a late one, and essentially only made possible by a partnership with car manufacturer Cupra.

All of which has meant the team has been playing catch-up ever since and put it at a significant disadvantage compared with its rivals.

“We made a quite late decision to come back,” said Biermaier. “Mahindra took us, so we're really thankful that they gave us the chance, but together with Mahindra we were late in development.

“Looks like we are five, six months behind the others and this you see on track. We lost mileage, we lost test days and we lost software development [by starting late].

“The first time we worked with the car was in Valencia [pre-season testing] and it takes time. We are not racing in a hobby series, we are racing in a world championship against big manufacturers.”

Biermaier is under no illusions that catching up on a six-month performance deficit is a monumental challenge, not least because other teams continue to find gains themselves with the new Gen3 machines.

This became evident in the second Berlin race, as both Abt drivers slipped down the field having led briefly in the dry conditions, although Muller was able to claim his and the team’s first points of 2023 with ninth.

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While far from the result the team was after, Biermaier knows that the confidence boost of its shock qualifying performance can push Abt back towards the pinnacle of Formula E.

“You saw the reaction in the garage when Robin won his semi-final and we had both cars in the final, we were celebrating like a victory,” he said.

“It's a long time ago we had a feeling like that, and the guys are pushing. The DNA is that we never give up and we know how hard it is to win races but now we also know how hard it is to be competitive. It’s a great team and they deserve it.”

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