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

After his stop-start Formula 1 career hit the buffers, Vitantonio Liuzzi was on the road to recreating himself in the new Formula E championship. The signs were there that a fruitful future lay ahead for the Italian, but this came to a shuddering halt with the Trulli team's ill-fated choice of powertrain partner

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

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.”

shares
comments
How motorsport's most prominent power couple found joint success
Previous article

How motorsport's most prominent power couple found joint success

Next article

Ticktum looking to IndyCar, DTM and Formula E for 2022

Ticktum looking to IndyCar, DTM and Formula E for 2022
Load comments
The sharing mentality that transformed the fortunes of two Formula E teams Plus

The sharing mentality that transformed the fortunes of two Formula E teams

Electing not to share data with its competitive customer team would have been a straightforward means of gaining an edge on at least one of Mercedes' Formula E rivals last season. But by reciprocating the relationship forged under its initial HWA guise, when it was a customer to Venturi, both teams have reaped the rewards

Formula E
Nov 30, 2021
How Mercedes's Formula E squad replicated the F1 team's best trait Plus

How Mercedes's Formula E squad replicated the F1 team's best trait

With its ultra-successful sister team in Formula 1 and a support network providing some of the best minds and resources in the business, Mercedes Formula E team principal Ian James knew his squad had all the winning ingredients. But mixing it together was no easy feat and required key attributes to be grown from within

Formula E
Nov 29, 2021
How Formula E's polarising newcomer can prove himself Plus

How Formula E's polarising newcomer can prove himself

OPINION: Few figures in racing today divide opinion like Dan Ticktum. The Formula 2 race-winner now has the chance to wipe his professional slate clean with his move into Formula E, but it won't be easy at the squad which has brought up the rear for the past three years. Here are the three key criteria he must meet to make a lasting impression on the series

Formula E
Nov 27, 2021
How Mercedes pulled off a silent coup in Formula E Plus

How Mercedes pulled off a silent coup in Formula E

By virtue of its Formula 1 success, Mercedes was expected to rise to power in Formula E before long. That it won both the drivers' and manufacturers' championships this year, after only two seasons as a full works effort, belies a tricky path littered with potential pitfalls

Formula E
Nov 26, 2021
Why electric racing cars should be four-wheel drive Plus

Why electric racing cars should be four-wheel drive

OPINION: Circuit racing has traditionally favoured front- or rear-wheel-drive setups, eschewing the equal distribution of power. But for Formula E and other electric-powered series, our columnist believes it’s a perfect fit

Formula E
Oct 13, 2021
How motorsport's most prominent power couple found joint success Plus

How motorsport's most prominent power couple found joint success

The Wolffs have carved their own paths in motorsport, leading their respective teams to success in Formula 1 and Formula E. But the two came together last month as their drivers finished first and second in the FE drivers' championship - a feat they are hugely proud of. In a rare joint interview, they reflect on a remarkable season

Formula E
Sep 21, 2021
The top 10 Formula E drivers of 2020-21 Plus

The top 10 Formula E drivers of 2020-21

OPINION: The 2021 Formula E campaign was one without a narrative for much of the season, with no single car or driver able to break away from the pack. That makes choosing a top 10 especially difficult, particularly as the qualifying format meant some worthy performers were unable to enjoy their day in the sun

Formula E
Sep 19, 2021
How Mercedes and De Vries achieved Formula E glory the hard way Plus

How Mercedes and De Vries achieved Formula E glory the hard way

When Nyck de Vries dominated the first race of what would be the most controversial and unpredictable Formula E season to date, it looked as though Mercedes was in for a cakewalk. But as the campaign wore on, the path to a title double became increasingly rocky. Neither driver or team would be assured of the crown until the closing stages of the very final race on a weekend of struggle in Berlin

Formula E
Sep 17, 2021