How Antonio Felix da Costa became Formula E's fifth champion

In the most intense finale in motorsports history, here's what made Da Costa the deserved champion...

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There's never been any doubt in the talent possessed by Antonio Felix Da Costa. Whether it's been his time in sportscar racing, or his rise up the junior ladder, an international championship was due to land at his doorstep imminently.

When Formula E announced it's sextuple-header in Berlin to make up for the lost time caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it became apparent that those six races were going to be a heavyweight bout that the racing world hadn't seen before.

Of the many that entered the Tempelhof Aerodrome with aspirations of claiming the most lucrative trophy in modern day motorsports, it would be the DS Techeetah driver that would rise above the rest to become FE's fifth champion thanks to three victories, three other podiums, and points scored in nine of the 11 rounds this season.

Total control. Image: Formula E

Total control. Image: Formula E

The stats dictate that it was straightforward for the Portugese driver, becoming the first to be crowned FE champion with two races to spare, but what exactly set him apart from the likes of Audi's Lucas Di Grassi, Jaguar's Mitch Evans, and his main rival in teammate Jean-Eric Vergne?

Sensational qualifying pace

If there's one thing that Da Costa lacks it certainly isn't raw pace and the Portugese driver weaponised this ability at Berlin, seemingly dragging tenths out of his car whilst others are left bewildered as to how he has done it.

An emphatic pole at the Marrakech ePrix back in February marked a turn around in qualifying performance, and suggested that Da Costa had finally got to grips in his new car after moving from the BMW i Andretti squad at the start of the season.

Da Costa used his one-lap pace to perfection in the opening two races at Berlin, signalling to his competitors that if they wanted to beat him they were going to need to dig deep, really deep.

Scoring a pole position in one of the most competitive series in the world is impressive enough, but Da Costa dominated despite having the odds against him thanks to the series' group qualifying system. As championship leader, Da Costa would go out on track as part of the first six-driver group, and would have to set a time when track conditions are typically not at it's fastest owing to less rubber on the racing line laid down compounded by dirt and dust settling on the track surface.

Over the six races in Berlin there was a notable difference between the first and last qualifying groups of multiple tenths, but Da Costa was able to buck the trend and escape the misfortune others from his qualifying group experience

The Portugese driver wasted no time in setting the bar high, as he claimed the first pole in Berlin. A three tenth margin might not sound an impressive margin, but in FE that is quite the buffer.

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With the Marrakech pole and the first two in Berlin, Da Costa bagged 10 extra points to no reply from his championship rivals. However the biggest benefit came from how he was then able to convert each of these poles into victories.

From the front of the grid Da Costa reduced his chances of being caught up in any unnecessary and could utilise the clean air to gap the field, which is word-for-word how the It's no surprise that the 28-year-old was the only driver to score maximum points from a race this season.

Mental strength and mind games

Across the sporting world it's not uncommon for the "mind over matter" phrase to be thrown around, but in the heated competition that defined the Berlin finale Da Costa was exemplary in his attitude towards the six races.

Having been dominant en route to victory in Marrakech, it was clear the Portugese driver would be the man to beat however the interruption caused by the global pandemic only increased expectations when racing returned.

All smiles - the pressure never seemed an obstacle for Da Costa. Image: Formula E

All smiles - the pressure never seemed an obstacle for Da Costa. Image: Formula E

The pressure undoubtedly built over the break as Da Costa needed to recreate that conquering form, and although the finale was looking to be anything but predictable the eventual champion was in his rival's crosshairs.

Two poles, and two wins in rounds six and seven not only sent a clear warning shot to his rivals, but proved the pressure was not to be an obstacle.

The sheer gravity of this continuation of form is shown by the near disappearance of his main championship rivals in Berlin. Jaguar's Mitch Evans, whom many heralded as the most likely to stop either of the DS TeCheetah drivers, barely scraped into the points, as is the same for Da Costa's former teammate Alexander Sims who struggled immensely at Tempelhof.

DS TeCheetah might have had the strongest car but critically there are two of them on the grid, and Da Costa's main rival was on the other side of the garage.

Jean-Eric Vergne is nothing short of Formula E royalty. As the only driver to win multiple titles it's fair to say he's been around the block and is heedful of the mental antics it takes to become champion.

Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. Image: Formula E

Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. Image: Formula E

Da Costa steered clear of mind games, and remained focused on his personal performance to maximise every second on track.

In race one the intra-team fight became clear as Vergne lamented on the radio the team that Da Costa wasn't conserving energy. Within moments Vergne started tumbling down the order as he pushed too hard to close the gap at the front and was forced to conserve energy; Da Costa meanwhile continued at a canter to the checkered flag.

In previous FE championship showdowns it has become all too clear that tempers can fray within moments. Sebastian Buemi's infamous meltdown in Montreal a definition of how not to deal with the pressure of a title fight, and a scenario to which Da Costa was the polar opposite in 2020.

The DS TeCheetah driver's controlled approach ultimately enhanced his already strong championship position in the immediate rounds of the Berlin finale.

Leaving home

It's easy to forget that Da Costa's season marked an important step in his career months before the title victory in Berlin. With a tally of 54 races in the series it could have been said the clock was ticking on his title hopes, and with Vergne looking unbeatable the likelihood of a championship was tumbling.

Da Costa has been a BMW factory driver for the majority of his racing career representing the German marque across multiple series, and finally he was able to wear the blue and white roundel in FE as the team embarked on a full factory effort in Season 5.

That first foray into the sport didn't quite bare the fruit BMW had hoped for despite a sensational opening win in Ad-Diriyah. The crash with teammate Sims in Marrakech, disqualification from Monaco and a last round dash to sixth place in the standings defined an imperfect year for the Portugese driver.

His options were twofold, stay with the team and brand he knew so well, or risk it all on leaving 'home'. Da Costa picked the latter, and swiftly snapped up the DS TeCheetah seat alongside championship winner Vergne

Under pressure. Image: Formula E

Under pressure. Image: Formula E

The relationship between the 28-year-old and his new team would be entirely different to that at BMW. No longer was he under the pressure of representing one of the largest automotive brands on the global stage, instead he was in a position to become somewhat of a maverick and enabled to drive for himself.

With Vergne arguably the focus of the team after becoming the only driver to win two FE titles, Da Costa's move required him to prove his worth. From working to get a new car up to speed, he was now measuring himself against one of the best drivers in the series' history.

Da Costa's move is on a par with Lewis Hamilton's mastermind move from McLaren to Mercedes in 2013, leaving the organisation you have grown with for pastures new in the hope that you hit the jackpot.

This new lease of life was crucial to his success in Season 6. The focus in interviews moved away from rating BMW's progression in the sport to critiquing his personal performances, how his race went, how he plans to topple Vergne, all conversation that Da Costa revelled in.

It's testament to his character, that in the immediate moments following his championship victory Da Costa thanked BMW for their involvement in his career. A brief few words that demonstrated that he is nothing short of a class act.

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Da Costa's championship was nothing short of expertly executed; demonstrating impeccable pace in qualifying during the middle of the season, maintaining momentum over the break caused by the global pandemic through steering clear of mind games, and by risking it all on a move away from his BMW home, this won't be the last time we see FE's most recent champion tasting champagne at the season's end.

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Comments (3)

  • I loved the analysis! JEV will surely bounce back and there's 20 other hungry drivers - won't be all that easy for AFdC but it'll be interesting!

      1 month ago
  • Incredible performance by Da Costa. Really excited for next season already

      1 month ago
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