FIA FORMULA E CHAMPIONSHIP: SEASON 3, ROUND 1 - HONG KONG RACE REPORT
After much anticipation, the third season of Formula E began on October 9th 2016, at a brand new venue along the Hong Kong harbourfront. We had many questions going into this new season: How well would the new Jaguar squad, with it's iconic brand, fare on it's return to racing? Would Hong Kong deliver an exciting race? And can anyone stop the juggernaut that is Renault e.Dams and Buemi from taking both titles yet again? All these and more would be answered...
Qualifying was a highly protracted affair due to a litany of incidents. Between free practice and qualifying, officials had decided to change the curbs at one of the chicanes, but neglected to tell the drivers beforehand. As a result when drivers tried to climb them as they had done in every session up to that point, they often lost control of the car and bounced into the wall; Lucas Di Grassi was the first to discover this, and Robin Frijns too was caught out by this. The Dutchman's car had what he later described as "a disagreement with the wall, which the wall won", and as a result the MS Amlin Andretti's tub was destroyed; his mechanics worked tirelessly to fit the new one in time for Frijn's pitstop to change into. Both of these drivers would occupy the last row of the grid as a result.
Due to time delays from yet more crashes, the session was abandoned before Superpole could even commence; the shock result of this was that NEXTEV locked out the front row, with Nelson Piquet Jnr. taking 3 points for pole position and Oliver Turvey just behind in second. Debutant Jose Maria Lopez was a stunning 3rd for DS Virgin, with his teammate Sam Bird alongside him. Reigning champion Sebastien Buemi was 5th in his Renault e.Dams, with impressive Rookie Felix Rosenqvist right behind for Mahindra. All in all, it was a pretty mixed up grid, and everyone looked forwards to a hotly contested race as those behind in faster cars hoped to gain ground, whilst those ahead in unfamiliar territory looked to drive their cars as widely as possible.
Frijns' car embedded in the techpro barrier after his monster qualifying shunt. (Courtesy of Formula E media)
Laps 1-17: Chaotic start
As the lights went out and the a new season of racing began, the NEXTEV cars held their positions at the front of the field going into turn one. However, Jose Maria Lopez attempted to go around the outside of Turvey in an ambitious move. Unfortunately the Formula E Rookie and 3 time World Touring Car Champion got pushed wide by one Englishman and tapped the wall with his left rear whilst being squeezed and overtaken by another; this time his teammate Sam Bird. Unfortunately it emerged that in avoiding in his teammate and rubbing the wall, Lopez had caused damage to his suspension which would go on to have a huge impact in the outcome of the race. A bad start then for the Argentinian, who was down to 5th after turn 1 after Buemi also sneaked by on the straight. One man who had an absolutely stellar start was Nick Heidfeld in the Mahindra who got by far the best launch off the line and then went around the outside of his teammate Rosenqvist to go from 10th to 6th in the opening 12 seconds of the race.
The field rounds the hairpin at the start of the race; Piquet is out front already, with Turvey and Bird behind, whilst Lopez is tagging the wall. In the background is the picturesque cityscape of Hong Kong. (Courtesy of Formula E media)
Seemingly nothing had gone visibly wrong so far, but the first lap of the season could not remain incident-free for much longer. at the end of the back straight into turn 2, Jean Eric Vergne in the Techeetah entered the 90 degree right-hander slightly cautiously, creating a concertina effect; Daniel Abt immediately behind him managed to brake and not make contact, but in turn Antonio Felix Da Costa in the blue and white Andretti failed to slow in time; Da Costa's front wing was fine, but Abt's rear wing support snapped in the impact and the Abt Schaeffler Audi car would subsequently receive a black and orange flag the next time around and have to enter the pits to ensure that the wing did not fall off at speed and become a safety hazard. But the biggest impact happened just behind them; Nico Prost's e.Dams was absolutely clattered in rear by Techeetah's Ma Quing Hua, who seemingly made no attempt to slow down, and whilst the Frenchman continued with his car fortuitously unscathed, (bar one rear wheel pod) the clumsy Chinese driver came off far worse, damaging his right front wheel and necessitating a slow crawl back to the pits to jump into the second car, which then immediately had a terminal problem which ended Ma's destructive contribution to the race, much to the relief of the rest of the field. Ma's sudden impact with Prost caught out Di Grassi right behind him, who had no time to react and nowhere to go, so he damaged a piece of the purely cosmetic and new for season 3 front wing.
On lap 2 Lopez's suspension problems immediately worsened; he fought hard but could do nothing to stop first Heidfeld and then Rosenqvist overtaking him. He began to plummet down the order faster than the value of the British Pound, but resolved to stay out and survive until the pit window in the hope that he could finish his first race in Formula E and gain more experience of the car around a street circuit. On lap 5 Di Grassi took advantage of Lopez' issues to pull off a triple move in one corner on the Venturi of Stephane Sarrazin, the man nicknamed "Pechito", and Jaguar's Adam Carroll, also making his Formula E debut for the nascent British team. But unfortunately these efforts were for naught as almost immediately the Brazilian suffered the same fate as his teammate and at this point received the dreaded black flag with orange disc. (A flag so cruel not even pirates dared to use it) Daniel Abt came in and had the loose rear wing ripped off by his mechanics, and he emerged back into the race without it, but the early setback was not one he would recover from.
Turvey leads Bird and Buemi early in the race, with the Hong Kong Observation wheel in the background. (Courtesy of Formula E Media)
Oliver Turvey in 2nd had been acting as the rear gunner to teammate Piquet, who was beginning to build a lead of a nearly 4 seconds, but on the sixth lap his defence was broken, first by Sam Bird, and then by Buemi, who made a rather easy move at the first corner on Turvey who had started to save energy and lose pace with the leaders.
Di Grassi came in at the latest possible moment to change his damaged front wing on lap 8, obeying the black and orange flag issued to him earlier; it was an efficient stop from the Abt team once again, and Di Grassi for his part wasted no time leaving, narrowly avoid hitting a surprisingly unperturbed marshal on the exit of the pitlane as he slid luridly in frustration. Having lost so much time to the cars ahead, it seemed that Di Grassi needed a miracle to happen to score any points in the race.
On lap 15, Jean Eric Vergne swapped cars from 8th place with a technical issue, meaning neither Techeetah would finish the race; this was not only a shame for the Chinese team, as Vergne then went on to briefly set fastest lap in his second before running out of energy later on, but also a cause of concern for Buemi and Prost given that Techeetah are customers of Renault e.Dams who use the exact same powertrains. Still in the race though was Stephane Sarrazin, who made a move into 11th past Mitch Evans's Jaguar, who had done well to stay out of trouble but was suffering from the lack of pace in the Jaguar. Lopez, Buemi and Di Grassi were voted the FanBoost winners, but seeing as none of these three drivers used it at any point during the race this became purely academic.
The Mahindras had been boxed in behind a struggling Turvey, and Rosenqvist was even starting to challenge his more experienced teammate Heidfeld. Suddenly the Swedish driver lost control and spun around backwards into the barriers, damaging his rear wing and his steering. He would make it back to the pits to swap cars, but his oversteer moment cost himself 6th place; the remainder of Felix's race was focused around securing the point for fastest lap, which he was subsequently able to do.
Finally, on lap 17, Lopez' suspension cried enough, and failed completely at the turn 3/4 chicane, (The one who's curbs had caused so much grief in qualifying) planting him firmly into the wall. The first man on the scene was race leader Piquet, who arrived almost immediately, unsighted and without yellow flags to warn him of an incident ahead. In a very dramatic moment, he was able to apply the brakes in time without hitting the stranded DS Virgin, but instead found himself facing the wall head on in avoidance, from which he had to reverse out and rejoin the race; by the time he had done this Bird had taken the lead from him, with Buemi also going past the NEXTEV into 2nd. The safety car was then promptly called out for the Lopez crash.
The Safety Car turned the race on it's head and created a huge headache for the teams' strategists. (Courtesy of Formula E Media)
Laps 17-22: Safety Car period
With 17 laps of 45 completed, this turned the race on it's head and left drivers and teams with a difficult dilemma; pit now and get essentially a free pitstop but have to save energy to make the end, or stay out, maintain track position and save energy under the safety car, pit later in the race and rejoin with more energy available compared to your rivals for a shorter final stint.
The man who rolled the dice and made the biggest gamble was miracle man Di Grassi, who came in almost straight away under safety car from 15th; because he was so far down it seemed a logical decision and calculated risk to try and gain track position. Surprisingly he was the only one to pit on lap 18 to change cars; it wasn't until lap 21 that Buemi, Turvey, Heidfeld, Duval, Prost, and D'Ambrosio all chose to pit en masse under the safety car, and they all came out behind Di Grassi, who had only 2/3% less than the e.Dams of Buemi immediately behind him. Turvey was unlucky to be delayed during his pitstop, meaning that Heidfeld was able to leave the pitlane ahead of him and jump him in the order. Bird still led from Piquet and Antonio Felix Da Costa, (3 of 8 cars yet to stop) but once the safety car came in it would surely be only a handful of laps before they had to come in again, leaving Di Grassi the defacto leader.
Buemi managing his powertrain as he presses on towards the finish in the Renault e.Dams. (Courtesy of Formula E Media)
Laps 22-45: Closing stages
The race began again, and Piquet, in a case of too little, too late followed the safety car in, but unlike his teammate Turvey he wouldn't be able to gain an advantage in terms of track position due to the fact that other cars were now back to racing speeds. It wasn't long before Buemi had found a way past Di Grassi, who was having to coast more than Buemi due to coming in slightly earlier and a battery temp issue; but Buemi, knowing he had to stretch out the stint to make the finish and meet the energy targets, was saving too and both knew it would be very marginal to make it to the finish.
Meanwhile Sam Bird was lifting and coasting out front to stay out as long as possible, in order to push like crazy in his final stint; he came in on lap 26, and the two Jaguar drivers interestingly were also able to match the DS Virgin on battery life as they came in on the same lap. Unfortunately any chance of a podium finish or even possible victory disappeared when Sam's car refused to start for 30 seconds. He emerged 15th, and even had to unlap himself from Buemi, knowing that with a bit more luck he could have, and should have been fighting him for the lead!
Misery and misfortune for Bird, but joy for Mahindra as Nick Heidfeld found himself in 3rd place with less than 17 laps to go. He had an almighty task to save energy and defend from Nico Prost for the rest of the race, and he managed it, but only just; he crossed the line with a mere 1% in hand and under 2 seconds ahead of the Frenchman, but he'd made it onto the podium for the third time in his FE career along with a victorious Buemi and a grateful Di Grassi.
The Andretti cars of Da Costa and Frijns stopped on laps 25 and 27 respectively, so they were on a charge near the end of the race, passing the Dragons of first Loic Duval, then Jerome D'Ambrosio and finally the NEXTEV of Turvey, all of which had pitted during the safety car and were, by contrast, conserving desperately to try and finish the race. They finished 5th and 6th, an impressive result; Da Costa maximised his strategy and stayed out of trouble whilst Frijns recovered from the very back of the grid, conserved for longer than anyone else in the first stint and drove a patched together "Frankenstein" car in the final stint that he had binned in qualifying; he admitted that he owed his mechanics some free beer after they put in the work to fix the damage by adding a whole new tub to the second car before the race.
As for the rest, Duval had an issue at the end of the race which dropped him out of the points, whilst D'Ambrosio was able to pass Turvey in the dying laps for 7th. Rounding out the points scorers were the Venturis of rookie Maro Engel and veteran Stephane Sarrazin, who finished in the top 10 for the 12th consecutive race. Pole sitter Piquet finished 11th, but at least came away with the 3 points for pole if nothing else. Jaguar's first ever FE race resulted in a solid run to 12th from Irishman Adam Carroll amidst the attrition, but Sam Bird and DS Virgin came away with nothing after a bitterly disappointing race which earlier had promised so much.
HKT Hong Kong ePrix results
1. Sebastien Buemi, Renault e.dams, 53:13.298 (25 points)
2. Lucas di Grassi, Abt Schaeffler Audi Sport, +2.477s (18 points)
3. Nick Heidfeld, Mahindra Racing, +5.522s (15 points)
4. Nico Prost, Renault e.dams, +7.360s (12 points)
5. Antonio Felix da Costa, Andretti, +17.987s (10 points)
6. Robin Frijns, Andretti, +21.161s (8 points)
7. Jerome D'Ambrosio, Faraday Future Dragon Racing, +28.443s (6 points)
8. Oliver Turvey, NextEV Nio, +30.355s (4 points)
9. Maro Engel Venturi +30.898s (2 points)
10. Stephane Sarrazin Venturi +31.784s (1 point)
11. Nelson Piquet Jr NextEV Nio +35.256s (3 points for pole position)
12. Adam Carroll Panasonic Jaguar Racing +43.839s
13. Sam Bird DS Virgin Racing +48.058s
14. Loic Duval Faraday Future Dragon Racing -2 laps
15. Felix Rosenqvist Mahindra Racing -2 laps (1 point for fastest lap)
Ret Daniel Abt Abt Schaeffler Audi Sport - 34 laps
Ret Jean-Eric Vergne TECHEETAH - 31 laps
Ret Mitch Evans Panasonic Jaguar Racing - 24 laps
Ret Jose Maria Lopez DS Virgin Racing - 15 laps
Ret Qing Hua Ma TECHEETAH - 1 lap
A fascinating first encounter, with Buemi continuing his championship winning results from last season, but admitting that a brave strategy call won him this race in Hong Kong and that he was not really the fastest man on track, but definitely one of the best at saving energy. Di Grassi too managed to climb from 19th to second because he made the same brave call, and his decisiveness and quick thinking enabled him to jump a whopping 14 drivers in the pits. There were aggressive moves throughout the field, particularly from the likes of Heidfeld, the two Andretti drivers and even the likes of the Venturis and Jaguars had a great back and forth scrap for the minor points. Overall, a very entertaining and enjoyable start to the season to watch. (We won't speak about Channel 5's lacklustre and at times unprofessional TV coverage in the UK in this report though...)
We'll be back for round 2 in Marrakesh, Morocco, on November 12th. Until then, take care.
Formula E Editor
In Association With Formula E Addicts
P.S. Get well soon Mark!