Formula E Review: Hong Kong
The world’s premier all-electric single seater racing series started a new season last weekend. Here’s all the action from the two opening races in Hong Kong.
Formula 1 might have finished last weekend, but motorsport happens all year round in other categories. Formula E (The ‘E’ signifying the electric nature of the cars, rather than petrol or diesel) started in 2014, and races from winter into summer, minimising clashes with other series. Drivers are a mix of F1 veterans, test drivers, and some fast young guns who are honing their skills in this fast-paced, intense championship.
The cars race on street tracks, bringing the racing right up close to the fans, with each race accompanied by a festival celebrating electric technology from Scalextric to full-size electric transport. The championship is also developing ‘Roborace’, which uses driverless AI cars, as a second championship to showcase the future of transportation. It’s no surprise that Mercedes, Porsche, Nissan and BMW have all confirmed they will join in the next few years.
Round 1: The season gets underway
The Hong Kong track made its debut last year, opening the third season. The 1.8-kilometre circuit winds around the waterfront, with the first turn a tight hairpin, and the second going past Hong Kong station. Former champion Sebastien Buemi led the way in a tight first practice session where 14 cars finished within a second of Buemi’s fastest lap. Practice 2 honours went to Mitch Evans of Jaguar, who led Audi’s Daniel Abt by 0.3 seconds, with another ten drivers within that one-second marker.
Qualifying was split into four groups, with five drivers in each group to help ease issues with traffic. Drivers are given just enough time for one warm-up lap before going flat out in an attempt to reach the top five shootout. Evans mistimed his run and was forced to settle for 20th and last on the grid, a massive disappointment for the Kiwi racer.
Reigning champion Lucas Di Grassi narrowly missed out on the ‘Superpole’ shootout in sixth, just 0.2 seconds slower than teammate Daniel Abt, who was joined by Felix Rosenqvist (driving for Mahindra), Jean-Eric Vergne (Techeetah), Nick Heidfeld (Mahindra) and Sam Bird (DS Virgin) for the first Superpole session of the new season.
Drivers went out in reverse order, the slowest of the five (Abt) going out first. The German’s time was only good for fourth place, just ahead of Swede Rosenqvist. The top three were separated by just 0.029 seconds, with former F1 driver Jean-Eric Vergne taking pole and the three championship points that came with it.
The Techeetah driver has impressed since making his Formula E debut partway through the first season, but only won his first race at the season-ending race in Montreal back in the summer. Perhaps even more impressively, Vergne set the fastest qualifying time despite crossing the line backwards! A small lock up on the brakes was enough to cost British driver Sam Bird the pole, but the five-time race winner was sure to be pushing hard when the lights went out.
Bird hits back in race 1
The race start was particularly eventful, with Vergne’s teammate Andre Lotterer hitting the wall on the first lap. Other cars could not get past and soon a traffic jam formed. The race organisers threw a red flag, stopping the race for the first time in Formula E history. The cars returned to the pits and waited for the signal to restart. 30 minutes later they were set free and were racing again shortly afterwards.
Lucas Di Grassi had tough battles both with his teammate Abt and his former championship rival Buemi, leading to minor contact with both drivers. The latter contact broke part of his rear suspension and forced the Audi driver to pit and change cars earlier than he would have liked, which compromised his strategy for the rest of the race. A few laps later Sam Bird put an impressive and brave move on Vergne to take the lead of the race.
The mid-race pit stops are a chance for the drivers to change cars, giving them a new battery to complete the race on. Race leader Bird was one of the first to come in but could not slow down in time and crashed into some team members gathering outside the garage instead of turning in. Thankfully, no-one was hurt and the British driver managed to complete his stop with no further issues, rejoining the race in the lead once everyone had made their stops.
The DS Virgin driver pulled away from the pack as Vergne and Heidfeld behind struggled to keep up with the rapid pace. Sam’s quick pace was needed, as it was soon revealed he was given a drive-through penalty for breaking the rules and not getting out of his car in the designated area. Such a penalty would normally put him well behind the leaders, but due to the nature of the pit lane on some Formula E tracks, the penalty didn’t cost as much as usual and Bird came out after his penalty still leading the race!
The top three were covered by a few car lengths until Vergne in second place went wide into the same troublesome chicane that caused the traffic jam at the start, which gave Sam Bird the break he needed to pull away once more
Late in the race, Season 1 Champion Nelson Piquet Jr made a late dive on the inside of Felix Rosenqvist to take fifth place, and Daniel Abt followed through to demote Rosenqvist to seventh, a shame considering Felix had made great impressions in his debut season last year, scoring multiple podiums and even winning a race in Berlin. Season 2 Champion Buemi finished in 11th after issues with his car, and reigning champion Lucas Di Grassi was a lap down in 17th.
Out front it was Sam Bird who would take the win for DS Virgin, ahead of Techeetah’s Jean-Eric Vergne and Mahindra’s Nick Heidfeld.
Round 2: Quick turnaround
After Saturday’s race, the drivers had one night to recover before they went for it all over again on Sunday. Doubleheaders have taken place at a few Formula E rounds before, but always towards the end of the season and not the start. The teams would have to show they could learn quickly from the previous race, as finding out how the new cars would perform early in the season could give a big advantage in the championship by the end.
Felix Rosenqvist quickly made amends for Saturday’s poor showing by putting his car on pole. Mitch Evans qualified second, but the stewards had decided he had used too much power around the lap, so demoted him to fifth. Rookie driver Edoardo Mortara was promoted to the front row and looked keen to show the Formula E crowd the expertise and skill that has given him seven wins around the Macau street circuit.
Race 2: Everybody loses
The race was started under the safety car after problems with the start line, which caused a tense but embarrassing wait at the line. The Mahindra of Rosenqvist made a great start once the safety car had pulled in, but immediately dropped it under braking into the first corner, leaving him facing the wrong way as the cars went through and demoting him to 9th place. This left Swiss driver Mortara to take the lead of the race, ahead of German driver Abt.
Both these drivers had never won a race before, along with third place Mitch Evans and fourth place Alex Lynn. Behind them, Rosenqvist’s start went from bad to worse as he tangled with Luca Filippi, losing another two places and ending the lap in 11th.
Sebastien Buemi had crashed in qualifying to leave him 20th on the grid, so had plenty of work to do to score points, but he made a good start by making his way past fellow Endurance racer Neel Jani. Di Grassi struggled to match his teammate all weekend and was stuck in midfield. Piquet Jr was also struggling to match his teammate but was doing considerably better than his fellow Formula E champions as he drove his Jaguar solidly in the top ten.
In Formula E, efficiency is the biggest priority. Going fast is one thing, but going fast whilst using minimal energy wins races. If you can stay in front whilst having a few percentage points more energy than your competitors, then you can use that advantage to defend, or even stay out longer than your rivals and pit later in the race.
For a rookie, Mortara showed this ability perfectly in the middle of the first stint where he had enough energy at points to do an entire lap extra, meaning he could push harder in his second car later in the race. His Venturi team later told him to push in this car, and his energy levels went back to being comparable with those racing behind him, but his pace continued to be good enough to pull out the gaps he wanted.
The pit stops in this second race were relatively trouble-free, with even Sam Bird knowing the conditions and pulling up safely on this occasion. Felix Rosenqvist pulled off some great manoeuvres to get his car back up into third place for the closing laps, which is where the race took a funny turn.
Dramatic conclusion in Hong Kong
Abt used his ‘Fanboost’, which had been given to him by fans voting on social media to try to close the gap late in the race. Whilst this boost was not enough to give him the chance to fight, Mortara dramatically locked his wheels into the second corner, allowing Abt to take the lead, and Rosenqvist to seize second place!
The Venturi driver was trying to go for the fastest lap, which would have given him another championship point, but instead made a mistake which cost him the win. It was to be Daniel Abt who won, taking his first Formula E win on his 25th birthday, ahead of pole sitter Felix Rosenqvist and a deflated Mortara.
However, there was a final twist in the tale when the cars were scrutineered. Abt’s Audi was found to have different specification parts than what was declared previously, which resulted in his disqualification from the race!
This promoted pole sitter Rosenqvist to the top spot, meaning he took a full 29 points (25 for the win, three for pole and one for fastest lap) from the second round, despite himself admitting he wasn’t entirely happy with his performance. Mortara was still disappointed with second place, especially as it seemed a win was likely. Behind them, Mitch Evans was promoted to third, which was Jaguar’s first podium since Eddie Irvine drove his Jaguar F1 car to third place at Monza in 2002!
The next Formula E round takes place on 13th January 2018 in Morrocco where the cars will race around Marrakech for Round 3! Who will take the win as the all-electric racing series visits North Africa? Have your say in the comments!