Some 20,000 tickets dished out for free for races around downtown streets of Central Saturday for the opening of the Formula E season, but many seats were empty to watch DS Virgin Racing's Sam Bird survive a drive-through penalty to win on the streets of Hong Kong.
The DS Virgin Racing driver held off Jean-Eric Vergne of Techeetah, who led for the opening stages of the race after starting on pole.
Nico Heidfeld finished third in a dramatic and frantic race that was halted on the first lap after a pile-up at the chicane.
“That was a really crazy race," said Bird. “I’m finding it hard to process what just happened. It’s not very often you win after a drive through penalty in Formula E.
“We thought it was going to be difficult to win this year. We didn’t expect to dominate round one – but I’ll take that."
[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]Vergne led at the restart but Bird overtook him and managed to stay out in the front of the Frenchman after returning to the track from his penalty, brought about when he failed to stop his car in the garage on a pit stop as he changed vehicles, instead careering into the side of the team’s tent.
On his first stop Bird entered his garage, ran deep, missed his box and clipped pit equipment.
Despite this, Bird was able to complete his car swap within the mandatory minimum time, and emerged still in the lead, which he gradually extended over Vergne.
|Start Turn 1|
However, Bird was placed under investigation for not completing his car swap within the garage, having abandoned his first car outside of the awning.
As a result, Bird was issued with a drive through penalty, seemingly making the scrap for second, between Vergne and a resurgent Nick Heidfeld, as the battle for victory.
However, Bird established enough of a buffer to ensure he emerged from his drive-through still in the lead, and from there reeled off the remaining laps to record a comfortable win.
Vergne mounted a stern defense to fend off Heidfeld for second, with the German avoiding the trouble that befell several of his opponents for the podium positions.
Despite perfect weather and the picturesque backdrop of Victoria Harbor, the crowds did not warm up quickly on Saturday morning for arguably the city’s second-biggest annual sporting event after the Hong Kong Sevens.
Only about 1,000 people were spotted at the event’s E-Village in Tamar. A second E-Village was located on the other side of the track near City Hall.
The number was a far cry from the 10,000 free tickets distributed for the zone for each of the two days, which let people watch the race on big screens, meet drivers and visit racing-themed booths.
|A fan overlooks the Hong Kong circuit. The race is expected to lose tens of millions of dollars. Fans won't pay to watch silent race cars|
Last year racing fans had to pay HK$300 to enter the E-Village. Those who wished to watch the race from the grandstand had to pay for a one-day pass costing between HK$2,380 and HK$2,880, or a weekend ticket for between HK$4,280 and HK$4,780.
Most seats on Saturday morning, when the qualifying sessions took place, remained vacant, with about 30 per cent filled, many of them set aside for corporate ticket holders.
Among the audience was Marco Chu, who received complimentary tickets.
He said there was no way he would pay the prices being asked to watch the e-Prix.
“It’s worth HK$200 at most," said the racing fan, who felt he had attended “much better" races in Japan and Singapore.
He also said the venue on the Central harborfront was too fragmented.
“I had to exit the venue, walk a big circle, then go through another bag check to get to the E-Village," he lamented.
Sunday's second race of the weekend will begin at 15:00 local time
The FIA Formula E Championship sparked into life for the start of the new season with a gripping opening contest in Hong Kong, where Sam Bird sealed a surprise victory despite picking up a penalty for not stopping in his allocated space during the mid-race car swap.
Bird entered the pitlane eager to retain the advantage he’d built over TECHEETAH’s Jean-Eric Vergne, but attacked his marks too aggressively on the dusty surface and skated to a halt outside the front of his garage.
He managed to jump out and into his second car without losing too much time. However, Bird didn’t make his mandatory car change in the box allocated to the driver – picking up a drive-through penalty in the process. But it wasn’t enough to stop him
There were several contenders in a hotly-contested battle as Bird faced his former team-mate Vergne for the majority of the opening stint. Vergne led the way from Julius Baer pole position, fending off the fast-starting Mahindra of Nick Heidfeld.
As the cars filtered through the tight chicane of Turns 3 & 4, Formula E debutant Andre Lotterer collided with the wall – blocking a gaggle of cars behind. Lotterer was avoiding the bottleneck and pitched into the barriers on the outside, holding back Mitch Evans, Nico Prost, Edoardo Mortara and Neel Jani behind.
The E-Prix came to an abrupt halt as the incident brought out the red flags and after a delay the race got back underway behind the Qualcomm Safety Car. Vergne looked immediately under pressure from Bird in his mirrors and couldn’t hold him back after a lunge up the inside of the Turn 6 hairpin.
Despite serving his penalty, Bird emerged narrowly in front of the chasing pack. The British driver must have breathed a huge sigh of relief after a botched pitstop cost him a chance of fighting for the win in Hong Kong last year.
Speaking about the shock result, Bird added: “That was a really crazy race, I’m still trying to process what happened really. It’s unreal for me winning after a driving-through penalty in Formula E. I’d like to thank the team, we knew it would be tough this year with lots of close competition. When I came out the pits there was a TECHEETAH in front of me and thought it was JEV, so I was pushing hard to catch him! It turned out I was in the lead and I never in a million years expected that."
Although, it’s a bittersweet result for Bird after being handed a 10-place grid penalty for tomorrow’s race for dangerous driving in the pitlane.
Vergne defended his position stoutly throughout the race and admitted to struggling without regen and no communication to the team over radio – making it feel like a victory for the TECHEETAH team.
He said: “This race was by far my most difficult race – I had no radio communication, I spoke to my engineer only twice in the race and I had no regen. So, if this morning somebody told me I’d have these issues, I wouldn’t even take the start of the race. To finish second off the back of this is almost like a victory to us. We’re hoping to fix things overnight and come back stronger tomorrow."
Heidfeld saw a lot of Vergne’s rear wing throughout the E-Prix – trying to pass the Frenchman in every direction, but second place still eludes him as the Mahindra driver settled for another third-place finish.
“It’s probably one of the third places I’m least happy about," said Heidfeld. “Hopefully this changes in the next couple of days. The team has done a good job and to finish on the podium is always a good result, and you have to focus on collecting the points for the season. JEV said he had a lot of problems – I tried hard to overtake him, but I’m not that happy as I thought it was too much."
Reigning Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi and main rival Sebastien Buemi both failed to score. Di Grassi was forced to pit early and switched to his second car after sustaining damage to his right-rear suspension, while Buemi stopped on track with a technical glitch.
The teams and drivers don’t have long to rest, as the action gets underway again for the second helping of the HKT Hong Kong E-Prix double-header tomorrow.
|1.||S. Bird||DS Virgin||1:17:10.486||+0.000|
|4.||N. Piquet Jr.||Jaguar||+15.324||+2.859|
|6.||A. Felix da Costa||MS&AD Andretti||+18.083||+0.878|
|9.||A. Lynn||DS Virgin||+20.904||+1.107|
|15.||K. Kobayashi||MS&AD Andretti||+48.422||+12.670|
|17.||O. Turvey||NIO||+1 Lap||–|
|18.||L. Di Grassi||Audi||+1 Lap||–|
|19.||N. Jani||Dragon||+1 Lap||–|
|20.||J. d'Ambrosio||Dragon||+9 Laps||
Sam Bird, DS Virgin Racing – 25
Jean-Eric Vergne, TECHEETAH – 21
Nick Heidfeld, Mahindra Racing – 15
Nelson Piquet Jr, Panasonic Jaguar Racing – 12
Daniel Abt, Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler – 11
DS Virgin Racing – 29
TECHEETAH – 21
Mahindra Racing – 15
Panasonic Jaguar Racing – 12
Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler – 11
Andretti Formula E – 8
Venturi Formula E Team – 6
Renault e.dams – 2
NIO Formula E Team – 1
DRAGON – 0