Welcome to Formula E: Sam Bird crashes into garage but still wins chaotic Hong Kong E-Prix
The DS Virgin Racing driver secures dramatic Central Harbourfront victory with race also restarted after red flag on first lap because of pile-up
Sam Bird’s brilliance behind the wheel ensured even a mistake was turned into a positive as the British DS Virgin Racing driver made the first leg of the HKT Hong Kong E-Prix all his own on Saturday.
There was a drive through penalty imposed after Bird had dumped his first car outside the garage – instead of in, as required – on his 22nd-lap change-around and it had threatened to take the race away from the 30-year-old.
Instead Bird made the penalty vanish into thin air. He went into the pits with a 10-second lead over pole-sitter Jean-Eric Vergne (Techeetah) and, despite thinking he would drop back to about position eight, he somehow came out still ahead.
From there Bird raced away to victory, with Vergne and Nick Heidfeld (Mahindra Racing) slugging it out for second and third.
“Stressful,” was Bird’s first reaction to the event.
Once his pulse had returned to normal, the Briton explained he was as surprised as anyone, believing that the Techeetah car ahead of him when he emerged from the pits was that of Vergne – not, as it really was, that of his Techeetah teammate Andre Lotterer, who was trailing the field.
On a glorious sunny day, organisers were encouraged by Saturday’s crowd attendance and expected “equally strong numbers” for Sunday.
“We are very pleased with the first day of the Hong Kong E-Prix. The reactions we have received from the fans and Formula E have been uniformly positive,” said Alan Fang, chief executive officer, Formula Electric Racing (Hong Kong) Limited.
“To date, over 87 per cent of tickets have been sold and today’s attendance was on par with last year’s opening day, with crowd sizes steadily increasing from noon onwards ahead of the main race start at 3.00pm. We expect tomorrow’s attendance to be equally strong.”
Back on the track, Bird was celebrating as he put maximum points on the board for the new season.
“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.”
The victory put to bed the horror that was last year’s Hong Kong race, where Bird had taken the lead late on only to be hampered by fuel problems.
He said the incident with his first car was caused both by the state of the pits – “It was crazy dirty” – and a desire to keep within the 37 seconds requires by Formula E when drivers change into their second cars.
“I thought it was a bit harsh,” said Bird. “It was hard to hear on the radio and I kept saying ‘What position am I in?’ Never in a million years would I have expected that.”
Bird made a clean sweep of the double-header last season in New York so comes to Hong Kong knowing what is needed to deliver a repeat dose on Sunday.
He had skilfully whiled away the time before reeling in Vergne to take the lead on lap 19 – and, as it eventually proved, was impossible to pass from then on in.
As Bird put the fading daylight between himself and the rest of the field in the closing stages of the race, Vergne and Heidfeld were locked in a thrilling struggle for the minor prizes.
Vergne seemed to struggling with his car and his power in the dying stages, with several other drivers also complaining of technical difficulties, but the Frenchman held tight despite Heidfeld’s close attentions.
The Techeetah driver had shown with the time set to grab Super Pole earlier in the day that his form has carried over across the months since his breakthrough victory in the last race of last season in Montreal.
“It was a difficult race,” said Vergne. “We had issues so to finish second is almost like a win. We can fix the problems we had tonight. So it was a very good first day. I’m thinking of the championship so sometimes you have to finish second or third and just take the points.”
Heidfeld was frustrated at the finish and questioned the moves Vergne had made to keep him out. The German was happy enough with third, but said he had walked away with an aftertaste that was slightly bitter, and would take a while to clear.
“It’s probably the least happy I have ever been in finishing third,” said Heidfeld. “We’ve talked about it. Tomorrow is a new day.”
A crash on the first lap, some fascinating individual duels throughout the race, and Bird’s consummate drive for victory obviously delighted the crowd in Central – and must have had the same effect on those tuning in from around the world.
It was all that Formula E could have hoped for. Asked whether he thought all the excitement would help the series as it promotes its fourth season, Bird said that was the way the action always seemed to play out, and that he had a message for the world.
“Welcome to Formula E,” he said.