Formula E

Hong Kong’s Formula E debut was an incident-packed thriller - and it’s just the start

Defending champion Sebastien Buemi beats Lucas Di Grassi to the win over the city’s streets and the Renault e.Dams driver leads the praise for the Central Harbourfront circuit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 October, 2016, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2016, 8:29am

There might have been critics outside the screens that lined the track for Hong Kong’s first ever Formula E race, but those who packed the grandstands were treated to an incident-packed thriller on Sunday.

Sebastien Buemi, last season’s champion with Renault e.Dams, won after holding off his main series rival Lucas Di Grassi from Audi ABT-Schaeffler and Mahindra Racing’s veteran ex-Formula One driver Nick Heidfeld over the streets of Central’s Harbourfront.

Earlier in the day organisers had reacted angrily to perceived “negative questioning” from the Post after it was wondered how long the electric racing event could be held in the city if it continues to make a HK$50 million loss as is forecast for the weekend.

Jean Todt, the president of motorsport’s governing body, even said it was the media’s responsibility to

sell the event.

That’s up to Formula E and its drivers, and the latter certainly will have won over some sceptics in the city by putting on some terrific entertainment for the crowd, which organisers claimed was a 25,000 sell-out.

There were crashes galore on the tight circuit, but Buemi emerged unscathed from the carnage after taking the lead as the safety car came out midway through and never relinquishing it.

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Di Grassi’s race was remarkable as he worked his way up the field from second last after failing to complete a fastest lap in qualifying, which was truncated because of crash after crash.

A change to the kerb layout on one of the turns by the organisers had confused drivers who were not notified of it until the last minute.

That issue was the main “negativity” from the drivers, who were unequivocal in their praise for the Hong Kong race, though with a couple of ideas for improvement.

“I think it was a great first race, a great start to the season,” said Buemi. “They’ve done an amazing job from the day they announced we were going to race here, many people turning up here in the grandstands [and] when you see so many people it’s just an amazing feeling.

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“I’m really happy with that, also to race in the city centre was very good – the track was good, if maybe a bit short. If they can make it a bit longer in the future that would be good.

“But I think it was a great start and I’m looking forward to come back.”

Di Grassi has been on the Formula E series since its inception, with Hong Kong the start of the third season.

“The circuit - like always - can always be improved,” he said. “A bit better, a bit wider, for next year we have to make it a bit bigger, more interesting maybe – but already to have the first race in these conditions is spectacular.

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“From what I heard everything was sold out and I sense lot of people in Hong Kong [feel it’s] very important to be here.”

Heidfeld raced 183 times in an 11-year career at the pinnacle of motor racing, and said the event even compared favourably to Formula One.

“I enjoyed it, especially compared to a lot of circuits we’ve been to [on Formula E], I had the feeling a lot more people were involved in the event, a lot more of the city knew about it and was engaged,” he said.

“As soon as I landed from the airport coming to the hotel many people were aware, it was a bit like the F1 days, the whole city lifted the event.”

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Season one winner Nelson Piquet Jnr of Chinese electric car company NextEV had started from pole with teammate Oliver Turvey beside him after the controversial qualifying session.

The series’ usual ‘Super Pole’ shootout was cancelled because of delays in qualifying, as was a scheduled drivers’ autograph session, which annoyed some fans.

Piquet forged an early lead, but had to take evasive action after Jose Maria Lopez crunched into the wall on the chicane on turn four a third of the way through the race.

Sam Bird of DS Virgin Racing took over at the front, arriving in the pit lane with barely a spark left in his battery – every driver has to change car during the race as the batteries cannot last the duration.

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But he suffered an agonising malfunction, turning the air blue when his change car refused to start, allowing Buemi to take over at the front, a position he held until the end of the 45-lap race.

“To be honest I felt like we were not on it,” said Buemi, who qualified fifth. “A bit like Paris last year we didn’t really have a good set-up. We were a bit lucky, qualifying didn’t go amazing, but the win really goes to the strategy, all credit goes to my team for that.”

Di Grassi’s race seemed over on the first turn when he was caught up in a crash that took out Chinese driver Ma Qinghua.

He had to pit early to replace a broken nose on his car and was sure he had no chance before benefiting as the safety car came out.

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“I have no idea [how I finished second] to be completely honest,” said the Brazilian, who explained in great detail the complicated lengths he had to go to in order to maintain his battery power through the car’s regenerative braking.

“It just shows that we never give up. For me the race was finished, the mechanics did a fantastic job, changed the nose very quickly, then I asked, ‘Are we racing, or are we [settling for the bonus point for] fastest lap?’

“My engineer said, ‘We don’t give up, keep pushing, look at the target.’ The safety car came in very early, we were last and had nothing to lose.

“On the last lap [with power running out] instead of [the chequered] flag there was a guy with a last-lap board I said, ‘Is this the last lap or are we finished?’ – I heard my team celebrating and I knew.”