By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
The Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler duo of Daniel Abt and defending FIA Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi entered Saturday’s HKT Hong Kong E-Prix hopeful to claim a season-opening victory.
After 43 laps, they left with disappointment.
Abt and di Grassi combined for finishes of fifth and 18th, respectively, after both drivers suffered issues during the first of two races to kick off Season Four of Formula E in Hong Kong. All told, the Audi group ended the day with just 10 points toward the team championship.
The day started off with promise for the duo. Abt ended the day’s two free practice sessions in third and second, respectively, and di Grassi sat right behind him on the charts in fourth and third. An untimely red flag hurt the pair’s qualifying effort, but Abt and di Grassi still rolled off in fourth and sixth.
The opening lap went smoothly for each driver, but an early red flag a pileup started by a battle between Andre Lotterer and Nelson Piquet Jr. led the field to another restart.
It was there that trouble began to rise.
Di Grassi and Abt were battling for position shortly after the restart when the defending Formula E champion alleged that they made contact. A few laps later di Grassi again collided with another car, this time in a battle with championship rival Sebastien Buemi.
Whether from the first incident or the second, the collective damage proved too much for Di Grassi to continue on. The 33-year-old Brazilian was forced to pit early for his second car and practice extreme energy conservation.
Afterward the driver and team told two different tales of what caused the damage.
#HKePrix Round 1 | Season 4 | Very disappointing finish with a suspension collapse after a touch with Daniel Abt in lap 2, at the restart of the race. No problem we fight again tomorrow!!
— LUCAS DI GRASSI (@LucasdiGrassi) December 2, 2017
“With Lucas we’ve seen a continuation of last season’s duel with Buemi,” ABT Schaeffler Team Principal Allan McNish said afterward. “After contact, he had to pit extremely early and, as a result, had no chance anymore.”
Di Grassi was ultimately relegated to an 18th-place result, finishing a lap off-pace.
“Zero points is a bitter result because the car was really fast in the race,” Di Grassi said. “But sometimes you have days like this – tomorrow we’re going to attack again.”
While his teammate was forced to crawl to the finish, the German Abt soldiered on well inside of the points for the entire duration of the E-Prix.
For a time, he even appeared capable of bringing home a victory. But it was all for naught after issues on pit road trapped the 24-year-old a lap down.
Abt was running inside of the top five when he brought his No. 66 to the garage for his car swap. It was there that problems arose – his second machine wouldn’t start.
The fourth-year Formula E driver eventually got his second machine running, but lost roughly 20 seconds on eventual race winner Sam Bird and dropped to ninth in the process.
The second half of the race saw Abt among the fastest cars on the track. He maneuvered his way back to sixth and closed to just 17 seconds behind Bird by the race’s end. An energy consumption penalty for Maro Engel elevated Abt into fifth, giving him just his third top five since the start of Season Three.
“I’m incredibly sorry for Daniel,” McNish said. “He drove a really strong race but then his car wouldn’t start, which was not his fault, but there was nothing we could do either. Afterwards, he was incredibly quick again. He lost 20 seconds, in the end only lacking 17 seconds for a possible victory.”
Afterward Abt found solace in the fact that his Audi had pace, a signal that he could compete for a win in Sunday’s second race at Hong Kong – which happens to be ran on his 25th birthday.
“That we have a really fast car is a positive,” Abt said. “But I’m obviously not happy with the result. It’s frustrating that the second car didn’t start immediately – for whatever reasons. But my 25th birthday isn’t until tomorrow. In the second race, we’re going to attack again.”
With a disappointing Season Four debut behind them, Abt and di Grassi will get another chance at a Hong Kong podium in Sunday’s second HKT Hong Kong E-Prix.