By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
If the entirety of FIA Formula E’s season plays out like the events of the tour’s opening weekend, then fans of the all-electric series are in for a wild ride.
From impressive parity to intense racing, the double-header start of Season Four at Hong Kong had it all. And the fun started before the field ever got to the starting grid.
After an eventful two practice sessions before Saturday’s first HKT Hong Kong E-Prix, Techeetah’s Jean-Eric Vergne set the tone for the weekend when he claimed the provisional pole in the most dramatic way possible.
Vergne took the top spot un unprecedented fashion when he tapped the outside barrier, spun across the start-finish line backwards and still had enough pace to claim his fifth-career Formula E (FE) pole.
Hours later the field burst off the starting grid to open the season, and it took mere moments before madness ensued once more.
A battle between series newcomer Andre Lotterer and Nelson Piquet Jr. in the race’s opening stint led to a pileup on the tight Hong Kong circuit that forced the first red flag in Formula E history, stalling the field for a half-hour before the E-Prix finally resumed.
When the festivities got back underway, so too did the drama. A battle between championship winners Lucas di Grassi and Sebastien Buemi left di Grassi coming for his second car early and sacrificing a good finish. Buemi would also struggle, stalling his machine during the second half of the race and finishing outside of the points.
With the previous two champions out of contention, the battle for the win came down to Vergne and Sam Bird. The top spot ultimately went to the latter driver after a masterful pass, only for Bird to make a colossal mistake laps later when he crashed on his way to his team’s garage stall for the car swap.
— FIA Formula E (@FIAFormulaE) December 2, 2017
The mistake was an obvious setback, but Bird not only continued on – he incredibly still found a way to take the race win despite incurring a penalty for the infraction.
The rest of Saturday’s 43-lap event continued on without too much incident, though a handful of penalties and a disqualification were handed out afterward.
But then came Sunday.
Race two again saw issues before the initial start, as problems with the circuit’s lights forced the FE field to start the race with a safety car as opposed to the tour’s signature standing starts.
When the field got things underway, pole-sitter Felix Rosenqvist spun around on the opening circuit, seemingly dropping out of contention after earning his fourth-career pole award.
Rosenqvist’s issue dropped the race into the hands of DTM veteran and FE rookie Edoardo Mortara and Venturi Formula E Team – one of two organizations that have been in Formula E from the start of Season One but failed to get to victory lane.
For most of Sunday’s 45-lap feature, it appeared that Mortara was poised to end Venturi’s quest for a maiden FE triumph, but with two laps remaining he threw it away with an unprovoked spin.
Mortara’s late loop appeared to give the race win to birthday boy Daniel Abt and Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler, but Abt’s first FE win was stripped of him hours after the race when an issue was spotted on his No. 66 machine in post-race scrutineering. Audi originally expressed intent to appeal the decision, but ultimately abandoned the idea.
With Abt out, and in a fitting ending to the weekend’s madness, Sunday’s win eventually went to Rosenqvist – the spinning polesitter – who drove his way through the field and benefitted from one of the wonkiest finishes in FE’s young history to claim the wildest victory for a pole winner in recent history.
Finishing second was Mortara, which means the top two drivers each spun en-route to the podium.
Behind them came Mitch Evans, whose podium tied Panasonic Jaguar Racing’s best-ever FE finish and gave the second-year team a combined point total for the weekend (27) that equaled their point haul from the entirety of Season Three.
When the dust had finally settled – both in the pit lane and elsewhere – the FE paddock was left processing one of the wildest weekends in the tour’s history.
Six different drivers, all of varying nationalities, filled the podium during Formula E’s season-opening doubleheader in Hong Kong. Out of the 20 drivers that raced during the opening weekend, 16 tallied points.
The top three drivers on the championship table left Hong Kong separated by just six points, and all three of them (Bird, Vergne and Rosenqvist) are newcomers to the top of the standings, chasing their first title. Of the three previous FE champions, only the Season One winner Piquet left with a decent haul of 12 points.
The other two champions – Buemi and di Grassi – combined to tally just one point.
While many teams showed consistent pace, no one organization stood above the pack in FE’s opening weekend. Mahindra Racing led the way with 44 points, but DS Virgin Racing followed closely behind with 41 markers. Techeetah (31), Venturi (30) and Jaguar (27) also left within reach of the top teams.
With their drivers struggling unexpectedly, three-time champions Renault e.dams found themselves ninth out of 10 teams leaving Hong Kong, having earned just seven points.
Formula E has always been among the wildest forms of modern motorsport, but last weekend’s doubleheader was the most unpredictable weekend the tour has offered yet. The Hong Kong E-Prix showcased an impressive level of parity among teams, all while supplying a litany of surprises and moments that should linger on in fan’s minds until the series returns to action at Marrakesh in January.
As a result a host of the season-opening bedlam, a new group of teams and drivers suddenly find themselves firmly entrenched in championship pursuit, and those organizations and drivers that were previously considered safe bets to contend suddenly find themselves dug into an early hole that won’t permit much margin for error over the season’s remaining 12 races.
Not every factor of the weekend was positive. The Kong Kong track – one of the tight street circuits FE often settles for to race in unique venues – continued to limit passing opportunities, though drivers found ways to make the course work to their advantage.
The safety response and cleanup times after Saturday’s red flag left room for improvement, and the staggering amount of penalties and disqualifications seen over the course of the weekend suggest that a touch of disorganization or miscommunication may exist between the stewards and race teams.
It’s worth noting that it’s also too early to point any definite takeaways or conclusions about Season Four after just one race weekend. Any team or driver could put together a strong run and dominate the next 12 events, and future races could lack the unpredictability of the season’s opening two rounds.
It’s impossible to know what will come next, but one thing is certain – the first doubleheader at Hong Kong was a memorable one. If the rest of the FE season plays out in a similar fashion, then fans of the tour are in for a year to remember.