Sebastien Buemi kick-started his Formula E championship defence in style by winning the opening round of season three in Hong Kong after perfecting his strategy.
Despite qualifying only in fifth place, Buemi saw a number of his rivals fall by the wayside before capitalising on a safety car period to vault into the lead of the race, from where he remained in control en route to the first victory of the season for Renault e.dams.
Nelson Piquet had started the race from pole alongside NextEV teammate Oliver Turvey but neither could convert their strong qualifying into a much-needed victory for the team.
Off the line, the two NextEV drivers held on to the top two positions with Piquet staying ahead of Turvey. Jose Maria Lopez struggled to get away cleanly, losing out to Sam Bird and Sebastien Buemi. While the leaders jostled for position, a number of those mired at the back of the field made contact as the concertina effect set in at T2. Ma Qinghua slammed into the rear of Antonio Felix da Costa, while Lucas di Grassi lost a chunk of his front wing in the same incident when he hit the Chinese Techeetah driver. Daniel Abt sustained front wing damage after being hit, appearing to end ABT’s chances of points early on as both were forced to pit.
Up front, Piquet forged a lead over the chasing pack as teammate Turvey was left to contend with Bird and Buemi behind. Bird was able to bustle his way up into second place on lap six, with Buemi following through one lap later. The pair soon started to reel in Piquet, lighting up the timesheets before the Brazilian started to up his own pace in response.
ABT was not the only team to hit trouble. Techeetah had shown great pace through preseason testing and in practice in Hong Kong, but both Ma and Jean-Eric Vergne were forced to pit early. Ma’s race came to an end after an issue with his second car, while Vergne made the switch to his second car after he too had a problem, on lap nine. JEV’s race was therefore stunted after a string of fastest laps.
The Mahindra pair found themselves running well inside the points, Nick Heidfeld and Felix Rosenqvist line-astern in fifth and sixth ahead of the first round of pit stops, catching Turvey. However, Rosenqvist’s Formula E debut took a turn for the worse when he slid into the wall, damaging his car and being forced into an early switch at the end of lap 14.
The battle for the lead swung dramatically in favour of Bird in a slice of fortune resulting from the demise of teammate Lopez. The rookie driver became the latest driver to fall foul of the T4 chicane, hitting the wall hard. Piquet came steaming into the corner and had to take evasive action at the last moment to avoid hitting Lopez. This allowed Bird and Buemi to ease past, with Piquet returning to the track in third place. Lopez’s shunt resulted in a safety car period, bunching the field up and giving Piquet the chance to latch back onto the back of Buemi once again.
A spell behind the safety car followed as the marshals repaired the TecPro barrier at T4, leading up to the first round of pit stops at the end of lap 20. Buemi was the first of the leaders to come in, being joined by Turvey, Heidfeld, Loic Duval, Nico Prost and Jerome d’Ambrosio. Race control announced that green flag running would resume one lap later, prompting Bird to stay out to try and forge a lead. Antonio Felix da Costa now sat second after Piquet came in but had his charge halted by Vergne, who refused to move aside despite being lapped.
Bird rolled the dice by extending his first stint as much as possible, eventually coming in at the end of lap 25 with 1% energy remaining. However, the attempt at getting the “overcut” backfired as Bird saw his rivals move clear, before an issue in the pits cost him even more time. The frustrated Englishman finally pulled away, returning to the track in P14.
Bird’s woes handed the initiative to Buemi, who found himself leading from perennial rival di Grassi, the safety car playing straight into the hands of the ABT driver and helping him to make up for his early-race clash. Those who pitted on the same lap as Buemi also cashed in, with Heidfeld sitting third ahead of Prost, Turvey and d’Ambrosio.
With 10 laps remaining, di Grassi began to make inroads on Buemi at the front, whittling the gap down to less than two seconds. Buemi reacted in kind, though, upping his pace to stabilise the gap at around 2.5s once again. Andretti’s decision to keep both AFdC and Frijns out as long as possible paid off in the closing stages as they charged up the order, making light work of d’Ambrosio and Turvey to cross the line fifth and sixth respectively in the final stages.
Up front, it was Buemi who was in control, monitoring the gap to di Grassi accordingly through the closing stages before crossing the line to score his seventh Formula E victory. It may have been a far cry from his devastating victory in Beijing last year that kick-started his title-winning campaign, yet it was typical Buemi: perfectly executed and quick when it mattered.
Di Grassi was able to bounce back from his qualifying crash and early shunt to finish second, salvaging 18 points from a tough weekend. Nick Heidfeld just about made his energy last to cross the line and complete the podium. That means that the top three result is identical to that of the season two opener, in Beijing last year.
Prost capped off a strong weekend for Renault in P4 ahead of Felix da Costa and Frijns, whose new partnership bagged a double-points finish for Andretti. D’Ambrosio squeezed past Turvey late on to take seventh, while Maro Engel was the only rookie to score points on debut in P9. Stephane Sarrazin rounded out the points in 10th for Venturi, with Piquet finishing in P11.
Adam Carroll led Jaguar’s charge in P12 as team mate Mitch Evans failed to finish the race, while Bird battled back to P13 and finished on the lead lap after his pit stop problems. Loic Duval was P14. Despite finishing as the last classified runner, Felix Rosenqvist set the fastest lap of the race to score points on his Formula E debut.