Reigning Formula E champion Jean-Eric Vergne became the sixth different winner in six events in season five of the all-electric racing series. Vergne survived a late race safety car infringement to claim victory at the Sanya E-Prix in China, taking victory for DS Techeetah at their home event.
Britain’s Oliver Rowland claimed his maiden podium finish with second place whilst third spot for the BMW of Antonio Felix da Costa saw him reclaim the championship lead from Sam Bird after Bird experienced a nightmare weekend on the brand-new circuit.
Rowland makes an early impression
Formula E was returning to China after a two-year absence and back to a country which had staged the first-ever E-Prix back in 2014 in Beijing when Nick Heidfeld famously crashed out spectacularly on the final corner of the last lap whilst fighting for the lead.
There wasn’t quite as much drama in Sanya, which became the 21st city to host a Formula E event, and in fact, it was a race that saw limited wheel-to-wheel action and messy incidents which led to a busy afternoon for the race stewards. There were safety cars, full course yellow flags and even a red flag stoppage for the third successive event.
It was Rowland who made the early impression on the day, as he took his maiden Formula E pole position in the Nissan E.DAMS squad, benefiting from his teammate Sebastien Buemi who crashed out of Superpole after lapping quickest in the initial qualifying segment. Vergne joined him on the front row whilst Bird’s bad day began with him lining up only 16th and unhappy about track conditions.
In hot and humid conditions, the first casualty was Buemi. The Swiss driver was forced to start from the pitlane after a pre-race penalty due to a technical infringement in qualifying. After a long hold for the red lights to come on, Rowland made a textbook start to convert his pole into an early advantage ahead of Vergne, da Costa and the Audi of Daniel Abt. Meanwhile, Felipe Nasr stalled and retired shortly afterwards whilst championship leader Bird’s weekend to forget came to a swift end as he pulled off on only the second circuit after an incident with Stoffel Vandoorne.
JEV hits the front
There was a train of seven cards that formed behind Rowland in the first half of the event before at half-distance, Vergne showed his class with a decisive pass at Turn 11 to take the lead. Rattled by his defences being breached, Rowland then defended heavily from da Costa a few corners later and some minor contact led to the latter’s front wing being damaged. Da Costa later expressed his displeasure after the race, giving Rowland his view in a detailed conversation between the pair.
One BMW was about to drop out though as Brit Alexander Sims retired after being squeezed into the barriers by Vergne’s teammate, Andre Lotterer. Sims’ rookie season continues to be eventful for the wrong reasons and with his car in a dangerous position, the safety car was deployed and eventually, so too was the red flag with approximately 12 minutes of racing remaining. Sims was one of eight drivers who failed to finish. Another was Nelson Piquet Jr. who lost control of his Jaguar before the stoppage and whacked the barrier. The season one champion is enduring a miserable season and has scored just a solitary point in the first half of the campaign.
After the stoppage, Vergne led Rowland, da Costa, Abt and Lotterer but the race leader was under investigation for dropping too far back behind the safety car on the restart and this left him vulnerable to attack from Rowland. Nissan were keen on the podium finish after three successive double DNFs and told the Brit on team radio to hold back, expecting a penalty for the ex-Toro Rosso F1 driver.
Buemi and di Grassi clash again
The E-Prix though was destined to end under yellow flags after a final lap crash between the Virgin Racing entry of Robin Frijns and Audi’s Lucas di Grassi. The incident was caused by di Grassi’s long-standing FE rival, Buemi. Frijns was nudged from behind by an over-aggressive Buemi at Turn 8 and he went straight into the side of the innocent Audi driver at the hairpin. With di Grassi making a swift exit from his car despite being told not to leave his chassis, this meant no grandstand finish and Vergne cruised across the line as the winner.
Straight afterwards, it was confirmed his safety car mishap would end in only a reprimand so he was able to celebrate a hard-fought but deserving victory and his first since last season’s finale in New York. Rowland was second whilst da Costa settled for third and takes back the championship lead for the first time since his opening victory in Saudi Arabia. Lotterer was fourth to complete a good day for DS Techeetah, with Abt fifth and Buemi sixth. Buemi though was penalised for causing the collision after the race with Frijns and di Grassi and was relegated to eighth, falling behind the two Mahindra drivers of Jerome D’Ambrosio and Pascal Werhlein who both claimed useful points in sixth and seventh.
Da Costa is back in the championship lead whilst Bird slips to fourth in the standings and behind Vergne, who catapults eight positions after his fine victory here. Six different winners in six races and the unpredictability of season five of Formula E is set to continue in three weeks’ time as the series heads to Europe for a bunch of events, beginning around the streets of Rome in Italy.