Dutchman Nick de Vries and Britain’s Sam Bird claimed the first two victories of the new Formula E season.
Racing under the floodlights in a double-header in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, it was Mercedes and Jaguar who stole the early march in the championship.
It was a weekend full of surprises and unpredictability. It also saw two nasty accidents and teammates also nearly coming to blows on the circuit.
First round to de Vries
Season seven of FIA Formula E got underway, six months after the six-race extravaganza in Berlin had ended a heavily disrupted 2019-2020 campaign.
It was de Vries who made the quick early impression. The 2019 F2 champion took his maiden pole position on Friday with a devastatingly-quick lap in Superpole.
His advantage of 0.6 seconds over Porsche’s Pascal Wehrlein was a lifetime by Formula E’s usually close standards. He would convert his dominance into the season-opening success.
De Vries led from the front as nightfall struck for the first-ever night race in the series’ history. Behind him though, there was trouble for two of the Brits.
Bird and Lynn get in a tangle
Making his Jaguar bow, Bird’s race ended prematurely in a clumsy tangle with Alex Lynn.
It was a racing incident. However, Bird’s gestures in the cockpit clearly stated he felt Lynn had turned in too early into the left-hander at Turn 1. Their clash led to the first of two Safety Car periods.
In the fight for the podium places, Edoardo Mortara pulled off one of the best recent moves in the championship’s history.
The Venturi Racing driver sped past Mitch Evans and Wehrlein in the same move to put himself into podium contention.
The onboard camera from the 34-year-old showed he needed lightning reactions to avoid Wehrlein’s Porsche in an extremely close call.
De Vries pulled away commandingly once both Safety Car periods concluded and was not troubled on his way to victory.
It was his first in his Formula E career, ensuring back-to-back victories for Mercedes. They won last season’s final event in Berlin with Stoffel Vandoorne at the wheel.
Mortara claimed second and his best finish for nearly two years. Evans held off a late attack from Rene Rast to take the final place on the podium.
There were no points for reigning champion Antonio Felix da Costa or teammate Jean-Eric Vergne.
DS Techeetah made a mess of qualifying, leaving both near the back of the grid and out of serious contention for a strong result.
Worrying moments for Mortara
Saturday started with a huge change of fortune for Mortara. It was an incident which he admitted afterwards saying “I thought that was the end.”
At the end of free practice, he was doing a routine practice start, when his Venturi car went straight on at Turn 18 at unabated speed.
Going straight into the TecPro barriers, it was a concerning incident for the entire paddock with no initial obvious reason for the accident.
As investigations got underway, the Mercedes-powered cars were stopped from taking part in qualifying, meaning race 1 winner de Vries was consigned to a back-of-the-grid start.
Fortunately, Swiss racer Mortara was conscious. After passing all medical tests in hospital, he returned to the track later in the day. His participation though for the weekend was over.
A rear-braking failsafe system failure was later understood to be the reason for the crash.
DS Techeetah teammates clash
Envision Virgin Racing’s Robin Frijns took pole position for the second race in a topsy-turvy grid line-up.
The traditional back-markers Dragon and NIO 333 enjoyed tremendous performances. The former team grabbing an unexpected front row spot through Sergio Sette Camara.
Frijns converted his pole position into an early lead. Meanwhile, Bird overhauled Sette Camara off the line to move into second place.
Despite a gallant challenge from Sette Camara, it was soon a private battle for the race victory between the two former teammates.
Both used their strategical attack moves well first time around. The advantage though tipped Bird’s way when Frijns used his second attack mode anticipating a Safety Car.
However, a Full Course Yellow was brought out to clear up rookie Jake Dennis’ car on pitlane entry after he had been shoved into the wall by Wehrlein.
This gave Bird the edge and he quickly found a way through into the lead.
Behind them, the two DS Techeetah teammates virtually traded blows and definitely swapped paint.
For three corners, they ran side-by-side, with da Costa attempting an aggressive lunge that nearly ended in disaster.
Vergne brushed the barrier in the contact but they got away with the scrap. The pair initially went on to finish third and fourth, with Vergne staying in front.
However, the Frenchman recieved a post-race penalty for failing to use his second allocation of attack mode.
Consequently, Vergne was classified 12th, while Da Costa inherited third place.
Nevertheless, team principal Mark Preston though won’t be impressed with this close call between his team’s drivers.
An alarming conclusion
The second E-Prix though wouldn’t complete its planned race distance of 45 minutes+1 lap. First, Sebastien Buemi’s frustrating weekend ended in the barriers, bringing out a FCY once again.
However, it wasn’t his departure that forced the untimely end to what could have been a fascinating finale.
At Turn 18, four cars were involved in two separate incidents. First, Maxi Guenther spun around Tom Blomqvist, leaving the BMW with terminal front-end damage down the escape road.
Seconds later, Lynn’s Mahindra had been turned upside-down in an incident not seen by the television cameras.
This ultimately meant a red flag, bringing an end to proceedings three minutes before the race’s anticipated conclusion.
Lynn was taken to hospital. Like Mortara though, he is understood to be conscious and undergoing further medical checks.
Despite this concern, Bird couldn’t hide his delight at celebrating victory in his first race weekend as a Jaguar racer.
It was his 10th Formula E victory, putting him equal-second with Lucas di Grassi on the all-time winners’ list. It also kept up his proud record of winning at least one race in every single season in Formula E history.
— Sam Bird (@sambirdofficial) February 27, 2021
Post-Race Penalties Shake Up Results
After the race, several drivers recieved time penalties which had major implications on the final classification.
As already mentioned, Vergne was demoted to 12th for failing to use his second allocation of attack mode.
Additionally, Nick Cassidy – who finished fifth in only his second ePrix – also dropped outside of the points for speeding under the yellow flags.
Furthermore, both Tom Blomqvist and Rene Rast were classified outside of the top ten for committing both offences.
Subsequently, the trio of Bird, Frijns and Da Costa completed the rostrum, with Dragon’s Sette Camara and Muller fourth and fifth.
Oliver Turvey claimed an impressive sixth for NIO, ahead of Nissan’s Oliver Rowland and Audi’ Lucas di Grassi.
De Vries will leave Saudi Arabia with the early championship lead, following his promotion to ninth, with Pascal Wehrlein completing the top ten.
— ABB FIA Formula E World Championship (@FIAFormulaE) February 27, 2021
The next E-Prix is scheduled for six weeks time on the streets of Rome.
Formula E’s first-ever night race was a major success in-terms of the event.
Although Diriyah did produce some great racing, it did also provide two of the more frightening crashes in recent times.
Therefore, this is likely to cause some talking points ahead of the return to Europe.