Reigning Formula E champions Sébastien Buemi and Renault e.Dams got their respective title defences off to a perfect start, by taking the victory in Hong Kong as misfortunes carried their rivals out of contention.
In typical Formula E style, the 2016 Hong Kong ePrix began with a vastly mixed grid. Pole position was claimed by Nelson Piquet Jr in one half of a surprising NextEV front row lockout, and was decided without the usual Super Pole session as a heavy crash by Robin Frijns meant the track needed to be closed down for lengthy barrier repairs.
Frijns was joined at the back of the grid by title contender Lucas di Grassi, who crashed himself in an earlier group session after being caught out by a late change to the layout of the Turn 3-4 chicane.
But whilst Formula E’s more experienced drivers struggled on their first weekend back, its rookies shone in qualifying, with DS Virgin’s José María López and Mahindra’s Felix Rosenqvist particularly impressive in third and sixth respectively.
But if qualifying was frenzied, the race was even more so.
Piquet made a good getaway from pole, and managed to make the most of the clean air to avoid getting swallowed by the quicker DS Virgins on row two of the grid. But as he and teammate Oliver Turvey settled cleanly into formation at the front, it was anything but behind as the rest of the field barrelled into the opening corners.
The two Virgins of López and Sam Bird were the first to come together at the Turn 1 hairpin, and though the pair escaped without any visible damage, the contact appeared to leave López with some internal damage, and sent the Argentine plummeting straight down the order.
Then at Turn 2, Ma Qing Hua was caught out under braking and hit the back of Nico Prost, and was in turn hit from behind by a trapped di Grassi, who managed to continue albeit after taking on a new nose in the pits.
As the order changed rapidly on the opening lap, several drivers who qualified outside the top ten benefited from the attrition to get into the points, with Nick Heidfeld making the biggest jump from eleventh to fifth ahead of his rookie teammate Rosenqvist.
But Mahindra’s shot at a solid double points finish was was soured when Rosenqvist lost the rear through Turn 5 and dropped it into the wall. The Swede managed to limp back to the pits and return briefly in his second car, and scored a single consolatory point by setting the fastest lap before retiring.
At the front, Bird and Buemi brought themselves up onto the podium after passing first the stricken López and then Oliver Turvey, and set about cutting down Piquet’s two-second lead.
For a while the Brazilian looked comfortably ahead, but disaster struck on lap 17 when he came up to lap López and found the DS Virgin beached in the chicane wall – taking avoiding action, Piquet moved to the escape road and was forced to watch as Bird and Buemi both went past.
Bird appeared to have the race in hand from then on, opening a gap to Buemi and pitting later to conserve energy for the final stint; but his own stint as race leader was even shorter than Piquet’s, with a gearbox issue on his second car leaving him stranded in the garage during his stop.
Buemi then inherited the lead, and found himself heading off a surprise challenge from Lucas di Grassi. The ABT driver’s race looked to be run after the energy demands of his climb from the back row of the grid forced an early stop, but the safety car brought out by López’s crash allowed di Grassi to conserve power without losing touch with the pack.
The two season two rivals then continued to trade lap times throughout the closing stages of the race, although Buemi was ultimately able to hold off di Grassi and cross the line with over two seconds to spare.
Heidfeld completed the podium, having just enough useable power on the final lap to see off Nico Prost.
Andretti also had a remarkable race after managing a best of just thirteenth in qualifying. Both da Costa and Frijns conserved energy in the first stint ahead of a late charge, and brought home fifth and sixth place respectively to tie Andretti with ABT for second in the standings.
Jérôme d’Ambrosio ended a disappointing day for Dragon Racing in seventh ahead of front row starter Oliver Turvey, whilst the points were rounded out by Venturi, with rookie Maro Engel edging out his experienced teammate to score his first Formula E points.
Jaguar Racing had a respectable debut with Adam Carroll finishing twelfth and fighting for points early on, though their result was soured by Mitch Evans suffering a technical DNF.
The British marque’s fellow debutants Techeetah endured a torrid first ePrix, failing to capitalise on their testing pace as Ma’s first lap crash and technical troubles for Jean-Éric Vergne ended in a double non-finish.
James Matthews, Formula E editor