Sébastien Buemi (RENAULT e.dams) began his season in style, winning the season opener in Beijing ahead of Lucas Di Grassi (Abt Schaeffler Audi Sport) and Nick Heidfeld (Mahindra Racing). The Swiss driver did everything right: He claimed pole position and dominated the race from the start onwards, keeping the lead without being challenged a single time. Behind him however, there was the usual mayhem Formula E is famous for: battles all over the place, and a field switched upside-down after a full course yellow.
After losing the championship in the inaugural season by only one point, Buemi was determined to put his foot down from the start, and he did so in a superb manner by winning the first “super pole” qualifying session and lining up first on the starting grid alongside team mate Nicolas Prost. The Swiss laid the foundation for his race win at the start, pulling away rapidly while Prost was jumped Heidfeld and di Grassi, who had dashed up from the second row. Bruno Senna (Mahindra Racing) sliced his way up through P5 ahead of Jean-Eric Vergne (Amlin Andretti) and Loic Duval (Dragon Racing) in the hectic start phase, and a three-way battle shaped up between them. Behind the trio it was Stéphane Sarrazin (Venturi GP) who attacked Sam Bird (DS Virgin) to make up the places he had lost during the start.
Dramatic battles raged all over the field in the opening stage of the race, including a heated wheel-to-wheel duel between Vergne and Duval for sixth place, until a full course yellow in lap three after a crash of Simona de Silvestro (Amlin Andretti) interrupted the race and settled the squabbles.
At the restart in lap five, Buemi had enough of an advantage to get away without problems, and he continued to control the race from the front. Heidfeld meanwhile overslept the start and was jumped by both Di Grassi and Prost. Senna remained in fifth place; however, a train shaped up behind the Brazilian soon after and the fights continued. Bird had sliced his way up to seventh place, but the Brit pushed too hard soon afterwards, ran wide, and dropped down to eleventh place.
At the front, Buemi had created a gap of seven seconds to di Grassi, who was caught up in a battle with Heidfeld and Prost. Behind the trio, the battles in the Senna train were raging with full force as well. Senna was under heavy pressure from Vergne. The Frenchman was eventually able to slice past his rival, and he was followed swiftly by Duval. Then, the compatriots began their own fight for position, while Senna dropped down the order further, already having to conserve energy. Vergne had to pull out of his battle with Duval and let the Dragon Racing driver pass, and soon afterwards he also fell victim to the charging Sam Bird who was recovering from his mistake earlier.
In lap 13, the pit stops began: The race leaders entered the pits, Heidfeld’s slow stop saw the German lose out to Di Grassi and Nicolas Prost; however, the Mahindra driver was able to take back one position on his outlap. The only ones who stayed out were the two Dragon Racing cars as well as the two NEXTEV TCR drivers and Nathanael Berthon (Team Aguri), who had so far been fairly anonymous at the bottom of the field.
Their late stop proved to be the right choice. A full course yellow during lap 14 turned the order completely upside down, and the backmarkers found themselves in the top ten when the order had shaken out after the pit stop phase. Jacques Villeneuve (Venturi GP) had been hit by Antonio Felix Da Costa (Team Aguri) and the subsequent yellow flags slowed the field down, so that the late stoppers were able to make their stops and rejoin the track between the leading group and Sam Bird, who had been running in sixth place before the stops.
At the restart of the race, Prost reclaimed third place from Nick Heidfeld. Further down the field, the battle between Bird, Daniel Abt (Abt Schaeffler Audi Sport), Sarrazin, Vergne, and Robin Frijns (Amlin Andretti) continued as a fight for tenth place. Sarrazin was soon pushed backwards, and Frijns showed impressive fighting spirit squeezing past the more experienced Vergne.
With six laps left to run, the battles heated up as drivers were told to push. One, however, pushed a bit too hard: Prost clipped the wall while chasing down Di Grassi, and while he was able to keep up with the Brazilian even with a destroyed rear wing, he was eventually called into the pits by the stewards where he retired. A fiery battle between the Dragon Racing team mates in fourth and fifth place was raging, and it nearly ended in tears and carbon fibre shards when Jerome d’Ambrosio only narrowly avoided crashing into his team mate when trying to overtake.
In the meantime, Buemi had controlled the race safely at the front, and crossed the finish line as the undisputed winner of the first ePrix of the 2015-2016 season. Di Grassi came home in second place, and Heidfeld had to defend his third place with teeth and nail against the charging Duval. D’Ambrosio followed his team mate home in fifth place. Oliver Turvey (NEXTEV TCR) finished in sixth place due to the lucky pit stop timing after having started from 15th, and Bird had recovered to seventh place. Rookie Berthon, who had also profited from the full course yellow during the pit stop phase, finished his debut race in eighth place ahead of Abt and Sarrazin.
After the race, Abt received a ten second penalty for an unsafe release – dropping the German driver down to 11th. This promoted Sarrazin to 9th, and Frijns into the top ten, giving the Dutchman his first Formula E point on debut.
And what about champion Nelson Piquet Jr? It was a black weekend for the Brazilian: After having started from the bottom of the grid, he was not able to gain positions until the full course yellow swept him into the top ten. However, a problem with his car caused him to stop on the track, and even though he managed to restart, he found himself once again at the back of the grid and was classified in 15th place, two laps down.
However, that should only serve to motivate the champion to push even harder in the next round and take the fight to the likes of Buemi and Di Grassi. The second round of the season will take place in Putrajaya, Malaysia, in only two weeks and after such a breath-taking opening race, we can be certain it will continue in the same way.
Renate Jungert | e-racing.net
Photo: FIA Formula E Media