Sam Bird may have been longing for shadows in the sweltering heat of Santiago, but on the race track there were no such sun-blocks ahead of him as he overcame Sebastien Buemi and Pascal Wehrlein.
The start of the Santiago E-Prix was a rather subdued affair, as far as Formula E racing goes. Many of the leading pack maintained their positions, as Buemi made good on his pole position to protect himself from the German rookie Wehrlein behind.
Lucas di Grassi was forced to take to the escape road at the first chicane, piling further misery atop his rapidly souring weekend – he’d been disqualified from qualifying after being the original pole-sitter. Tom Dillmann was forced to retire from the race, a dismal showing for NIO personified in this moment.
Bird was the chief charger among the field’s top-end; he wasted little time in locking-onto Daniel Abt, and striking in a composed fashion we’ve come to expect from the perennial Brit. Wehrlein was also in no mood to roll over, asking Buemi the questions as he hustled the Swiss champion.
di Grassi’s escape road excursion became the first investigation of the race, and the battle between Buemi and Wehrlein was threatening to become a sizzler underneath the Chilean heat. Buemi strained for a widening gap towards his fellow competitor, but Wehrlein had no inclination to allow him that luxury.
Buemi, in response, chose to deploy his first Attack Mode early on to fend off the challenge behind, and further behind Maximilian Günther found himself under investigation for cutting the chicane. He was among the early wave of Attack Mode users.
Buemi’s Attack Mode running out coincided with Wehrlein lighting up the sector times; this literal purple patch allowing the Mahindra Racing driver to keep tabs with 2015/16’s champion. But there was a contender among the shadows, ready to unleash Attack Mode himself and change the course of the E-Prix as we knew it: Sam Bird.
Bird spent little time working his way towards Wehrlein’s rear diffuser, and he eventually spelled his target’s demise, leading to Wehrlein himself belatedly using his first Attack Mode. Behind, carnage was beginning to ensue like burning trees in a forest: Jean-Eric Vergne spun at the chicane, tangling with his teammate Lotterer inadvertently through the medium of Antonio Felix da Costa.
Günther made a pass on Alexander Sims for P7, only to find himself powerless and deflated on the straight mere minutes later. Bird was unflapped by the goings on behind him, however, and saw Buemi as the juicy worm standing between him and victory. He chiselled away at the gap until nose was near-magnetically drawn to diffuser.
Sims retook Günther for P7, and Bird’s Attack Mode ran out while stuck behind the defensively-sound Buemi. Oliver Rowland tried a badly-judged squeeze out for size on Felipe Massa at the final corner, leaving the Brazilian with seemingly broken suspension and a one-way ticket to an early bath.
And then, with the race appearing to be within his hands, Buemi fumbled his entry into the first chicane and dropped it. The suspension was damaged, and from the jaws of victory Buemi had only the bitter tang of defeat in his mouth. This meant Bird had inherited the lead, and was set to snatch the championship lead outright; so long as Wehrlein behind had no answer.
The Virgins and Mahindras have proven themselves to be dark horses among the manufacturer-backed challengers, and so it showed here. Wehrlein made use of his second Attack Mode and went after the top spot, but was frustrated time and time again by Bird’s wily racecraft and positioning. Jose Maria Lopez behind also fell victim to a chicane pirouette, as di Grassi plowed into the back of the GEOX Dragon in no uncertain terms.
Neither Bird nor Wehrlein profited from the FanBoost vote; that instead went to Stoffel Vandoorne, Abt, Buemi, da Costa and Jerome d’Ambrosio. The last two listed were in lowly positions, Buemi was out of the race, and so too was Vandoorne. Eager to protect his advantage to those behind, and quickly running out of road to manouvere his understeering HWA Racelab in, it was straight to the scene of the accident for the Belgian.
As if there hadn’t been enough action as is, Vergne spun once again at the first turn which spelled retirement for the DS Techeetah man, while arguably the fight of the season in Bird and Wehrlein’s victory dispute was reaching its conclusion. Wehrlein’s best efforts with his second attack mode were not enough to dislodge the Brit, while Rowland binned it with seconds to go down at the first turn, capping off a miserable Nissan e-dams weekend.
Bird prevailed, and it was a hard fought victory in the face of mounting pressure among manufacturer teams – ditched by DS at the end of last season, today was a sign of solidarity and of talent within the team. Wehrlein capped off a terrific performance with his maiden podium and points, and Mahindra’s third in consecutive events. Sims looked to have completed the podium places, but his tangle with Mortara left him lumped with a penalty enough to drop him to 8th, promoting Abt to the final place.
Following the conclusion of the race, while the Envision Virgin team were celebrating on the podium, it was announced that the race winner was under investigation for being underweight, but no further action was taken and the win stood.
Bird moves up into second place in the championship as a result of his victory, a single point behind d’Ambrosio.