Bird holds off Lotterer to claim tactical victory in Ad Diriyah season opener

Envision Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird claimed a ninth victory of his Formula E career after two late overtakes on Alexander Sims and Stoffel Vandoorne and a Safety Car saw him pip Andre Lotterer’s Porsche and the Mercedes of Vandoorne.

Oliver Rowland and Robin Frijns made up late ground to finish fourth and fifth ahead of the second Mercedes of Nyck de Vries and Edoardo Mortara. Having led for the majority of the race, Alexander Sims had to settle for eighth with Jerome d’Ambrosio and Mitch Evans rounding off the points scoring finishers.

It was a disappointing start for reigning champion Jean-Eric Vergne, however, the Frenchman grinding to a halt and into retirement with a technical issue.

“I felt confident going into it. Envision Virgin Racing gave me an amazing car,” said Bird afterward. “Last year was difficult, and I underwent a little bit of a transformation, a lot of thinking, a lot of mental stuff. Physically, I’m fitter than ever before, massive weight loss. The team have been amazing as well, we’ve learned a lot of things in the off season, we’ve been pushing on the new simulator back at Silverstone and this is all the hard work coming to fruition. It’s very special. There are 23 other amazing drivers out there, so to come out on top means a lot. It’s a great start to the year, but the hard work doesn’t stop. There’s a race tomorrow, we have potential in the car, and we need to maximise what we can.”

For Lotterer, it was another case of always the Bridesmaid, the German yet again having to settle for second for his new Porsche team although surely he will mount the top step of the podium at some point in 2020.

“Tomorrow will be more difficult but I will take it today, it was an amazing debut for the whole Porsche team,” said Lotterer. “We worked really, really hard but we were not sure what to expect, you know, so we gave it our best and P2 is a great way to start and give confidence to the team. I thought about having a crack at Sam to give him some payback for Hong Kong maybe, but we were not sure if we have the energy remaining to do one more lap and I’m sure we’ll get our opportunity.”

Andre Lotterer (DEU), Tag Heuer Porsche, 2nd position

With chaotic starts and multiple pile-ups a regular occurrence in Season 5, it was something of a surprise for all 23 starting cars to smoothly complete the opening laps free from incident, Sims covering the inside line with Vandoorne and de Vries behind.

The leaders practically unchanged from their grid positions during the early stages, Felipe Massa enjoyed a good start to gain three places from his starting position of 17th. Conversely, multiple race winner Sebastien Buemi dropped to the back of the field from 14th before grinding to a halt, his race over early.

From his starting position of fifth, Bird’s first target was the Venturi of Edoardo Mortara, the Virgin driver swooping past and up to fourth despite initially losing a place to d’Ambrosio in running wide to gain his extra 35kW of power. Next was third placed de Vries, but his job then got made that little bit tougher with the news that both the Mercedes in front and Lotterer’s Porsche behind had the benefit of Fan Boost available.

With 19 minutes remaining, the Virgin driver activated Attack Mode himself, to maximise his chances. Moments later, he made his move, diving past the second Mercedes before closing on Vandoorne. Then came the crucial move, Sims and Vandoorne making contact to put the Mercedes into the lead whilst Bird surged past the BMW and up to second, Lotterer following suit as Sims ran wide to activate Attack Mode.

It made for a grand finale, Bird gaining the lead at the chicane, Vandoorne making a mistake not to activate Attack Mode with Lotterer all over the back of him.

Having led for most of the race, Sims then lost another place to Rowland’s Audi as Vandoorne lost a further place in activating Attack Mode. And when Daniel Abt went sideways into the barrier, shredding carbon fibre all over the circuit, a final Safety Car meant for a thrilling finish.

With only a minute plus one lap remaining, Lotterer had one chance to claim that elusive first win in Formula E, but a lock up cost him and Bird was not to be denied victory.

Only Vergne, Buemi and di Grassi have won more races than the Englishman and only Bird has won in all six seasons of the ABB Formula E championship.

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.