Antonio Felix da Costa laid down an early marker by winning the inaugural Ad Diriyah ePrix from defending champion Jean-Eric Vergne and Jerome d’Ambrosio as a new dawn of Formula E racing began in dramatic fashion.
Da Costa had started on pole but had to use all his racing nous, the lead changing hands several times after a race long duel with Vergne. It means he secures only his second victory since Season 1 in Buenos Aires and takes an early lead in the standings, BMW winning on its FE debut as a factory team.
“The DAC is back!” said a delighted da Costa on the podium afterward. “It’s amazing. It’s been tough. It’s been really tough. It has been long months of work and I am really happy with that. I think we have some work to do because these two guys (Vergne and d’Ambrosio) were so fast even with the drive through he was right there at the end. So yeah, a good start. We’ll work on that and keep it going.”
WINNER! @afelixdacosta & @BMWMotorsport wins the 2018 SAUDIA #AdDiriyahEPrix and proves the hype around BMW i Andretti Motorsport is real after pre-season testing! #ABBFormulaE pic.twitter.com/iJYNhOSIi1
— ABB Formula E (@FIAFormulaE) December 15, 2018
That Vergne was able to finish second despite suffering a drive through penalty was also an ominous statement of intent for his quest for back-to-back titles.
“Unfortunately, it was one step down, I wanted to win today,” said Vergne. “I had a fantastic car but first of all a big congrats to the BMW guy Antonio, I think it’s a well-deserved victory. It’s the first race with DS and I think the car we had was incredibly fast, so we just need to not make this little mistake that cost us the win today but it’s a very encouraging first race and I’m looking forward to Marrakesh. I had some fun. I had a lot of overtaking round the outside, on the inside and everything so it was a fun race, honestly.”
Mitch Evans was a superb fourth for Jaguar having started a revised eighth on the grid after penalties to other drivers, finishing ahead of Andre Lotterer, Sebastien Buemi and Oliver Rowland. Daniel Abt, Lucas di Grassi and Nelson Piquet rounded off the points scoring finishers.
In their first ever race, BMW had the advantage of pole thanks to da Costa’s qualifying effort. But having missed his grid box on the formation lap, he found himself having to reverse back at an angle facing the wall at the start.
It looked a bad mistake, but the Portuguese kept his nerve, holding off Buemi and Jose Maria Lopez, Vergne another fast starter up to fourth ahead of the flying Lotterer. Behind the lead group, Edoardo Mortara crashed in the same spot as he did so in practice but managed to reverse and keep going. Felix Rosenqvist was not so fortunate, grinding to a halt on the straight in his final FE race before moving to Indy Cars.
A brilliant move from Vergne around the outside of former F1 teammate Buemi promoted the Frenchman to second, Lopez dropping back to fifth behind the fast starting Lotterer. And on lap 26, the reigning champion had his man, sweeping past Da Costa and into the lead. Felipe Massa was also making inroads in his first ePrix, a lovely move on former rookie Stoffel Vandoorne promoting him to ninth.
The much anticipated ‘Attack Mode’, split in to two timed four-minute zones, seemed to create the desired effect – Daniel Abt using it to good effect to pass Oliver Rowland.
Back at the sharp end of things, Lotterer was the first of the front runners to deploy the innovation, Attack Mode helping him to pass da Costa. But his joy was short lived, a drive through penalty for a power infringement dropping him back as race leader Vergne suffered similar misfortune.
It meant that da Costa led once again from D’Ambrosio and Buemi, Lopez missing the Attack Zone activation point before limping out of contention on the exit to Turn 14 and bringing about a full course yellow flag and safety car situation.
A frantic finish ensued, with just four minutes and the mandatory final lap to go. Da Costa opted to take his final Attack Mode as the Safety Car pulled away, Vergne and a gaggle of rivals doing likewise. It rendered d’Ambrosio a sitting duck, Vergne streaming past to second and Evans and Lotterer also powering past Buemi, who dropped from fourth to sixth.
Da Costa timed his tactics perfectly, utilizing his Fan Boost to defend valiantly from Vergne and secure his second race win.
For Acronis partner team NIO, Saturday began with much excitement as Tom Dillmann impressed during a weather-disrupted qualifying session, putting his car on the front row of the grid alongside da Costa.
But with the regulations only allowing for one qualifying run broken down into an out-lap, 200kW sighting tour, 250kW flying lap and in-lap – Dillmann ran solidly for 10 minutes before putting his flying lap in. So, a race that promised so much was effectively over, the Frenchman relegated to the back of the grid next to teammate Oliver Turvey, also penalized for a technical infringement.
Despite the disappointment, there was much to be encouraged about for the season to come, Turvey and Dillmann finishing 13th and 15th respectively despite starting right at the back.
Last year’s runner-up Sam Bird was also penalized for having a ‘power spike’ detected on the data after going over a bump on the track, the wheels spinning faster and going over the 250kW permitted. Even so, he may yet be a force this season, the Englishman finishing just out of the points in 11th.
Next stop on the calendar is Marrakesh, Morocco on Saturday, January 12. Bring it on!
Top image: Antonio Felix da Costa of BMW I Andretti Motorsports celebrates victory on the podium during the Ad Diriyah ePrix at Riyadh Street Circuit on December 15, 2018. © Andrew Ferraro / LAT Images.