Heartbreak for Lotterer as Bird penalty hands Hong Kong ePrix win to Mortara

Venturi secured a controversial and sensational first ABB FIA Formula E victory in the Championship’s 50th ePrix after Sam Bird was handed a late five-second penalty for hitting race leader Andre Lotterer on the penultimate lap.

The English Envision Virgin driver had been piling immense pressure on race leader Lotterer’s DS TECHEETAH but was unable to force his way by until he tried an ambitious move too many, his nose hitting the German’s wheel, causing a puncture and his retirement. Following a summoning to the stewards’ office and a lengthy investigation, Bird was docked five seconds, meaning Mortara, who was running third, inherited a highly improbable victory with Robin Frijns promoted to third.

DS TECHEETAH team are in disbelief after the last lap incident at the Hong Kong ePrix on March 10, 2019. © Sam Bagnall / LAT Images.

Despite the obvious disappointment, Bird’s sixth place finish means that he still takes over the lead of the championship, albeit by a solitary point from Jerome d’Ambrosio with Lucas di Grassi moving up to joint third and only a point further behind, level on points with new race winner Mortara.

“The result today is fantastic,” commented Mortara, several hours after the race finished. “Fourth in Santiago, third in Mexico, now my first victory in Hong Kong! I’m so proud and finding out that I had won was an incredible feeling for me. The race was awesome and I’ve had a wonderful weekend – historically racing in Asia brings me so much luck – honestly, I’m over the moon and I couldn’t be happier.”

For his part, Bird was initially defensive of his late move, whilst apologetic on behalf of the man he clearly denied victory.

“It was reasonably clear that I was quicker than Andre for most of the race with a lot more energy to spare,” said Bird in the post-race press conference. “What happened at the end was extremely unfortunate. I wish Andre could have finished the race. It reminded me very much of Andre and Jev (Jean-Eric Vergne) in Santiago. I felt like when I made the move he slowed and closed the door, so I had nowhere to go so it’s a shame. It’s not the way I wanted to win the race.”

Later, after the penalty was made public, a somewhat apologetic Bird made his feelings clear to Autosport.

“Obviously I was hoping for a different penalty – like a grid penalty for the next race. Andre has called it a disgusting move – there was no malice to it. It’s a big shame, I do genuinely hand-on-heart feel for the guy. He absolutely deserved to win the race, probably, I feel like I was a lot quicker than him, I had a lot more energy, but he was leading the race and that’s just how it is.”

Having started seventh on the grid after falling victim to poor weather conditions in the first part of group qualifying, Bird was able to battle his way through the field to find himself in a position to challenge for the race win. This process involved clearing some of Formula E’s and motorsport’s biggest names, with the Englishman overtaking Mortara, Lucas di Grassi, Gary Paffett, Lotterer and Stoffel Vandoorne to move into second place.

For race leader Oliver Rowland, who snatched first position from pole-sitter Vandoorne on the opening lap, a disastrous exit from Turn 1 cost the driver dearly with just over 30 minutes of racing remaining, with the sudden yet brief slowing of his Nissan IM01 machine allowing Bird, Lotterer and the trailing pack to find a way past.

Hong Kong ePrix, Hong Kong Street Circuit. © Sam Bloxham / LAT Images.

With Bird now in the lead, it appeared that the Briton had a clear path towards victory as one of Formula E’s most reliable drivers, having started every one of the all-electric single seater series’ races to date. Lapping in second place, however, was Lotterer, and with the German driver spying a chance to snatch a potential victory for Acronis technical partner DS TECHEETAH, the triple Le Mans winner swiftly applied the pressure, forcing Bird into a mistake in Turn 2 to take the lead.

Now trailing Lotterer in second, it became Bird’s turn to apply the pressure on the DS TECHEETAH driver and with the race timer slowly ticking down, the Briton was running out of time to make his move. Waiting until the penultimate lap of the race, Bird opted to launch his attack, only to touch Lotterer’s right-rear tyre with his front wing, causing a puncture and his drop from the lead to the back of the field.

It was a bitter pill for Lotterer to swallow, the 37-year-old leading for the majority of the race and within touching distance of his first victory in the electric racing series.

“It should have been my race I think and he just used me to stop himself,” Lotterer told Motorsport Technology post-race. “Obviously he tried to make a move but the move was so over ambitious that he destroyed my suspension and my tyre and obviously (at time of writing) he is under investigation now and he ruined my race. I just braked in the same place as I always do and he overshot. I hope he doesn’t get away with it even though it doesn’t change my life. My race is done. Even if he gets a disqualification or not, we are the ones who unfortunately go home empty-handed.

“Hopefully that first victory is close,” he continued. “It’s so hard to win a race in this championship and I’ve been working very hard and am fully committed to this championship, I even skipped Sebring to fully commit myself here and obviously it’s only winning that matters in the end even though it’s a championship and we want to score points but I’m in there for my first win and it was super close today. I think I deserved it, but we have more opportunities. It’s behind us now and we have to look ahead. We have a good car and we have to focus. We know we had a quick car in the first two races and also this race. The last two races also but we have a lot of data to look at and I think I had the quickest lap today so Sanya looks similar, the race track so hopefully we can win there.”

Bird’s loss was teammate Frijns’ gain, the Dutchman promoted to third at the line while Daniel Abt completed the top four as one of Formula E’s original drivers, with Felipe Massa taking fifth ahead of the demoted Bird, Mitch Evans soaring to seventh and Paffett claiming his maiden points in the series in eighth.

There was something to smile about for the NIO Formula E team, also partnered by Acronis, with Oliver Turvey finishing in the points after making up a remarkable ten places to 9th at the finish.

“It’s a bit of déjà vu but in a good way,” he explained to Motorsport Technology. “In Santiago, we started 19th and finished eighth I think so it was another good race. We had another difficult qualifying session in the rain and obviously tricky conditions and in the race we made the most of it. I had a good start, a good first lap and was able to make up quite a few positions and made the most of the conditions on a track that’s difficult to overtake. So to move forward from 19th and to finish in the points was a good result today.

“It could have been even better. We didn’t have the worst of the qualifying conditions but conditions changed and in the wet we were struggling a little bit this morning and found it a little better when the track was drying out a bit we were a bit better and as it rained again for qualifying it was more challenging when it was like that but we have to look at it and see where we can improve because we haven’t had much wet running with this car. We made some improvements but still struggled a bit in the rain. Hopefully, we can have a strong weekend in Sanya in two weeks.”

As clarified by Turvey, the next stop on the ABB FIA Formula E 2018/19 calendar is Sanya on the southern end of China’s Hainan Island. And after the drama of the last two races, it’s certainly one not to miss in this most gripping of championship series.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing takes 1-2 in Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY

Earlier in the day before Formula E’s fifth season of competition continued, support racing action from the inaugural season of the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY returned, with the fully-electric production car championship providing spectators with a glimpse of the future.

After 25-minutes plus one lap of hard racing on the streets of the 1.860km-long Hong Kong Central Harbourfront Circuit, it was Acronis partner team Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing that once again triumphed over the rest of the field, with Bryan Sellers becoming the first American to win a race on a Formula E weekend in a reverse 1-2 of the previous round.

Starting from second place on the grid, Sellers had a strong run to the chequered flag, pressurizing polesitter and short-term race leader Caca Bueno into a mistake in Turn 1 before going on to dominate the event, securing a third top-three finish in as many races.

With Katherine Legge, who won in Mexico City. taking second at the chequered flag, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing took its second consecutive 1-2 result of the championship, with the team asserting itself as an early but true competitive powerhouse of this all-new electric racing scene.’

Top image: The national flags show above the top three on the podium during the Hong Kong ePrix on March 10, 2019. © Molly Darlington / LAT Images.

Fraser Masefield and Chris Soulsby