Crash, bang, wallop! The Formula E season continued to offer drama and controversy in equal measure as the series returned to mainland China at the holiday resort of Sanya on Saturday.
The sixth round threw up a familiar winner, but only under the threat of a stewards’ review and after a rookie led the way in the early stages.
Oh, and as always, there were loads of collisions and unhappy looking racing drivers… Here are the big talking points from Sanya, in a series that continues to gain momentum as a major draw for drivers, car makers, sponsors – and race fans.
The British driver is hardly a stranger to controversy after an eventful climb through the single-seater ranks, but his status as a serious talent has never been in doubt. And in his rookie season in Formula E, Rowland is already knocking on the door for his first race victory.
The Nissan driver scorched to his first Formula E pole position in Sanya, then confidently led the way for the first 19 laps. But a need to save energy forced him into defence mode, until reigning champion Jean-Eric Vergne caught him by surprise with a decisive dive for the lead.
The clean pass left Rowland fighting to keep hold of second place. His robust blocks won’t have won him many friends, but such driving appears to be par for the course on these narrow street circuits – and those marginal tactics did enable him to hold on for second place and his first Formula E podium finish.
Will Rowland go one better next time out in Rome?
2. Vergne is right back in the game
This term has been tough on the champ. Ex-Toro Rosso Formula 1 driver Vergne had missed out on points in the previous two rounds and had called on his team to end a “negative spiral” of performance with the new second-generation Formula E single-seater. He has also voiced his frustration about the amount of contact between drivers, even labelling the series “not motorsport”.
But on the streets of Sanya, the Frenchman pulled off a great pass on Rowland to earn his victory, his first of the season and a maiden success for Techeetah’s new manufacturer partnership with Citroën’s premium DS brand.
Having taken the lead, Vergne then put himself in danger of losing his hard-fought win with some gamesmanship from a safety car restart. To DS Techeetah’s obvious relief, the stewards announced his punishment to be a mere reprimand as he took the flag under a safety car, avoiding a second successive race being decided in the stewards’ office.
The champ is a firebrand who doesn’t pull his punches. And now after his breakthrough 2018/19 win, he’s in contention for another title, third in the points and just eight from the top.
Not content with victory in its first Formula E race back in December in Saudi Arabia, BMW could well end its first season with a champion driver.
Antonio Felix da Costa returned to the top of the standings in Sanya with a fighting third place, as previous points leader Sam Bird failed to score after a clash with Stoffel Vandoorne.
But da Costa’s lead is just a single point after six rounds, edging ahead of Jerome D’Ambrosio with that man Vergne lurking in third.
But with seven more rounds still to play out in six cities around the world, BMW’s Andretti-run team has a long way to go before it can claim bragging rights over Audi, Nissan, DS, Jaguar and the rest in Formula E.
4. The gimmicks do what they are supposed to
Fan Boost and Attack Mode might be frowned upon by racing traditionalists, but these means to allow drivers short increases in power do add to the spectacle in Formula E.
As the name suggests, Fan Boost is an interactive means for followers of Formula E to directly influence what happens out on track. Vote for your favourite driver in an online poll and if they top the popularity charts, they will gain a burst of extra power to be used at their discretion during the race.
Then new for this year is Attack Mode, which allows every driver to pick up an extra 25kW of power during a race – and it’s not a choice. All must use it by rolling offline into an Activation Zone to gain their boost.
And as Vergne experienced in Sanya, there’s risk attached. Having taken the lead, he still had to use Attack Mode and chose his moment to hit the Activation Zone. As he did so, Rowland stayed online and powered up beside him, almost regaining the lead. A boost in power would have been little consolation had Vergne lost his hard-won lead.
The disadvantage he experienced might not have been the original intention of Attack Mode, but one way or another it has certainly added an extra dimension to already hectic races.
As already mentioned, Vergne is one of a growing number of drivers to have voiced his disapproval of the amount of contact in Formula E – and once again, in Sanya, a number of drivers, including former champion Lucas di Grassi, found themselves on the end of assaults from other drivers.
The trouble is contact is inevitable in this series because of the tight nature of Formula E’s city tracks. Pop-up one-day race meetings are the USP for this all-electric series, which can take motorsport into inner-city areas where traditional combustion engine racing cars just wouldn’t be welcome.
The trouble is it tends to mean the circuits are created on roads that are entirely unsuitable for racing. And with 22 of the world’s most competitive and ambitious racing drivers vying for position, punts, sideswipes and missed braking points are part of the game.
The question the series is facing at every round right now is how much contact is acceptable before racing turns into farce? A solution, with clearly defined rules on what is allowed and what isn’t, will be very hard to define.