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Formula E - Da Costa triumphs in dramatic duel of the champions in Cape Town

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Past masters roll pack the years with vintage late-race tussle for glory in front of an appreciative crowd in South Africa.

TAG Heuer Porsche’s António Félix da Costa prevailed in a captivating inaugural Cape Town E-Prix today (25 February), fighting through the field from outside the top ten to deny DS Penske’s Jean-Éric Vergne back-to-back victories with a breathtaking penultimate lap pass.

Da Costa did not really feature in the battle for honours until midway through round five of the 2022/23 ABB FIA Formula E World Championship campaign. The initial stages of the race, indeed, were all about front row starters Sacha Fenestraz (Nissan Formula E Team) and Maximilian Günther (Maserati MSG Racing).

The pair swapped positions just as a Full Course Yellow was called due to an opening lap collision between Porsche’s Pascal Wehrlein and Envision Racing’s Sébastien Buemi, with the championship leader locking up and out-braking himself into Turn Ten in the scrap for sixth. Broken suspension spelt the end of the German’s day, while his Swiss rival was able to rejoin – albeit at the tail of the order.

As Günther – leading for the first time since New York two seasons ago – and Fenestraz held sway, behind them, a dual threat was building, with countrymen Nick Cassidy (Envision Racing) and Mitch Evans (Jaguar TCS Racing) setting about reeling them in. Their fortunes, though, were about to diverge significantly...

Cassidy took advantage of other drivers entering Attack Mode to seize the top spot on lap 11, but not long after, Evans picked up a drive-through penalty for over-power use, dropping him to the back of the pack as his luckless run continued.

At this juncture, Cassidy looked to be in the box seat as he began to edge away, and he stayed in front when he took his own first Attack Mode just before half-distance – but in true Formula E fashion, there were plenty more twists-and-turns ahead.

The next came when third-placed Günther hit the wall on lap 21, extending his point-less start to the season on a day of promise but ultimately disappointment for Maserati, with stablemate Edoardo Mortara having retired early on.

That prompted another Full Course Yellow interruption and when the action resumed, Cassidy found his mirrors full of the charging da Costa – who had hauled himself into contention from his starting spot of 11th – Vergne and qualifying star Fenestraz.

Da Costa was the only driver with Attack Mode still to use, and conscious that another safety car appearance could scupper his chances, he knew he had no time to waste. With more energy remaining than Cassidy, he produced a sensational high-speed overtake to sweep into the lead on lap 24 – and immediately focussed on establishing a gap.

A failed Attack Mode activation, however, enabled his pursuers to close back in – with Vergne now heading the chase, having similarly overhauled Cassidy, who was struggling on energy conservation. When da Costa successfully deployed Attack Mode next time around, the Frenchman hit the front – and from that moment, the race was on.

As the top two sped clear of the rest of the field, the 25,000 fans on-site at the Cape Town Street Circuit were treated to an enthralling nose-to-tail duel between a pair of former champions and team-mates. On the penultimate lap, da Costa replicated the move he had pulled on Cassidy to grab the initiative and, despite a late counter-offensive, held on to secure his eighth career triumph – and first in Porsche colours.

Vergne – who had all-but written off DS Penske’s hopes of winning prior to the weekend – flashed across the line less than three tenths-of-a-second in arrears, as no fewer than seven drivers disputed the final step on the podium.

The position looked to be going Fenestraz’s way, but the pole-sitter faced heartbreak when he hit the wall on the last lap. That elevated Cassidy – busy fending off a marauding gaggle of cars behind – back up to third, meaning the same three competitors reached the rostrum as in India two weeks previously.

Although feeling under the weather, NEOM McLaren Formula E Team’s René Rast was a consistent contender on his way to fourth, with Buemi the architect of a superb recovery in fifth. Dan Ticktum scored points for NIO 333 Racing for the second time in Season 9 in sixth, with defending title-holder Stoffel Vandoorne (DS Penske), Nissan’s Norman Nato, André Lotterer (Avalanche Andretti) and McLaren rookie Jake Hughes rounding out the top ten.

Evans wound up a frustrated 11th, with Mexico City winner Jake Dennis the final classified finisher in 13th – climbing as high as ninth from his lowly grid slot prior to conceding ground due to a drive-through penalty for not respecting minimum tyre pressure.

The Formula E campaign continues with another new race – in São Paulo, Brazil – on 25 March.

António Félix da Costa, No. 13, TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team, said:

“For the first time I don't have a lot to say! There was a lot of weight on my shoulders - thanks for the ones who have stuck with me and helped me get here. It has been a journey, it feels nice. I knew it was going to be a strategic one, I've done this race before where you have to give that lead away and really plan a late move in the race because the energy was playing a big part, and so following was a bit of an advantage. So I wanted to be behind him (JEV) for a few laps to build that energy advantage and use it, but I know leaving it late is always a risk and JEV is a very hard guy to overtake. I thought I was gone for a moment there in T9! But it’s good to race him on a day like this. I was (prepared to give it all), there was a moment there in the race when I thought if I missed the ATTACK mode it was gone and I would have to finish second, but when I dropped behind him I could see the energy coming back and I said lets go for it! It’s the only way I like to do it. What a journey.”

Jean-Éric Vergne, No. 25, DS PENSKE, said:

“I'm very happy for him (Da Costa), he did a fantastic race, very good move as well! I am very happy with my race, second is good points - good for the championship. Well done to him, he used that to his advantage! But I am frustrated of course. It was close, but there are some reasons today I am willing to take - and some not. I think in the view of the championship I am happy to take the second place points rather than a crash. I am a bit in-between, but at the end of the championship I am sure I am going to be happy with that race.”

Nick Cassidy, No. 37, Envision Racing, said:

“I think pace comes down to how much energy you have really. I think we have got to be happy with today, whenever you finish third in Formula E that has got to be a good day. We have been strong and I am going to walk away with a smile. A part of me feels we should have won that race, we had a few issues we were battling with - the full course yellow really hurt us as well. It was a bit of a luck of the draw how it changed the energy in the race, but that's motorsport so you've got to me happy with that.”