Bern’s ePrix course was the second temporary street circuit to host motorsport in modern times in Switzerland, following on from the inaugural Formula E race in Zürich in 2018.
The 2019 Bern event proved controversial in some quarters, with environmental activists launching a protest ahead of the event, with authorities alleging that track facilities had been damaged overnight.
In the end, like Zürich's ePrix, the Bern event proved a one-off, with the race left off the 2020-21 calendar and then the promoter going bust.
Switzerland's round of the Formula E Championship had been expected to continue around the streets of Zürich in 2019, however city officials there refused the race a permit due to concerns that it would clash with several local festivals and cause overcrowding. A grateful Bern stepped up to the plate to host the race instead.
An initial layout was published in October 2018 before a revised route was published in March 2019, which saw a different Turn 1 section and revisions to the Turns 7-8 and Turns 9-10-11 areas.
The circuit was wound through the Ostberg area, with the historic old town forming a backdrop and housing some of the special zones created for spectator entertainment. Among the more unusual neighbouring premises is the Bärengraben (bear pit) which, as its name implies, houses the creatures which are part of the city's coat of arms and have been kept here since at least 1513.
Featuring 14 turns, it was among the longest used by the championship in its short history at 2.668 km long. It was fast too, incorporating a long straight on which the second generation Formula E cars were able to achieve maximum speed. The layout was also characterised by some strong elevation changes, which would hitherto have rendered it unsuitable for the first generation of electric racers, but was made possible by the much stronger batteries in the Gen2 cars.
Unusually, the pit lane was located at turn one for logistical reasons, with the paddock located separately in the grounds of the Expo centre. Unlike Zürich’s rather lavish wood-panelled temporary pit buildings, Bern used more traditional tented garages. The lack of car changes and pit stops in Season 4 reduced the need for pit callers during the races in any case.
Environmental protests mar event opening
A few days before the race, environmental protesters held a demonstration against the race being held, with several hundred of them riding bicycles around the circuit. It was a somewhat ironic situation for a championship which prides itself on its sustainability that that protest was not about the racing cars, but more about the environmental impact of the trucks which brought the equipment to the track, as well as the carbon footprint of the spectators arriving to the city.
Allegations were also made that some of the protesters had deliberately vandalised the track infrastructure in a bid to sabotage the race. Race organisers filed a criminal complaint against several individuals, suggesting that they had caused over $400,000 of damage, with TV cabling cut and sponsorship banners damaged. Whatever the truth of the allegations, it did not made for an ideal start to the event.
Neither too was news that the Swiss round was being left off the following year's calendar, which was announced just prior to the Zürich event. The omens were not stacking up in favour of the event organisers, despite crowds of some 130,000 spectators.
A lively race even before the rains
Practice and qualifying passed by with no major issues, with Frenchman Jean-Éric Vergne taking the pole position. The same could not be said of the race, which proved to be one of the more action-packed events in Formula E history, even before wet weather made an appearance late in the race.
At the start Vergne got a clean start to claim the lead, with the Jaguar of Mitch Evans holding off the Nissan of Sébastien Buemi behind him as they fought into the tight first chicane. Behind the lead trio chaos was breaking out however, with Envision Virgin's Robin Frijns getting spun into the outside wall by the Mahindra of Jérôme d'Ambrosio, while the Belgian's teammate Pascal Wehrlein was spun into the inside wall of the chicane. Wehrlein was subsequently smacked into by Maximilian Günther in his Geox Dragon, leaving the two cars completely blocking the circuit.
The race was stopped which the cars were retrieved and after a 40 minute-delay resumed behind the safety cars, with the race clock showing 44 minutes remaining. Verge and Evans scampered away into a sizeable lead over Buemi at the green flag. The Swiss racer was having to fend off the attentions of Wehrlein, until a failed overtake attempt by the German allowed Sam Bird to slip by in his Virgin. Wehrlein then slowed and came to a halt with a lack of drive, bringing the safety car out once more.
As the race resumed, Verge and Evans continued to duel for the lead, with Buemi dropped once more. With the clock ticking down and only two laps remaining, however, the heavens opened, drenching the circuit. This allowed Evans to close the gap to the leader but Vergne was able to repel any further attacks and held on to the chequered flag, crossing the line just 0.160 seconds ahead of Evans. Buemi was third.
Support for the race ebbs away
On the face of it, the Bern ePrix had been a success; the race was eventful but entertaining and the course was largely praised by the drivers, apart from the narrow first chicane, which several felt had been the cause of the accidents. Spectator numbers were also healthy at 130,000, but with the news that the race was off the schedules for 2020, the question remained as to whether it could return in subsequent years.
Unusually, the race was entirely privately funded, with the same company which was responsible for the implementation of the Zurich was behind the Bern event. Under the direction of Pascal Derron, Swiss E-Prix Operations AG was responsible for the entire racing infrastructure in Bern, the event operations, the supporting program and the marketing of the race in Switzerland, with the city of Bern making no financial contribution.
Of course, the city still needed to give its support for the race to take place and its fate rested on a post-race report prepared by city officials. While the 15-page document released in September 2019 was generally positive about the event overall, there were numerous criticisms of the course location and its effect on traffic, businesses and residents.
While the planning had gone well, it said the route of the circuit through the Old Town was, in retrospect, “clearly too ambitious”. The track was thought to have been too narrow and some local residents had felt trapped. Grandstands were also said to be too large and the effect on public transport had been under-estimated, with some routes badly affected.
There was also criticism of the organisers, who had failed to keep to agreements, with residents and businesses insufficiently informed. Even with these issues, it was felt that the race could go ahead in the future, provided a new location was found.
In the end, it would prove to be a moot point; the cost of laying on the race had proved too great and the operating company found itself in financial difficulties, being wound up by a bankruptcy court in January 2020.
This is a historic circuit which is no longer in operation.
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The Bern ePrix is located in the Ostberg district of the Swiss capital, Bern. The city’s small airport is located 11km to the south, offering connections with European cities such as London, Berlin and Munich. For international travellers, Zürich airport is around 1h 20 mins drive to the north east, with a connecting train line to Bern city centre taking a similar time. Trains with direct connections from the airport to the capital depart every 30 mins.
Alternatively, EuroAirport is located near the borders of Switzerland, France and Germany. Bern can be reached via Basel SBB train station in around 1 hour. Trains from Basel SBB to Bern depart every 30 mins.
The city can also easily be reached by public transport. The airport bus takes passengers to Belp train station. From there, you can take an S-Bahn to Bern main station. For visitors staying in Bern overnight, the journey by public transport from the airport to the city is included in the Bern Ticket.
Grandstand A can be reach via Viktoriastrasse, Sptialackerstrasse or Funkerstrasse. Grandstand B can be reach via Ostermundigenstrasse or Bolligenstrasse.