Having endured a scoreless start to the 2020/21 ABB FIA Formula E World Championship in Saudi Arabia, Jean-Éric Vergne (DS TECHEETAH) launched the pursuit of his third title in style in the opening leg of the Rome E-Prix (10 April), as the Frenchman came, saw and conquered on a dramatic day in the Eternal City.
Stoffel Vandoorne began the race from pole position for Mercedes-EQ ahead of André Lotterer (TAG Heuer Porsche), Oliver Rowland (Nissan e.dams) and Lucas Di Grassi (Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler), with Vergne down in fifth – although that was something of a minor miracle in itself after missing the entire second free practice session, due to his DS TECHEETAH car needing to be rebuilt having sustained damage in an FP1 pile-up triggered by NIO 333’s Oliver Turvey.
Following a safety car start due to damp conditions, it did not take long for the race to come alive around the reprofiled Circuito Cittadino dell'EUR, as Vandoorne and Lotterer collided while disputing the lead – a coming-together that earned the German a five-second penalty and relegated the pair to seventh (Lotterer) and 13th (Vandoorne).
That elevated Rowland – who had looked set for pole position in qualifying prior to tapping the wall on the exit of the final corner – to the head of the field, but his luck would likewise soon run out, as a drive-through penalty for using too much power dropped the Briton well out of the reckoning.
Di Grassi thus inherited the top spot from fellow former champion Vergne, and the two Formula E heavyweights would go on to wage a thrilling tussle for supremacy. The Frenchman got the better of the first round of Attack Mode activations to reverse the order, but with just under seven minutes remaining on the clock, his Brazilian rival redressed the balance with a superb opportunistic pass into Turn Four.
The 2016/17 title-winner appeared to be on-course to claim his first win in almost two years, but there was one more sting in the tail still to come, as his car suddenly lost drive with five minutes to go. That reinstated Vergne into the lead and proved to be the catalyst for a race-ending accident for Vandoorne, who had fought his way boldly back up to fifth following his early delay.
As the Belgian steered right to avoid the slowing Di Grassi, he spun into the wall, with Mercedes-EQ stablemate Nyck de Vries – championship leader coming into the weekend and a man who briefly led the Rome E-Prix, too – caught up in the ensuing mêlée and similarly out on the spot.
The damage prompted a Full Course Yellow and the race ended behind the safety car. Vergne duly crossed the finish line to secure his tenth career victory – completing a remarkable turnaround from his morning troubles – with Sam Bird and Mitch Evans following him home in second and third to register Jaguar Racing’s maiden double rostrum in Formula E, having started down in tenth and 12th on the grid.
Bird, indeed, was arguably the biggest winner of the day, as the runner-up spoils vaulted him into a nine-point championship lead. The Briton was a man on a mission throughout, pulling off a series of spectacular passes. Both he and Evans battled impressively by de Vries as they worked their way into podium contention, with the latter picking up an extra point for posting the TAG Heuer Fastest Lap.
Robin Frijns wound up fourth for Envision Virgin Racing to continue his strong start to the campaign. The Dutchman momentarily launched a bid for the lead before falling down the order slightly, but the result was nonetheless enough to lift him to second in the title standings.
Two-time champion Sébastien Buemi (Nissan e.dams) tallied his first points of the season in fifth, with René Rast offering Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler some consolation for team-mate Di Grassi’s woes as he scythed through the field to finish sixth from a long way down the grid.
Pascal Wehrlein (TAG Heuer Porsche), Alex Lynn (Mahindra Racing), Maximilian Günther (BMW i Andretti Motorsport) – who survived a wild, wall-swiping spin – and Tom Blomqvist (NIO 333) completed the top ten.
Elsewhere, it was very much a day of ill-fortune and attrition in the Italian capital, with Rowland able to recover no further than 12th, Lotterer slipping back to 14th and defending title-holder António Félix da Costa (DS Techeetah) joining fellow big-hitters Di Grassi, de Vries and Vandoorne in retirement.
Round four of the season will get underway at 13h00 CET tomorrow (Sunday, 11 April).
Jean-Eric Vergne (DS TECHEETAH)
“Today was the first race weekend with the new powertrain and it felt really good. The team did a great job to fix the car in time for the race after FP1. My engineer was very good in giving me directions on energy management and Attack Mode. I had a very good management during the race and it was a question of making of the most of the energy reduction. When Lucas tried to overtake me I didn’t stop him because I knew we had more energy and there was a long way to go. I knew that I could’ve taken him.”
Sam Bird (Jaguar Racing)
“We had a really good start as a team with another podium finish. I won here before, but I can’t compare the two tracks. The circuit was very difficult, but I am really pleased with the performance. It felt really comfortable and we didn’t waste too much time in overtaking. JEV defended very well and I’m happy with the result.”
Mitch Evans (Jaguar Racing)
“This is our first double podium as a team - congratulations to everyone involved and Sam. We work really well together and when we are around each other. It wasn’t an easy race to manage at all. The conditions weren’t easy and starting in the middle of the pack, you can easily get caught up in crashes. I’m glad we started under the safety car as T1 could’ve been tricky, but our pace was extremely strong.”