Rome - best known for its ancient architecture, gladiator competitions and, as of yesterday, a new type of battle - all-electric street racing. With some of the most determined driving in the championship's history on display, it was a case of survival of the fittest as all 20 drivers fought for points and their place on the podium as the series kicked off its European campaign in the Eternal City. After a lengthy battle, DS Virgin Racing's Sam Bird emerged victorious with reigning champion Lucas di Grassi and Techeetah's Andre Lotterer battle scared but by his side on the podium - only just, mind. The result we were all expecting? Not quite. As continues to be the case with the ABB FIA Formula E Championship, anything is possible.
"I honestly didn't think I would be sitting here today," said Sam Bird, moments after clinching victory in the ABB FIA Formula E Championship's inaugural race in Rome, still coming to terms with his seventh win in his Formula E career. "In all honesty, if Rosenqvist hadn't made that mistake, I think he would have won here." With another win in the bag, Bird moves up to second place in the championship standings with 101 points, closing the gap between him and championship leader Jean-Eric Vergne (Techeetah) with 119.
After a sterling performance in Qualifying and Super Pole, Mahindra Racing's frontman Felix Rosenqvist looked certain to take the top prize here in Rome. "It's not the podium yet but I think it's started off quite well...I'm hungry for a good result here," said the Swedish driver after the second practice session of the morning. But, as he let slip back in Marrakesh, "this series can bite you in the ass at any time," and bite back it did. Leading the pack for 23 laps, Rosenqvist was pushing hard on the tight streets of the EUR district, eager to extend his lead to safeguard his victory. Cutting into Turn 21, Rosenqvist clipped the kerb, buckling his rear wheel and leaving him stranded - and somewhat humiliated - directly in front of the baying crowd. "I just hit the kerb," shouted an exasperated Rosenqvist over the radio, reporting back to his team who watched as another easy Mahindra victory slipped away. Despite the disappointing result, the Swedish hopefull remains in the top three - albeit third - in the championship standings with 82 points - 37 points adrift of the championship leader.
With Rosenqvist out of the running, the battle for the podium intensified towards the end of the race with Panasonic Jaguar Racing's Mitch Evans hunting down Bird with nothing but a first-place finish in mind. Behind Evans was an equally determined Lucas di Grassi (Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler) and, behind him, a ruthless Andre Lotterer for Techeetah. But, for Evans, it was too much, too soon. Having spent all his energy battling Bird, the Jaguar driver was left depleted and helpless. "I had two really high laps in consumption battling Sam and then the guys behind just destroyed me - it got out of control very quickly and I ended up crawling across the line," he admitted, regretfully. "Obviously, I could have won today and I had my eyes firmly set on the win - I was slightly impatient when it came to passing Sam."
But epic battles weren't just confined to the front of the pack. Both Dragon's Jerome d'Ambrosio and MS&AD Andretti Formula E's Antonio Felix da Costa were busy fighting their way through traffic for the majority of the race, in a bid to better their standing in the second half of the season. "I'm very happy with the result - it shows you should never give up and we had an aggressive strategy," said d'Ambrosio, fresh from battling his way up from 16th to finish seventh, with six points on the board. "I think it's the best result we've had this season and I think it's the best event I've ever seen in Formula E - by far. The amount of people makes a huge difference and there were fans everywhere, people cheering and I think we've put on a good show for them!"
And it was a similar story over at Andretti. After a disastrous Qualifying session for the team, with Felix da Costa sending himself and Dragon's Jose Maria Lopez to the back of the grid after they collided in the pit lane, the Andretti driver had a lot of ground to make up. "I'm a little bit disappointed and we obviously paid the price for the mistake we did in Qualifying. I just feel sorry for Pechito, as I compromised my day as well as his. I'm sorry to him and his team," he said regretfully. After that start, da Costa needed nothing short of a miracle to get him onto the podium, so instead, he headed for the points territory. "We took an aggressive strategy to go a little bit quicker in the first half and pit early and it almost worked out! We came just one position short of points - P11 - with Motara just in front. I passed a lot of cars, which was fun but I had to," explained the Andretti driver. "It's a little frustrating as I feel like I could have done something a little bit better but the track was really good for racing. There were so many people here and we were so well received by the people and the city, so I hope it stays for many years."
But let's not forget our third-place finisher - Andre Lotterer. Still reasonably new to the all-electric series, the German driver made it onto the podium after surviving - and contributing - to the ruthless battle at the front of the pack. Fending off attacks and launching his own while carefully managing his energy levels, the Techeetah driver waited patiently for his time to strike. “Everyone is smart in this championship, so you need to engage and find out what's going on - it's all about playing the right card at the right time in Formula E," said Lotterer after the race. “I knew Mitch was struggling but you never know by how much.” After getting his first taste of champagne in Santiago – where he and teammate Jean-Eric Vergne clinched the championship’s very first one-two finish – the former endurance racing champion has taken time to get used to all-electric city street racing. “I have a second, I have a third - I'm just missing a one! It was a really exciting race but I realise I'm still learning a lot about racing these guys. I'm still a bit fresh in that,” he admitted. “These guys race pretty aggressively and it's something I'm still getting used to… bit by bit, I'm getting there.” Despite two podium finishes in only seven Formula E races, the German currently sits ninth in the championship with 33 points – just three points behind Lucas di Grassi.
Speaking of the reigning champion, after a dismal first half of the season, di Grassi appears to be back on track. After fighting one of the hardest fought battles in Formula E history in Punta del Este, di Grassi pulled out another second place finish, weaving his way up the grid after starting the race in sixth. “I had a very conservative first stint. I tried to save energy, did a good pit stop and then used the FANBOOST to overtake Buemi, who was struggling anyway,” revealed the Audi driver. “At the end, it was pretty intense as Mitch was chasing Sam and I wanted to be close in case something happened. It was a very eventful end of the race but I had a lot of fun.” Only three races ago, the reigning champion was bottom of the standings with zero points to his name – not a single one. But, after Santiago, the technical issues that plagued his earlier efforts appear to have disappeared. Now, with a fully functioning car at his disposal, di Grassi’s wasted no time in recuperating the points and, as a result, has climbed 12 places in the championship in just three races, now sitting eighth with 39 points. Impressive work considering the circumstances but there’s still a long way to go.
Finally, for the home race hero, it was a very disappointing day for Luca Filippi (NIO Formula E Team). Getting off to a bad start, Filippi failed to set a hot lap in Qualifying after a misjudging the timing of the session, which set him to the back of the grid (18th) for the start of the race. Nonetheless, the Italian managed to pass a few cars until his teammate Oliver Turvey and Mahindra’s Nick Heidfeld came together in front of him, blocking the track. “Whatever happened with the cars in front of me, I didn't have time to react as I was too close and I also had Mortara behind, which pushed me into the incident,” said Filippi. Ploughing into the back of Turvey’s car, the Italian found himself wedged in a pile up with his teammate, scuppering NIO’s chances of scoring any points, let alone a place on the podium. “The support from the people was incredible, so many people, so many fans - I have seen so many hats like mine but I feel sorry for them as I wanted to have a better result. I just can't wait until next year.” Still bottom of the championship with just one point after seven rounds, the top spot is all but a distant dream for the Italian.
With Formula E’s European campaign off to a ferocious start, the pressure is only increasing as we edge closer to the season finale in New York City on 14 and 15 July. At the top, there’s only 37 points between championship leader Jean-Eric Vergne (119 points) and Rosenqvist in third. The Swede isn’t out of the running just yet.
Next up, we’re heading to Paris – the birthplace of Formula E. For the third time in the championship’s history, the drivers will be racing around the historic Les Invalides, in the heart of the city. For home race hero and championship leader Jean-Eric Vergne, it’s crunch time. Let's just hope he doesn't put it in the wall like last time.