Rome played host to the start of the European leg of Formula E’s fourth season as the Eternal City made its debut in the all-electric series, featuring a track with fast corners, slow corners and a couple of jumps around the 21-turn, 2.84km circuit.
The Circuito Cittadino Dell’EUR was the circuit 20 drivers would compete around, racing around the Obelisco di Marconi with a backdrop of the Colosseo Quadrato.
And events started before the race weekend got underway with a number of drivers visiting Pope Francis at the Vatican. Pope Francis blessed the fully-electric Formula E car. Over half the grid made the trip to the Vatican alongside team representatives, Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag and Automobile Club d’Italia President Angelo Sticchi Damiani.
And the new circuit provided a superb second half of the race as Sam Bird took his seventh Formula E victory, moving him up to second in the all-time winners list, holding off challenges from Mitch Evans and Lucas di Grassi in doing so.
In reality, though, it looked like Mahindra’s Felix Rosenqvist should have taken the win in Rome. Having taken pole position by six-tenths of a second, the Swede was dominating the race until he had a car failure on lap 22 of the 33-lap race. He was 1.3seconds clear of Bird on his final lap of the race, lap 21, when he had set his fastest lap of the race.
It was another ‘what if?’ moment for Rosenqvist and Mahindra, with the team suffering with poor reliability in the past few races. Rosenqvist had failed to finish in two of the past three races (Mexico and Rome, finishing in Punta del Este) while team-mate Nick Heidfeld finished his first race in four in Rome – coming home in 16th place.
Rosenqvist had scattered off into the distance in the first 12 laps, building up a 3.260s lead over Bird. It looked like the Swede was going to conquer the streets of Rome in dominant fashion as he pulled the gap to Bird.
But as the pit stop phase approached, the gap started closing as Bird upped his pace: the gap as the two crossed the line on the final full lap before pitting down to 0.878s.
If the first half of the race had been a bit calm, with not much happening, the second half was going to burst into life.
A full course yellow to recover Alex Lynn’s Virgin Racing car shortly after the pit stops were completed – except for Dragon Racing’s Jerome d’Ambrosio – allowed drivers to save energy. And on the restart, Bird was all over Rosenqvist.
Rosenqvist again began to gap Bird as the race resumed, leading by 1.323s on lap 21. Lap 21, though, would be Rosenqvist’s last competitive lap in the race as his Mahindra’s suspension broke.
Bird was now leading the race with Kiwi Evans in second, ahead of di Grassi.
On lap 25, the gap between Evans and Bird stood at 1.003s. While at the timing line the gap was never below sixth-tenths of a second, Evans was trying to pass Bird wherever possible.
Evans had run a lap longer in the first stint (the Kiwi pitted on lap 17 compared to Rosenqvist and Bird pitting on lap 16) and had more usable energy left as he closed in on the DS Virgin Racing driver.
It also meant Evans used more energy to close up on Bird, before a lock up dropped both Evans and Audi driver di Grassi back from Bird. In the end, Evans ran very low on energy and dropped back to ninth place.
The next challenge Bird had to resist was reigning champion di Grassi.
This challenge, in comparison, was slightly more modest, if only for the length of time di Grassi was putting pressure on Bird.
While Evans had several laps of applying pressure to Bird, di Grassi was running in second place for three laps. As they crossed the line on lap 31 of 33, di Grassi was 2.610s behind the DS Virgin Racing car. In the next lap, that gap came down to 1.390s.
At the finish line, the gap was just under a second.
It meant Bird held on to take his seventh win in Formula E and move into second place in the overall wins chart – only behind Sebastien Buemi. It was a victory that moved Bird back into title contention and second place in the championship.
The gap between championship leader Jean-Eric Vergne (Techeetah) and Bird is now only 18 points. Vergne went into Rome 30 points clear of his nearest challenger.
And while his Techeetah team-mate Andre Lotterer was able to score a podium in Rome, taking advantage of Evans and Rosenqvist’s misfortune, Vergne was unable to match the Le Mans winner for pace.
Lotterer was able to drag himself into the Super Pole Shootout despite being four tenths down after the middle sector while Vergne qualified in eighth. He gained three places in the race in total to finish in fifth and limit the damage to his title hopes.
When fighting for a title it is important to finish a race and pick up points when it’s not your best weekend and that is exactly what Vergne did on the streets of Rome.
The mark of a championship winning season is to win when you can but also to pick up points when things don’t go your way. See di Grassi in Season 3: he only won two of the 12 races (compared to Buemi’s six) but picked up five podiums and scored points in all but one round.
Of course, di Grassi was helped by Buemi missing two rounds in New York, but Buemi also had two non-scores as well as two disqualifications – one of which was a result of his huge crash in Montreal as the team tried to re-build his car.
Vergne, driving for Renault customer team Techeetah, is the favourite for the title after Rome despite not scoring a podium due to his ability to make the most of a bad situation like he had in Rome.