Jean-Eric Vergne won the opening race of a rainy Rome E-Prix weekend after a thrilling tussle with long-term rival Lucas di Grassi.
The Formula E veterans had jousted for the lead from early on, but a suspected driveshaft failure for Di Grassi’s Audi with just five minutes remaining, allowed two-time champion Vergne to sweep by for his 10th career win in Formula E.
Britain’s Sam Bird fought his way tenaciously through the field from 10th on the starting grid to take second place and overall lead in the championship after three rounds.
Team-mate Mitch Evans ensured Jaguar Racing enjoyed their first ever double podium by claiming third spot.
“I’m really happy,” said Vergne. “It was a very difficult race with the conditions being as they were with a lot of rain. It was very slippery and more than once I almost hit the wall.”
As for his cat-and-mouse tussle with leader Di Grassi, Vergne suggested he was already planning to make his move before the 2017 champion’s Audi ground to a halt.
“I feel sad for him because he was doing a fantastic race so it’s never easy when you’re doing a good race to end up your race like that. Unfortunately, that’s motor racing.
“It’s not like I was forcing him when he passed me. I wanted to save a bit more energy to be able to attack him again because we were really, really tight, everybody, on energy.
“We were having a lot of lifting in a straight line. I said I would get him later in the race but unfortunately he had the problem for himself.”
Bird followed up his win in race two in Diriyah with a typically swashbuckling performance, cutting his way through the top 10 to finish second on the podium and establish a nine-point lead in the championship over former Envision Virgin team-mate Robin Frijns, who came in fourth.
Bird said: “I really enjoyed that race. Phenomenal. Jaguar Racing gave me and Mitch a really quick car today. I feel like I didn’t maximise things in qualifying but we really made up for it today.
“To get a 2-3, that’s our first ever double podium as a team so massive congrats to all the guys here and to those working back at the factory, amazing job.”
Bird is the only driver to have won a race in all seven seasons of Formula E, but the championship has so far eluded him. His move to Jaguar for 2021 is already proving to be a shrewd one.
“Certainly it’s working really well,” he said. “Me and Mitch are getting on extremely well on and off the circuit which is great. We’re working hard to push the team further up the front.
“Whether we’re the strongest or not is up for debate because everybody is strong here, but we’ve made a very, very decent start this year.”
The race ended behind the safety car after Mercedes’ Stoffel Vandoorne spun into the barriers after apparently clipping a manhole cover on the street circuit. Team-mate Nyck de Vries, winner of race one in Diriyah, was forced into the opposite wall taking avoiding action and he too failed to finish.
It had been a troublesome day for pole sitter Vandoorne, who was tumbled down the rankings from his early lead after closing the door too tightly on Porsche’s Andre Lotterer at Turn 4, leaving both cars temporarily stranded.
New race leader Oliver Rowland then had to give up his position after incurring a drive-through penalty for using too much power, effectively ending his afternoon.
For the first time Di Grassi hit the front and it was not long before Vergne’s DS Techeetah was snapping at his heels as the two former champions scrapped for superiority.
The move of the race came on lap 20, with Vergne leading as they approached Turn 4. Di Grassi nipped inside for a clean overtake and looked to be on his way to a first victory for Audi since Berlin in May 2019 before the mechanical gremlins hit.
Audi team boss Allan McNish said: “At that point, very frankly, I think we had our eye on the chequered flag.
We had our eye on the chequered flag– Audi team boss Allan McNish
“The overtake on Vergne was a great one and it was already out of the attack mode, so it was on pure speed.
“Then he was able to pull away and we had good energy, a bit of a buffer, so we were in a really strong position.
“Now you can never-say-never in this game but the way that he was able to overtake I think showed we could win the thing.
“We are majorly disappointed for his complete car crew because I think they put together a very good qualifying and was then able to deliver in the race. It’s all very frustrating.”
2021 Rome E-Prix race one result
1 Jean-Eric Vergne (Fra, DS Techeetah) 25pts; 2 Sam Bird (GB, Jaguar Racing) 18; 3 Mitch Evans (NZ, Jaguar Racing) 15 + 1 fastest lap; 4 Robin Frijns (Ned, Envision Virgin) 12; 5 Sebastien Buemi (Swi, Nissan E.Dams) 10; 6 Rene Rast (Ger, Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler) 8; 7 Pascal Wehrlein (Ger, Porsche) 6; 8 Alex Lynn (GB, Mahindra) 4; 9 Maximilian Guenther (BMW i Andretti) 2; 10 Nick Cassidy (NZ, Envision Virgin) 1.
2021 Formula E 2021 driver standings
Leading positions after three rounds: 1 Sam Bird 43; 2 Robin Frijns 34; 3 Nyck de Vries 32; 4 Mitch Evans 31; 5 Jean-Eric Vergne 25; 6 Rene Rast 21.