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Rome ePrix: Mahindra Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist retires from the lead yet again, Sam Bird seals well-deserved victory

After missing out on hosting a Formula E ePrix in 2014-15, Rome finally had its date with the all-electric single seater series this weekend and became the 18th city in the world to host an ePrix. The hype of the ePrix was further helped with the Pope blessing the Formula E car in the week leading up to the race. In fact, the race was extra special because Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag christened Rome as Formula E’s “first love”. He said, “Rome was the first (city where Formula E planned to race) and that's a fact. It was our first city that we dreamed to race at.” This was also the 40th ePrix of all times, an indication that the series has grown in stature, strength and reach.

Nico Rosberg, the 2016 Formula 1 champion, was announced as an investor in the series; another indication that the series is currently attracting manufacturers, investors and sponsors faster than it is attracting fans. However, this is expected to change next season once the next-generation car debuts - one that will go faster and will have enough battery charge to last an entire race duration. As a part of Rosberg’s association, the former Formula 1 world champion will drive the next-generation car in its first-ever public appearance in Berlin.

Nissan, the manufacturer that will re-brand the Renault team as their own in the 2018-19 season, made a bold claim that Formula E’s viewers were much younger than Formula 1’s audiences and this made the series compelling as a business. We hope this view is substantiated by either of the series or a media house someday soon and if true, all hell may break loose!

Rome ePrix

"It's good to be back... but it's not over yet," said Mahindra Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist, after he clinched pole-position in the Rome ePrix. His third pole position of the 2017-18 Formula E season was nearly seven-tenths ahead of eventual winner Sam Bird. Rosenqvist’s words proved to be prophetic as the Swedish driver, who led the drivers’ championship earlier in the season, retired while leading the race after hitting the kerbs at the chicane of turns 18 and 19 (lap 23); a heartbreak moment for Mahindra Racing and their fans. In fact, this was Rosenqvist’s second retirement in seven races and unfortunately, both his retirements have come in races where he has started from pole and hence had a great chance of securing victory.

As a result of the retirement, Rosenqvist now finds himself third in the drivers’ championship, 37 points behind championship leader and title rival, Jean Eric Vergne (it’s important to remember that Formula E awards three points for securing pole). Bird, the winner of the Rome ePrix, jumped Rosenqvist in the standings thanks to Rome and lies in second place, 18 points adrift of Vergne. Post race, Bird admitted, “I honestly didn’t think I’d be sitting here today when I saw the pace of Felix (Rosenqvist).” Interestingly, Bird remains the only driver to have won a race in each season of Formula E, and at seven wins, he has the second-most wins for any driver racing in Formula E. Speaking of Vergne, his consistency has been the key to him retaining the lead in the championship - he is the only driver in the top-10 to have scored points at every race held till date.

Although Bird managed to seal a well-deserved victory in Rome, full marks to Lucas di Grassi and Audi Sport for trying to clinch victory. Di Grassi tried to keep the heat on Bird (which kept the excitement sky high right till the end) but could not get by. Bird held on, only by a sliver (read: 0.970 seconds) but not before treating fans to a tantalising display of racing. The drama didn’t stop with the chequered flag - post race, it was announced that di Grassi is facing an investigation for his car swap procedure. Pit stops are yet an issue in Formula E (after they eliminated their minimum pit-stop time a few races ago) and this time, it was Nelson Piquet Jr (the Formula E champion from 2014-15) who had to retire from his race because seatbelts weren’t fastened properly.

Mitch Evans was at the receiving end of racing in an all-electric series after a race-long battle with Bird (for first) and Andre Loterrer (for third) saw him drop down from second to ninth on the last lap thanks to battery issues - he had only one percent remaining. This dramatic drop meant that both Evans and Jaguar were possibly robbed of their best-ever finish in Formula E.

The equal nature of cars has made it easier for drivers to fight wheel-to-wheel and in the Rome ePrix, Antonio Felix da Costa climbed nine places in the first 10 laps (he had started last), while Jerome d’Ambrosio finished nine places (seventh) ahead of his starting position of 16th.

With five races to go, will Bird be able to mount a late-season challenge for his first-ever Formula E drivers’ championship, or will this be Vergne’s year? As for Mahindra Racing and Rosenqvist, they would need a miracle and misfortunes to the others to get back into championship contention. Mahindra Racing, who also led the teams’ championship earlier in the season, now find themselves in third place and 49 points behind Techeetah. Bird’s victory in the Rome ePrix enabled DS Virgin Racing to claim second place, 15 points ahead.

With only five races remaining, Mahindra Racing would be scratching their heads wondering what they would need to do to finish in positions they deserve to finish in. The team has one of the fastest cars on the grid (Rosenqvist topped Free Practice two in Rome) and their progress has been hampered by bad luck rather than performance. In Mahindra Racing’s case, being able to ‘string’ a season-long campaign together would be the biggest learning from the 2017-18 Formula E season.

The team’s other driver, Nick Heidfeld (16th in Rome), has been at the receiving end of bad luck. In the Rome ePrix, he had a multi-car pile-up with the drivers from the NIO Formula E Team (Filippi and Turvey). The former Formula 1 driver has had three consecutive DNFs (equaling a Formula E record with Loic Duval) and has failed to score points in five out of the seven ePrixs held till date. Heidfeld is currently down in 12th place with 21 points - a statistic that doesn’t reflect his talent and experience. However, if there isn’t a significant upswing in his performance in the second half of the season, one wonders if Mahindra Racing might choose a younger talent to replace the veteran from next season.

This spirited display of racing in Rome continues Formula E’s characteristically competitive grid and dramatic outcomes that could not be predicted. Interestingly, we have had 11 different drivers on the podium in Formula E this season and four different race winners - and all of this, in just seven races. While there is a general outcry against the lack of engine sounds and speed in the series, there certainly isn’t a lack of entertainment and racing.

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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2018 17:33:34 IST