07 Apr 21

Jack Nicholls looks back on Diriyah and ahead to Rounds 3 & 4 of Formula E Season 7 in Rome

Formula E commentator Jack Nicholls checked in to give fiaformulae.com his lie of the land after the season-opening double-header in Diriyah as the 2020/21 ABB FIA Formula E World Championship heads to Rounds 3 and 4 of the season in Rome.

I really loved Diriyah. I love working in Formula E, and the start of every new season brings the inevitable excitement but it’s been a long time since I enjoyed being at a race track quite so much. Admittedly, that’s probably because it’s been a long time since I was at a race track!

PREDICTOR: Our tips and who to keep an eye on in Rome

Nevertheless, despite the lack of crowds and the continuing enforcement of strict COVID protocols, the buzz under the lights in the paddock was thrilling and there were so many stories to come out of the desert last month.

Formula E returns to Rome... #ChangeAccelerated

DS' duel

DS TECHEETAH's pace in Diriyah was remarkable, considering they were still running last season’s powertrain. They are bringing their new machine, the DS E-TENSE FE21, to Rome this weekend which will have the rest of the field keenly interested.

With 17 minutes to go in the second race in Diriyah, they were running third and fourth, right behind the race leaders but this was when they started fighting amongst themselves - Antonio Felix da Costa and Jean-Eric Vergne even colliding at the final corner, dropping them back from the lead battle.

They caught back up just as the race was ended prematurely, but without that squabble they could have conceivably won the E-Prix even with the red flag, and almost certainly without it.

DS TECHEETAH ABB FIA Formula E World Championship Diriyah E-Prix

While both Sam Bird and Robin Frijns enjoyed their tussle for the win, both were aware that the black and gold cars were coming, fast. We witnessed this intra-team rivalry cause problems on at least three occasions last season, and this year appears no different. It didn’t cost them in Season 6, but with an even tighter field this year it the relationship will need to be managed ever more efficiently.

Rowland catches the eye

The most impressive driver for me over the course of the weekend in Diriyah was Oliver Rowland (Nissan e.dams). Of course, Mercedes-EQ's Nyck de Vries was outstanding in Race 1 and emerged with the Drivers' Championship lead, but he crossed the line 14th in Race 2, only gaining places due to others’ collisions and ultimately promoted into the points due to other drivers’ penalties.

REPORT: De Vries storms to maiden win in Diriyah

Rowland, meanwhile, was the only driver to be in Group 1 on both days, topped Group 1 in qualifying on both days, and made places in the race to score points on both days. Sitting seventh in the championship as it stands, he will find himself in Group 2 for Rome qualifying, and has a shot at being at the sharp end.

Oliver Rowland Nissan e.dams ABB FIA Formula E World Championship

Treading the tightrope

Much of Rowland’s success was due to Nissan e.dams nailing the qualifying timings. On both occasions over the event, he set off on his flying lap at the latest possible moment, giving him the best track position and conditions in his group, running on the 'cleanest' track with the rest sweeping the sand from its surface ahead of him.

QUIZ: Test your knowledge of the Rome E-Prix

In the second encounter, it meant that Mitch Evans (Jaguar Racing) and Rene Rast (Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler) were unable to set a lap time, as they vied to be the last cars to run but were left ultimately stuck behind Rowland and shoved out of the running entirely, with both left stranded as the clock ticked down.

McNish Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler Team Principal Formula E

The scrap to be last on track in that first batch of runners in Group Qualifying, when the track is at its cleanest and therefore fastest, is not new to Formula E. There was chaos in New York City a few years ago, and we had drivers missing their flying lap in Berlin last season.

Rome is going to be the most intense we have seen yet, though. Not only will there be the same desperation to not be first on track, but the reduced four-minute session times for this season means it’s going to be very close to get an out lap, preparation lap then flying lap on this new, longer circuit - the longest in Formula E, in fact save for the old Beijing layout.

Some teams in Diriyah just went for it in Group 1, ignored the games and focussed on their own lap. It worked well for Stoffel Vandoorne (Mercedes-EQ) in the opening round as he ended up second quickest in the group, but less so for Porsche and Pascal Wehrlein in Round 2.

A new layout by Ninfeo Park

Finally, we've got that new elongated track and it's something that all the drivers are excited about. Rome was already one of the highlights of the season, the undulating circuit with wide sweeping curves through avenues of Stone Pine trees is a spectacular sight.

READ MORE: New circuit layout for Formula E's 2021 trip to Rome

Although most of the corners have been changed for this new track, the indisputable Roman essence is still present by the bucket load.

Ludicrously competitive

After an opening double header where 11 of the 12 teams scored points, five different teams made the podium, two new polesitters and a first-time winner; the level of competition in Formula E is once again quite remarkable.

Front runners Vergne, Lotterer, Buemi and Guenther all left Diriyah with zero points. Last year’s backmarkers NIO 333 scored points in both races, and in fact scored more points than they had in their previous 26 races.

I cannot wait to see what the championship looks like by the time we leave the Eternal City.

Rome E Prix Formula E 2021

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