Jean-Éric Vergne has won the Punta del Este ePrix, withstanding sustained attacks from Lucas di Grassi throughout the race to claim his second victory of the 2017-18 season and extend his lead in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
With Vergne and di Grassi starting together on the front row after the Brazilian was stripped of pole position, the pair led away in that order only for the race to be neutralised by the Safety Car on lap two following a technical failure for Mahindra’s Nick Heidfeld. When racing resumed, so did di Grassi’s pursuit of Vergne.
Further back in the field, Nelson Piquet Jr sustained damage and was forced into an early car swap, as was two-time Punta del Este winner Sébastien Buemi. The Renault e.Dams driver collected the wall at Turn 13 on Lap 10, damaging the left rear corner of his car. While both drivers continued in their second cars, both ultimately retired when their energy reserves ran out.
Still in second place and pushing Vergne, the pit stop cycle loomed as a chance for di Grassi to move into the lead, however the Frenchman and his Techeetah team complete a slick stop to keep Vergne in front with the two cars exiting pit lane after their stops on Lap 20 in the same order they entered.
From here, Di Grassi was on full attack to the end of the race. With no championship challenge to be concerned with, the reigning champion becoming more desperate to find a way through as the laps wound down. Three laps from the end of the race, the pair made contact at the final corner, and again at Turn 1 on the following lap, but ultimately Vergne’s defense reigned supreme, holding on to win by 0.447 seconds.
With Vergne and Di Grassi’s battle holding the pair up, they were joined late in the race by Sam Bird. The DS Virgin driver started from ninth place and passed several driver before the pit stops, emerging from the lane side-by-side with – and ultimately getting the better of – teammate Alex Lynn.
This left Bird in fourth place, which became third when Daniel Abt returned to pit lane after his seat belts came undone while on circuit. An investigation found the belts were properly fastened following Abt’s pit stop, so no penalty was applied, however the need to pit and have the issue rectified ended the chances of a double-podium result for the Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler team.
Another driver charging through the field was Mitch Evans. Having been one of the faster cars in qualifying, the New Zealander had been relegated to 16th on the grid following a penalty for improper weight distribution in his Jaguar. With the problem rectified, Evans still had one of the fastest cars in the field – ultimately beating Felix Rosenqvist in a late battle for fourth place.
Lynn ended the race in sixth place ahead of Oliver Turvey, while seventh and eighth places belonged to the Dragon Racing pair of José María López and Jérôme d’Ambrosio – the teammates benefiting from their strategy of running an additional lap in their first cars to move up the order. Maro Engel rounded out the top ten for Venturi.
Celebrating victory post-race, Vergne was pleased to have handled the pressure in a fair fight with di Grassi.
“I thought I could handle the pressure pretty well and today I proved that true,” he said.
“For me to win the race today, I had to make absolutely zero mistakes. We both gained respect with each other today, knowing that we raced fairly – I could have done something bad to him and he could have done something bad to me too.”
In a situation no one would have predicted pre-season, di Grassi’s second place is the first podium finish of the season for the reigning champion. Having moved from 19th to tenth in the standings on the back of this result alone, it was a welcome change in fortunes for the Brazilian.
“I’m super happy to be back on the podium after five races of not being on it,” he said. “Of course, I’m going to fight for [the championship] but my target at the moment is to look at each race as a single event. We never give up.”
Vergne’s win has greatly extended his lead in the Drivers’ Championship, now 30 points – more than an entire ePrix worth of points – ahead of Rosenqvist. While it’s a strong position, Vergne is not getting comfortable, referring to last season as proof of how quickly things can change.
“When I look at Sébastien Buemi, he had a similar lead as me last year and he still lost the championship, so there is no relaxing and there are no days off,” he affirmed.
“I will keep pushing everybody in the team very hard to keep on doing what we are doing. Points and championships can be lost very easily but winning is not as easy. It is extremely close – the thing with Formula E is that you need to score points at every race. I may not be in a position to win another race this season because, as everyone saw, I don’t have the fastest car.”
Bird’s third place result moves the Brit to just three points behind Rosenqvist in the standings, while Buemi remains in fourth place despite his failure to finish. The Swiss driver and former champion is now has less than half of Vergne’s points tally – the Drivers’ Championship title now very much looking like a race between three.
The teams of the top three drivers are also on top – in the same order – of the Teams’ Championship. Techeetah leads with 127 points, Mahindra sit second on 100, with DS Virgin a further seven points behind. Jaguar (86) hold fourth position, while it appears highly likely that for the first time a team other than Renault e.Dams will claim the title, as the Alain Prost-led team currently sit in fifth place on 59 points.
With Formula E’s South and Central American swing now completed, the series moves to Europe for the inaugural Rome ePrix on Saturday April 14.
Images via ABB FIA Formula E Championship