The 2021 ABB FIA Formula E World Championship opener in Diriyah delivered two extremely different races, and some wild fluctuations in fortune.
Sam Smith picks through it all to assess how all 24 drivers performed.
Antonio Felix da Costa – 7
Team: DS Techeetah
Race results: 11th/3rd
Championship position: 5th
A relatively low-key start to the title defence from the champion. He knew he’d be hamstrung by starting in the first qualifying group and a rare mistake compounded his lowly 18th place start on Friday.
He raced well from there to the cusp of the points in 11th and survived a wild end and some wheel-banging with Buemi’s Nissan.
Saturday’s race brought a welcome podium but one tinged with some regret after a potential crack at Bird and Frijns was curtailed through more time-consuming intra-team sparring with Vergne.
Jean-Eric Vergne – 6
Team: DS Techeetah
Race results: 15th/12th
Championship position: 17th
Vergne was making all the right noises coming into the weekend after a spiky previous campaign. It didn’t take long for the furrowed brow to return when he found himself in a group one triggered hole that lasted all day on Friday as he struggled with understeer and took an insipid 15th at flag fall.
Like da Costa, Saturday should have offered a tilt at victory but after taking an early attack boost followed later by the contact with his team-mate any sniff of a win was compromised.
A penalty for not using his second attack boost meant that Vergne leaves Riyadh with nothing, which is three points fewer than he left with in 2019.
Then as now, he must fight back and make the most from an updated DS-powered car in Rome.
Sebastien Buemi – 5
Team: Nissan e.dams
Race results: 13th/DNF
Championship position: 19th
Two races to forget for Buemi who entered the week as many people’s favourite to mount a serious second title bid. Instead he came away with nothing. It mirrored his 2019 Diriyah weekend in some ways but this one felt much more tepid.
Buemi rarely got on terms with team-mate Rowland and seemed ill at ease with his car from the very first laps. Like others in group one he started race one down the grid (17th) and got up to 12th in the final laps only to sideswipe Jake Dennis on the line and drop a position.
It at least dropped him into group three for Saturday qualifying but his race ended in the wall after a rare error. An ignominious end to a grim week.
Oliver Rowland – 7
Team: Nissan e.dams
Race results: 6th/7th
Championship position: 7th
Rowland looked as ‘on it’ as he had done at Berlin last summer, and – in a similar vein to his 2019 Riyadh races – he bagged some useful points in both rounds.
On Friday he had an excellent qualifying to line up 10th and was the quickest in group one by a whopping 0.7s.
His race was solid and he engaged in feisty battles with Wehrlein and Sims to take a dogged sixth place finish.
He followed that up with an equally hard-won run to seventh on Saturday in which he would likely have vaulted both Dragons and Turvey had the race not stopped early.
Stoffel Vandoorne – 6
Race results: 8th/13th
Championship position: 15th
If ever a driver’s potency was masked over the course of two races it was Vandoorne’s. Unlike team-mate de Vries, he couldn’t consistently show the very promising pace of the new Mercedes.
This was mainly due to his qualifying compromise of being in the first group on Friday, although unlike others he made excellent progress through the field in the race to make up seven positions and grab a well-earned eighth.
Saturday was essentially written off with the FIA braking investigation followed by a drivethrough for a powertrain change spoiling any realistic hopes of points.
Despite his best efforts he was unable to match de Vries’ achievements and took only a frustrated 13th.
Nyck de Vries – 10
Race results: 1st/9th
Championship position: 1st
De Vries was the standout performer pretty much every time he took to the Diriyah track.
Vanquishing the opposition on Friday, his achievements that day will go down as a dominant blueprint for a long time to come.
He resisted a modicum of pressure from Rast and Mortara to pull off a well-deserved maiden win.
De Vries was the best of the Mercedes-powered trio on Saturday and after starting from the back was able to take 14th on the road before happily accepting three more points when he was elevated to ninth.
He also took a clear fastest lap to ensure an early seven point lead in the standings.
Robin Frijns – 8
Team: Envision Virgin
Race results: 17th/2nd
Championship position: 3rd
It was chalk and cheese for Frijns, whose Diriyah days could scarcely have been more different.
A Friday free practice shunt necessitated a contentious battery change after the g-loading sensor spiked. This meant he missed qualifying, started at the rear of the grid and couldn’t make much progress before finishing a thoroughly miserable 17th.
A ‘Zoom-athon’ with chief engineer Chris Gorne and the rest of the team produced much needed change for Saturday and a team-wide rejuvenation.
It was a spectacular turnaround with drastic changes yielding quickest practice time and then a handsome first pole.
Frijns duelled with former team-mate Bird throughout the race and was set for a grandstand finish before Lynn’s race stopping accident brought a push for a potential third E-Prix win to a halt.
Nick Cassidy – 7
Team: Envision Virgin
Race results: 19th/14th
Championship position: 21st
A tough Formula E baptism for Cassidy but he can think himself unlucky to come away empty handed from Saudi Arabia.
He was one of the unwitting victims of the Friday group qualifying debacle triggered by Sette Camara’s incident. This meant a debut superpole appearance was replaced with an unjust 19th place start.
Like Frijns, progress was negligible in race one, but 24 hours later Cassidy achieved a top-10 grid start despite a slight mistake on his run.
A well-constructed race featured several clean moves and he sat well-placed in fifth and close to the scrapping DS Techeetahs, who he fancied a crack at.
That ultimately didn’t come to pass due to the early race stoppage and when he was penalised for speeding under a full course yellow he dropped out of the points to a slightly dejected and harsh 14th.
Maximilian Guenther – 4
Team: BMW i Andretti
Race results: DNF/DNF
Championship position: 23rd
By far and away Guenther’s toughest weekend since he joined Formula E and a far cry from the poised performer we saw intermittently last season.
His qualifying performances were decent with ninth and 11th place starts.
But he was contrite after a mistake at Turn 2 ended his race in the wall on Friday.
This is the moment where @maxg_official slides off the racing line and into the barriers, bringing his race to an end and gives us another Safety Car…
— ABB FIA Formula E World Championship (@FIAFormulaE) February 26, 2021
In Saturday’s race he was on the periphery of the top 10 before a mistimed lunge on Blomqvist, while also defending from Rowland’s Nissan, wrecked his front suspension and brought down the shutters on a poor start to 2021. And earned him a Rome grid penalty too.
Jake Dennis – 6
Team: BMW i Andretti
Race results: 12th/DNF
Championship position: 18th
Dennis applied himself well to the cut-throat Formula E race days and played himself in much the same way fellow rookie Cassidy did throughout the free practice sessions.
His first race started from 14th and he kept a clean nose to be in the midfield scrap with da Costa, Nato and Buemi in the final laps.
He showed he wasn’t going to be intimidated by an errant Buemi at the line and took a respectable 12th, also comfortably heading off Vergne.
Dennis learned more on Saturday but this time there were battle scars.
The first came from Sims and then the second was a more comprehensive swipe from an over-aggressive Wehrlein, who was penalised for ending Dennis’s race with suspension damage.
Lucas di Grassi – 7
Race results: 9th/8th
Championship position: 14th
It was the same old di Grassi in many ways with stealthy, crafty racing making up for lowly grid positions.
There is little doubt that, as evidenced by Rast’s performance on Friday night, the new Audi e-tron FE07 is a step up from last year’s midfield mired design.
So how frustrating for di Grassi that he was seldom able to use it at the sharp end.
A very accomplished run to ninth from 16th on the grid at least opened his account but then a scrappy qualifying lap again compromised his prospects in the second race. He fought hard to take four points for eighth after the numerous penalties were applied post-race.
Rene Rast – 8
Race results: 4th/17th
Championship position: 8th
In only his second Formula E event (the Berlin sextuple-header counts as one) Rast lived up to his growing early stature in the championship with a superb third place grid start on Friday.
He closed up to de Vries’ leading Mercedes and looked like he had the whip-hand on energy over the Mercedes at one stage. The second safety car came at just the wrong time for the Audi ace and he was easy pray for an attack-boosted Evans, meaning he lost out on what was probably a podium deserving drive.
It was hardly Rast’s fault that the team made another colossal misjudgement on timings to get him across the line in race two qualifying, and he started 19th.
From there he muscled his way through to a point in 10th but then saw that disappear when he picked up a brace of penalties for speeding under the FCY and not using his final attack boost.
Mitch Evans – 8
Race results: 3rd/DNF
Championship position: 6th
Evans looked every inch the title protagonist he did through the first half of last season as he followed the meteoric de Vries in qualifying group two to squeeze in to superpole.
His race was classic Evans with astute overtakes (including an early mugging of Lynn) and a hunting down of Rast when he timed his attack boost well.
There was every indication he could get a further hatful of points on Saturday despite his less advantageous group one qualifying slot. But another baffling dance cock-up on timing by Jaguar brought more embarrassment after the Marrakesh debacle exactly a year before.
‘Top gears from the rears’ performances are much harder this season and Evans’ race ended in the now infamous tangle with Lynn.
Sam Bird – 9
Race results: DNF/1st
Championship position: 2nd
Bird’s Jaguar career could hardly have begun brighter with victory in his first event for the Big Cat.
Just as in 2019, Bird looked lean and hungry from the very first moment he stepped into the paddock, and it showed – despite a slightly disappointing first qualifying which left him in eighth.
He picked off Guenther early doors and then engaged in what turned out to be a terminal battle with Lynn.
He vented some fury afterwards but also banked a good portion of it positively for Saturday. It worked, as he made short work of Sette Camara into the first corner to move into second and then pursued, raced and seemed to control former team-mate Frijns.
Few would bet against Bird in these situations and he ensured the continuation of his one win per Formula E season record, which now stretches to seven campaigns.
Andre Lotterer – 5
Race results: 16th/11th
Championship position: 16th
A write-off weekend for Lotterer. It started promisingly with some bang on the pace practice session optimism and much hope for a strong result from seventh on the Friday grid.
He was in the mix early on but suffered a slow puncture, probably picked up from on-track debris after the Lynn/Bird shunt. That dropped him to a lonely 16th at the chequered flag.
Lotterer was on a practice push-lap in the final session on Saturday when he hit the wall and ruled himself out of both qualifying and any realistic chance to salvage points from the opening races.
He started from the pitlane and did at least get into some action eventually, helped by race neutralisations. But even multiple penalties for some of those ahead couldn’t get him a point and he was classified 11th.
Pascal Wehrlein – 6
Race results: 5th/10th
Championship position: 10th
Wehrlein’s pace promise was realised with a dogged fifth place on Friday but he had fallen back from better positions in the race after over-consuming his Porsche’s energy.
That grittiness was followed by some over-the-mark racing on Saturday as he unceremoniously bundled Dennis out while battling for 15th place.
— ABB FIA Formula E World Championship (@FIAFormulaE) February 27, 2021
Despite a drivethrough penalty for that incident, Wehrlein took his first Porsche point, albeit a fortunate one due to others’ penalties.
Alexander Sims – 6
Race results: 7th/15th
Championship position: 13th
Sims was enjoying the Mahindra’s new ZF flavoured package from the beginning but mistakes in qualifying left him anchored down in an unrepresentative 11th on Friday.
He built a terrific race through the field to seventh in a drive reminiscent of his ‘burn from the stern’ Mexico City effort last February.
Sunday ended in disappointment when a mid-grid start in 14th put him into energy-consuming battle with several drivers.
He ended the ‘active race’ in 11th after racing with the two Audis for the final laps before he was given a penalty for a technical infringement relating to the throttle map and moved down to 15th.
Alex Lynn – 5
Race results: DNF/DNF
Championship position: 24th
A bruising few days for Lynn in all senses of the word. While the headlines will undoubtedly be given over to the two accidents, there was – like for team-mate Sims – much to be optimistic about.
The Mahindra looked nicely balanced through the early practice sessions and was immediately on the pace, allowing Lynn to qualifying excellently and start the first race fifth.
He was immediately jumped by Evans at the start but settled into what looked a mutually beneficial slipstreaming ‘swapsie-fest’ with the other Jaguar of Bird.
This all came to an abrupt end when Lynn over-defended and was adjudged to have caused the accident that eliminated both of them.
Much worse was to come though on Saturday when his ninth place start became a penalty-corrected 12th. He then got shuffled down to the rear when he started the race with the pit speed limiter engaged.
He spent most of his race in and around Evans’ Jaguar and the two made contact with 10 minutes to go, launching Lynn into a horrifying accident that he was lucky to emerge unscathed.
Edoardo Mortara – 9
Race results: 2nd/DNS
Championship position: 4th
In keeping with The Race’s Formula E podcast hypothesis that Mortara was a key dark horse for wins in 2021, the wolf-eyed Swiss-Italian demonstrated the full range of his positive skills on Friday.
After showing scintillating speed in superpole to snare a fourth place start, he then proceeded to pull off a breathtaking move on Evans and Wehrlein that will stay long in the memory.
His second place was fully deserved and it was a settled Mortara who placed sixth in practice in what had been a positive start to Saturday.
That all ended when he suffered a cataclysmic braking issue which sent him crashing to disaster after a practice start.
The hope is that this hideous accident doesn’t taint Mortara’s momentum just when it seemed he had begun to truly hit his straps.
Norman Nato – 5
Race results: 14th/16th
Championship position: 20th
The lowly finishing positions don’t tell the full story of Nato’s competitive Formula E debut as the GP2 race winner soaked up as much of the experience as he could muster lap by lap.
He was a long way from Mortara’s pace granted but his solid application in the races, and his propensity to sniff out trouble and avoid it, stands him in good stead to utilise the clearly exceptional Mercedes EQ Silver Arrows 2 as the season progresses.
Nico Mueller – 7
Team: Dragon Penske
Race results: 21st/5th
Championship position: 11th
Mueller fought back well from his practice accident to initially get into superpole until he was shuffled down because of his team-mate Sette Camara’s incident. That triggered a lonely and uneventful run to 21st.
That seemed to act as a spur and he probably should have beaten Sette Camara for second on the grid the next day but for a slight error on his flyer.
In the race he and the team executed a cute race, finishing just behind his team-mate in seventh – which was elevated to fifth after the Vergne and Cassidy penalties were actioned.
Sergio Sette Camara – 8
Team: Dragon Penske
Race results: 20th/4th
Championship position: 9th
By rights relative Formula E newcomer Sette Camara should probably drop a point for his contentious Friday qualifying error, which was as close to an open goal for superpole as he thought he would get.
In reality all it did was delay another chance 24 hours and the Brazilian converted with aplomb to put a Dragon Penske on the front row of the grid for the first time in three seasons.
Bird outmuscled him into Turn 1 but he soon hit an impressive if slightly energy expensive race pace.
Yes there was some fortune in the safety cars, eventual red flag and post-race penalties in the fourth place but he raced excellently and along with team-mate Mueller helped inject a much needed shot of hope into the Dragon team.
Oliver Turvey – 9
Race results: 10th/6th
Championship position: 12th
Turvey and NIO333 were joyously back in the game and able to race for points on merit for the first time in over two seasons in Riyadh and boy did they convert.
The Formula E veteran struggled a little on his qualifying push lap on Friday but still took 13th – a position unheard of for most of last season. He stitched together an excellent and clean race to grab a much needed point, the team’s first ever in its current guise.
Turvey found the feeling on his brakes much more to his liking on Saturday and he even surprised himself with how far up the grid he could achieve – a superb fifth. He turned that into a canny sixth in the race to take his best result since Berlin in May 2018!
Tom Blomqvist – 7
Race results: 18th/18th
Championship position: 22nd
His results were not representative of his performance through the Diriyah week, which was positive enough for Blomqvist to be very optimistic for the season ahead.
He was rightly incensed after losing seventh on the grid on Friday due to the double-waved yellow affair. Much like the others affected, it led to the expected moribund race on Friday evening.
On Saturday Blomqvist was able to take full advantage of his second group four qualifying appearance and hooked up a fine superpole effort to start fifth.
He struggled a bit in the opening phase but settled into a decent consumption rhythm before being turfed out of the points by an out of control Guenther and then getting a pair of penalties.