Motorsport to save the planet? Extreme E has set itself up on ambitious foundations as it seeks to make a genuine difference on climate change, and following the first event in Saudi Arabia last weekend, the sustainability angle remains a moot point for many on how genuine we can take it. But it’s hard to argue with the sporting spectacle. Yes, there were teething troubles with the Spark-built Odyssey 21 racers and the race format needed a massive tweak before the weekend begun. But the combination of the stunning setting in the rocky desert of the Al’Ula region with some spectacular racing action ensured Extreme E got off to a strong and memorable start.
Four talking points from Extreme E in Saudi Arabia
Hamilton vs. Rosberg all over again
First, let’s give credit for what most of us will consider the primary objective of a new motor racing series: to offer something genuinely fresh, different, exciting and competitive. On those counts, Extreme E delivered as Nico Rosberg’s RXR team got one over Lewis Hamilton’s X44 squad thanks to spotless team work and driving from three-time World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson and Australian rally champion Molly Taylor.
X44, featuring WRC legend Sébastien Loeb and Spanish dentist (!) Cristina Gutiérrez, topped Saturday qualifying, but only after the Rosberg squad was pinged a hefty time penalty for speeding in the ‘switch zone’ where the drivers changed places. A glitch with the Odyssey’s speed limiter was to blame, but the demotion didn’t hide the team’s edge over their rivals. The next day, Kristoffersson was brilliant in the crucial opening salvos in the semi-final and X Prix final, using the hyperdrive power boost to perfection to take definitive leads. He was ably supported by Taylor, who brought it home in both races to create a bit of history.
Power steering trouble ruined X44’s final, as another rallycross star Timmy Hansen and British rally driver Catie Munnings delivered Zak Brown and Michael Andretti a strong second place. The Andretti United squad had qualified for the final after winning the second semi, known as ‘The Crazy Race’.
Women racers shine through
Rosberg, Hamilton, Loeb, Carlos Sainz Sr., Jenson Button – whose team struggled with a car it only got its hands on for the first time last Tuesday – inevitably drew most of the attention before and during the weekend. But by the end of play on Sunday, a number of the female drivers were the real stars, which is the point of the gender equality angle that shares main billing in Extreme E with education on climate change.
Winner Taylor displayed why she and Kristoffersson appear to be the best balanced of the nine teams at this stage. But it was Munnings who arguably made the most impact, bravely completing one of her qualifying laps on Saturday despite inheriting a puncture from Hansen. The 23-year-old also made up time in her chase of Taylor in the final. Others to stand out included American motocross and X Games racer Sara Price, who showed great character and an engaging personality, despite her Chip Ganassi Racing team suffering a difficult weekend in the desert. She will be one to watch in future rounds.
Teething troubles and dust
Eyebrows were raised as dust caused visibility concerns – what did they expect in a desert? But Alejandro Agag and his team moved fast, as we’ve seen in Formula E, to head off the problem. A late format change led to one-at-a-time qualifying on Saturday instead of heats, and limiting races to three cars instead of four was a reasonable solution to avoid too many accidents – although dust was a major contributor to the biggest which occurred in the shoot-out for seventh place, when unsighted American Kyle LeDuc piled into the back of Claudia Hurtgen, who had slowed over ruts. The Ganassi and Abt Cupra entries stood up well to the impacts and both drivers emerged unscathed, but it was painful for Abt and Hurtgen given that the mechanics had just spent 23 hours repairing the car after the 49-year-old had barrel-rolled out of qualifying.
The teams inevitably discovered teething troubles with the Odyssey SUV, as hot batteries, power steering problems and damper concerns gave most – but not all – a few headaches. Beyond Abt and Ganassi, the most out-of-luck squad was the British Veloce Racing team which took an early bath after Stéphane Sarrazin rolled in qualifying. The damage didn’t look that bad – but the car landed on its antennae which caused damage to the roll-cage, and that made it a write-off. The withdrawal meant W Series champion Jamie Chadwick travelled all the way to Saudi Arabia for what amounted to an 11-day trip to complete one lap of the desert course.
Ships, beaches… and turtles
The Saudi Arabian debut could have been scuppered completely if the St Helena, the former Royal Mail ship which carries Extreme E around the world, had been caught in the Suez Canal blockage. It was a close call. The ship only cleared the canal and made it into the Red Sea about a week before all sea traffic through the trade route came to a grinding halt.
Along with the cars and equipment, the drivers and teams congregated on the ship in the days leading up to the race weekend to hear scientists give lectures on alternative fuel solutions to solve climate change, and despite Extreme E being an electric-powered series other solutions such as hydrogen and synthetic fuels were on the agenda.
The teams also visited a local beach to visit the nesting sites of turtles that have come under threat from the effects of our changing environment. If the ice caps melt, sea levels will rise all round the world, destroying the habitats of such creatures. It was one of the more novel photo opportunities ever seen in a supposed racing context, as drivers and team owners were employed to scour the beach for plastics and rubbish. The sight of Carlos Sainz Sr. walking along with a bin bag filling it with detritus will likely stick with those who witnessed it for quite some time.
It’s easy to be cynical. But the scientists insist that taking any action and publicising such problems around the world in this manner is a valid contribution to the biggest threat to our existence. The legacy of Extreme E, Agag insists, will not be centred around Rosberg and Hamilton renewing their old rivalry as racing team owners, but instead what difference the series can make to the environmental emergency we all face. Just how significant and real this legacy turns out to be remains to be seen.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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