Veloce and Sainz teams win in Extreme E opener

13th March 2023
Damien Smith

The third season of Extreme E kicked off last weekend on an exotic shoreline circuit in Neom, Saudi Arabia. British team Veloce Racing and Carlos Sainz Sr’s squad took their maiden victories in the electric-powered off-road series, which is still scrabbling for traction as founder and EV visionary Alejandro Agag presses on with the ambitious venture that promotes environmental awareness and gender equality through male/female driver line-ups. There were palm trees, lots of sand, a dramatic back straight along a shimmering coastline and plenty of action in the double-header, all of which was capped by the crowning of fresh winners.


Rosberg penalty hands Veloce first win

Nico Rosberg’s RXR squad took the chequered flag first during the round-one Grand Final on Saturday – only for a time penalty for speeding in a slow zone to drop the 2016 Formula 1 world champion’s drivers, Johan Kristoffersson and Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky, to third place. That was great news for Veloce’s Kevin Hansen and Molly Taylor, who inherited the victory and sent their team into rapture.

The series featured a fresh format in Neom, as the fastest five cars from the two qualifying heats progressed direct to the new Grand Final. Reigning champion team X44 – owned by Lewis Hamilton – proved fastest as new signing Fraser McConnell set the pace. The Jamaican faces a bit of pressure in his first Extreme E season, because he has replaced come chap called Sébastien Loeb… In such circumstances, what a great way to start.

But the race came down to a battle between three Swedish heroes as Kristoffersson, Mattias Ekström (Sainz) and Veloce’s Hansen vied to hold the advantage from the start. Kristoffersson was fifth into Turn One, yet on the run to Turn Two still emerged with the lead, as Hansen also made gains from the unfavourable outside lane at the start.

The five-car field completed two laps of the 2.1-mile course, then headed to the switch zone for the female drivers to take over for two more laps. Now it was RXR’s Åhlin-Kottulinsky versus Veloce’s Taylor. Australian rally driver Taylor won the inaugural Extreme E title with RXR before a surprise split with the team at the end of season one – so it must have been extra sweet when news emerged that her rival had been caught speeding in a slow zone.

The breakthrough win meant everything to Veloce, a team born from the virtual world of Esports. It also marked a perfect start for its new Team Principal, former skier turned racing driver Luc Alphand. “I think all of us in the team have clicked right from the beginning and we’re developing and improving,” said Taylor. “We were able to start at a really good level in Uruguay [at the end of season two] and from there they’ve been really good at bringing the best out of every aspect that we look into. Luc knows what it takes to win. Having faith in someone like that, who’s got the scores on the board, who knows what you’re feeling and knows how to translate that into results, is a real advantage for us.”


Sainz steps down… and wins

The RXR penalty in the round-one final also benefitted Ekström and Laia Sanz as they gained a place to finish second. Then they went one better on Sunday in round two to echo Veloce’s achievement and score another maiden win – this time for Carlos Sainz. But it was probably a little bitter-sweet for the two-time World Rally Champion. Sainz has been a player-manager since the start of Extreme E, but has been forced to step down from driving this year because he is still in recovery from the vertebrae-breaking crash that ended his Dakar Rally in January. Now… the first race his team runs without him driving – and it wins!

Ekström led all the way through his stint to give Sanz the advantage after the driver switch. The Spaniard, a four-wheel convert from motorcycle racing, then kept her cool to run side by side with Taylor out of the switch zone, then accelerated into a lead she would not lose. Taylor remained second as Veloce followed up its maiden win in round one with a runner-up spot this time, while RXR completed the podium once again.

Two-time DTM champion Ekström (wisely) paid tribute to his team boss as he savoured the victory. “This is also very special for Carlos,” he said. “We have been [Audi] team-mates at the Dakar Rally for the past two years, but ever since I joined the Sainz XE Team he has been really caring. He has taught me many things, as a father would. He is a great guy and it makes me really happy that we can dedicate this victory to him.”


McLaren and X44 gain Redemption…

For the five teams that don’t make the Grand Finals this year there are still vital championship points to be won in what is now called, somewhat dramatically, the Redemption Race.

McLaren, which carries sponsorship from the host city of Neom, delivered a home win of sorts in the round-one Redemption battle, Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour emerging on top from a race interrupted by a red flag. The stoppage was triggered when Abt Cupra’s Nasser Al-Attiyah – this year’s Dakar winner – shut the door on Timo Scheider. The German, driving for a team owned by superstar DJ Carl Cox, veered into Timmy Hansen whose Andretti entry who sent into a roll. From the restart, Gilmour ensured a McLaren win.

In the round-two Redemption race, Scheider – like Ekström a two-time DTM champion – challenged X44’s McConnell for the lead, but the Jamaican had the crucial inside line. The positions switched at the driver changes as Christine GZ took over from Scheider and set off in front. But X44’s reigning champion, Cristina Gutiérrez, showed her class by snatching back her team’s lost lead to secure the victory. Fourth in the round-one Grand Final and a win in the round-two Redemption Race represents a reasonable return for the team, which was formerly run by Prodrive but has now been taken over by junior single-seater powerhouse Rodin Carlin. This is a very different world to the one it is used to.

Final word to Extreme E newbie Heikki Kovalainen. The 2008 Hungarian Grand Prix winner has joined Jenson Button’s JBXE squad for this season and did at least hit the front of the first-round Redemption Race before it was red flagged. But technical problems resulted in a maiden DNF – which was repeated the following day. It’s surely got to get better for the Finn next time out as Extreme E heads for its debut in Scotland, on 13th-14th May.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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