Motor Sport: Shake, Rattle & Roll

The second season of the innovative Extreme E series has provided plenty of car-rolling drama, a few new locations and a different winner. So, how’s it progressing? Adam Hay-Nicholls went to the 2022 finale in Uruguay to find out.

Now it’s 1-1 to Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. Rosberg X Racing dominated Extreme E’s inaugural season last year, while Hamilton’s X44 team came through at the final round to clinch the 2022 title. Nico wasn’t in Uruguay, but appeared on a Zoom call an hour after the chequered flag. “I can’t believe we lost the championship. It was in our hands for ages”. He said he’d been screaming at the TV at home in Monaco, jumping up and down and tearing his luxuriant hair out. “Every possible thing went wrong this weekend. But it’s been brilliant racing out there. We’ve got the best drivers in the world now. You can see everybody’s on the edge. It went down to the wire.”

In Year One, it was a tremendous achievement to get any global sports series off the ground, what with coronavirus restrictions still in effect. Extreme E did things that had never been attempted before, such as the world’s most remote live sports broadcast, the first time team-mates of both genders had been mandated in motor sport, and of course a philanthropic green agenda which saw drivers taking time out from their EV battles to plant trees, clean beaches and swim with sea lions.

Inevitably, though, not everything went to plan. Arrangements to run two races in South America – the Amazon and Ushuaia – were kiboshed due to Covid. There was little or no commercial activation at the most difficult to reach rounds. Attempts to turn champion circuit racers Jenson Button and Jamie Chadwick into dune-bashing maestros ultimately failed. The cars were nowhere near sufficiently robust and the batteries had a tendency to overheat.

In 2022, Spark Racing Technology – which admits its specialty is building single-seaters for smooth tarmac and is inexperienced when it comes to rallying – upped its game and got to grips with off-road. They’ve been helped enormously this year by suspension kings Fox. Williams Advanced Engineering, too, have fixed the batteries – and will bring more powerful cells for Season Three. Tracks were shortened to allow more laps and help make the racing closer. Venues were still chosen primarily for their environmental touch-points, but were nearer to civilisation and less inhospitable. A tenth team arrived – McLaren. And several incoming rally drivers – some well-known, others ‘discovered’ – helped to tighten the male-female field and produce some truly spectacular racing.

Joining the grid were Nasser Al-Attiyah, the quadruple Dakar winner, and American Top Gear host, movie stunt driver and Global Rallycross ace Tanner Foust. The curtain raiser in Saudi Arabia was moved from Al-Ula to Neom, site of the kingdom’s planned $500 billion ‘smart city’, with a legacy project designed to tackle desertification. Rounds two and three both took place in Sardinia in July, which we visited in 2021 also. Here, seagrass was planted and olive groves burnt by wildfires are being restored in a long-term project. South America hosted the final two rounds; the Atacama Desert in Chile, where help was given to the endangered Loa water frog and a spotlight shone on sustainable copper mining; and Uruguay, where the focus was on the country’s impressive renewable energy resources and the cataloguing of whales.

The total broadcast audience stayed level with 2021: around 18.5 million per race.

I attended all five rounds last year, including Greenland, where I slept freezing in a tent on a glacier. In Senegal, I stayed in a tiny village on a sand road with more goats than people, saw a voodoo dance straight out of Live & Let Die, and shared my sparsely furnished room with a rat the size of a well-nourished kitten.

It was, I felt, a proper adventure, so I was concerned season two mightn’t live up to these previous extremes. I was invited to attend the championship finale, the Energy X-Prix in Punte del Este, a place described as the St Tropez of Uruguay. Visually, it’s actually more akin to Miami Beach, with high-rise condos, vivid sunsets and ritzy nightclubs. It’s the polar opposite of Kangerlussuaq, where I tucked into whale inside a shipping container that doubled as the only restaurant for a hundred miles. In Punte del Este, I stayed at a five-star hotel, the Fasano Las Piedras. My room was a chic, brutalist bungalow set beside an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course. This was wonderful, but I enjoyed the remoteness and frisson of danger at previous locations. It was therefore strangely reassuring to find an enormous tarantula on my doormat at the Fasano hoping to come inside for a nightcap. Extreme E is still extreme, I thought. And no you can’t, scuttle off.

Penalties, crashes and injuries all played a role in how the season shook out. Smashes continued to plague Veloce; the charismatic Christina GZ broke her foot in the first round and never recovered her pace. In total, the team ran five different drivers, replaced personnel behind the scenes, and still finished the season bottom of the standings. Jenson Button’s JBXE had a tough year too, with four different drivers and just one podium finish. Rumour has it Jenson’s keen to sell. Xite Energy Racing moved up a gear, with owner Oliver Bennet ‘doing a JB’ and handing driving duties over to others after Saudi.

The spirited pairing of Catie Munnings and Timmy Hansen failed to score any wins for Andretti United this year. Their sister team of sorts, McLaren, had an encouraging inaugural season with both Foust and Kiwi Emma Gilmour more than up to the job. Once again, Chip Ganassi Racing suffered more than its fair share of technical gremlins, but luck finally swung its way in the Island X-Prix I when the US duo Sara Price and Kyle Le Duc were gifted their first victory.

ABT Cupra made a brilliant hire in the relatively unknown Klara Andersson, from Sweden, for the final two events; she and Al-Attiyah were third in Chile and first in Uruguay, and the 22-year-old is now one of the main talking points of the off-season. Acciona Sainz improved from fifth to third in the final standings, with Carlos Sainz surviving a massive shunt in Sardinia and team-mate Laia Sanz, a legend on two wheels, making great progress on four.

The timing gap between the men and the women tumbled in 2022 to just a few seconds. “The gap between men and women has certainly got closer,” noted Rosberg. “When we started last year, the best women were 15 seconds off [their male team-mates]. It’s now much closer and they’re learning out there from the men all the time.”

Last year, the two women closest to the pace were Rosberg’s Molly Taylor (alongside five-time FIA World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson) and Cristina Gutierrez (alongside nine-time WRC champ Sébastien Loeb). For reasons that have never been revealed, though I believe money may have played a part, Nico dispensed with 2021 championship-winner Taylor. “Without going into detail, it was a very tough decision that we had to take together,” said Nico. The 34-year-old Australian made one appearance for JBXE in Saudi and raced the final round in Uruguay for Veloce. The British team have confirmed her and Kevin Hansen for next year already. For the ’22 season, Rosberg ran Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky, 30, formerly of JBXE and one-time girlfriend of Max Verstappen. “She’s developed a lot. In my opinion, she’s now the fastest woman out there – and probably the fastest female driver in any motor sport in the world,” said the 2016 F1 champion of his charge, adding that next year “I know Mikaela will be the fastest female. I am certain.”

He might want to keep an eye on Klara Andersson.

Normally there are no spectators at these events, so as to keep the carbon footprint to a minimum, but in Punta, for the first time, 6,000 locals were given free tickets and a fan zone was set up from which to watch the race.

It’s easy to be cynical about motorsport beating the green drum; some of the world’s most privileged people jetting around to play with their dirt-churning toys. The series’ carbon footprint is, inevitably, greater than if everyone stayed at home but, as CEO Alejandro Agag likes to say, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”. For the locals, the VIP guests and the audience watching at home, the race action was expertly interspliced with inspiring and educational videos on the environment.

I met up with Professor Richard Washington from Oxford University. He sits on XE’s Scientific Committee and will remind anyone who’ll listen that 30 percent of the world’s carbon emissions come from transportation. “I’m a motor racing fan, which makes me an unlikely climate scientist,” said the shyly-spoken South African. “Demonstrating what clean energy can do in a challenging environment like this, with snazzy cars running on clean energy, is the sort of nudge you need to make people see things differently”. XE is out to turn petrolheads into electroheads. It was this that led Nico Rosberg, who’s become a high-profile eco-entrepreneur in his own right, to enter a team.

RXR had arrived in Uruguay the championship leaders – 17 points ahead with a maximum of 30 available. Then a controversial ramming from Al-Attiyah and a broken steering arm put Kristoffersson and Åhlin-Kottulinsky on the back foot. X44 were classified third in the final, and with that took the title.

“I congratulate Lewis wholeheartedly,” said his old Mercedes foe. “It’s fun that our rivalry is continuing in Extreme E.” Turning his attention to work off-track, Rosberg said “I think [RXR] are doing the best job in terms of sustainability initiatives, with reforestation and environmental aspects, but Lewis’s team is leading the way in terms of diversity. So, I want to congratulate him on that as well, it’s great to see. And we’re going to get them back next year! The bigger the rivalry, the better it will be to get Extreme E’s message across. The more visible this sport is, the more impact it will have. The power of sports is unbelievable.”

[BOX OUT] 2023 / 2024

The finishing touches are being put to Extreme E’s season three calendar. The Desert X-Prix will take place in Saudi Arabia once again on 11-12 March. On 13-14 May, Scotland is set to host its first race. The series will return to Sardinia for a fourth Island X-Prix on 8-9 July, followed by a transatlantic round on 16-17 September. The first choice is the Amazon rainforest, if they can make it work logistically. XE already has legacy projects underway here, including 100 hectares of cocoa-based agroforestry. Alejandro Agag had a meeting with Brazil’s President Lula during Cop27 to try to push things forward. Otherwise, there are simultaneous preparations going on to bring the sport to an undisclosed area of the USA.

The season finale will take place in Chile on 2-3 December, which will once again be christened the Copper X-Prix.

There will be a new team next year: XE Sports Group, which is headquartered in Australia, has a commercial tie-up with Chinese electric car giants BYD.

Beyond 2023, Agag would like to see the calendar expand to ten races. The difficultly is the St Helena, the ship that transports all the cars and logistics around the world. It takes time to sail between continents, and it’s rather restrictive as to where one can reach inland. The fate of the cargo-passenger ship and its novel place at the heart of Extreme E may be in the balance.

In 2024, the plan is to introduce more cars to the grid via Extreme H. This will be the first hydrogen-powered championship. “In my view, hydrogen is a good compliment to battery cars,” says Agag. “BEVs are great in cities, but for long-haul journeys maybe hydrogen is better. Maybe I’ll have ten Extreme E cars and ten Extreme H, or five and five. I’m making the first prototype at the moment.”

Nico Rosberg says his team are interested in fielding both. “Hydrogen will have a role to play in transportation in the future. I know of OEMs (vehicle manufacturers) that would be extremely interested to enter Extreme H. We will definitely look at it too, because it’s an extremely relevant technology.”

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