Extreme E: Motorsport of the Future?
George Edwards reviews the opening round of Extreme E, the high-octane, fully electric racing series that has taken the world of motor racing by storm.
We’ve seen electric motorsport before, most notably Formula E and Moto E. But this year, a new championship has begun. Extreme E is a fully electric, rally-style motorsport series, specifically aimed at increasing awareness of the effects climate change is having on ecosystems across the globe. First conceived by Alejandro Agag, the founder of Formula E, Extreme E is an FIA-approved international off-road racing series that will take place in remote parts of the world already damaged by climate change. The inaugural 2021 season will take us to the deserts of Saudi Arabia, the Amazon Rainforest, the Greenland Ice Sheet, a glacier near Ushuaia, Argentina and the coast of Senegal. The series has taken on a team of scientists and ecological experts to ensure the impact of their presence is minimal and talk about climate change during the race weekend.
According to their website, ‘Extreme E exists to showcase the performance of electric vehicles, using the powerful mix of thrilling sports action, scientific education and storytelling to accelerate their adoption in order to reduce CO2 emissions’. Furthermore, it is committed to having a net-zero carbon footprint, thereby balancing out the carbon usage it cannot avoid by working on ALLCOT global programmes, or as they call it ‘Legacy Programmes’. The teams will take part in these programmes and conservation while on location.
The series has taken several steps to reduce their carbon emissions to as low as possible. The car used by all teams, the Spark Odyssey 21, is a fully electric SUV. The car is fitted with a niobium-reinforced steel roll cage and tyres made entirely from taraxagum (dandelion extract). To avoid any use of fossil fuels for charging the cars, Extreme E uses large Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology. The electricity is produced by using solar energy to split apart water, converting the energy gained from this into electrical energy for the cars. Unlike Formula 1 or other international racing series, Extreme E will not be using air travel to transport the teams and equipment to the locations, but will make use of the RMS St Helena, a cargo vessel that will serve as a floating paddock, headquarters and a scientific research centre. The carbon footprint of the ship has been reduced by using ultra-low-sulphur diesel as opposed to the heavy shipping fuels used by cargo and cruise ships.
All very impressive steps, but some will question whether this the best way to tackle raising awareness for climate change. Yes, the series is fully electric with a very low carbon footprint and is racing in already affected locations. Yes, they are providing support to the people working to save the locations and trying to adapt their lifestyles to survive in new climates. But does driving around in a desert at high speeds do more damage than good? It could be argued that the racing itself is damaging the landscape of the ecosystems. Heavy SUVs may accelerate the damage to the glacier. Well these are questions that may only be answered in time, once the race has actually taken place and perhaps balanced out with the need to raise awareness.
Extreme E is being supported by all areas of motorsport. Rosberg X Racing is led by one-time F1 World Champion Nico Rosberg, with his once-rival Lewis Hamilton leading team X44. Jenson Button, another F1 champion, is both leading and driving in his JBXE team. The Veloce Racing team was cofounded by Veloce Esports and Formula E/F1 driver Jean-Eric Vergne. Carlos Sainz Sr, the rally driver, co-owns Acciona/Sainz XE team and Zak Brown, CEO at McLaren is a team leader of Andretti United XE. There are 9 teams in total battling it out for the championship, with each team consisting of one male and one female driver, in a bid to increase diversity in motorsport.
The race weekends are not set out like you might expect, however. For each ‘X-Prix’, there are two rounds of qualifying to establish a starting order for the teams. After this, the top three battle in a semi-final to gain two spots in the final. The middle three teams race in the second semi-final to win the last spot in the final. The bottom three teams compete for seventh, eight and ninth. The weekend rounds off with the final race for first, second and third position. Each race and qualifying stint is formed of two laps. After lap one, the driver pulls into the pits, swaps with the second driver who completes the final lap.
Over the Easter weekend, the first X-Prix took place in the deserts of Sharaan, Saudi Arabia. Nestled in an amazing landscape of ravines, rock mountains and sandy desert, the track was laid out along sand and gravel, featuring a steep, 100m drop just after a blind, tight right-hand turn. After qualifying, X44 stole P1, with Acciona second and RXR third. These teams went on to race a very dusty race, with RXR and X44 moving onto the final. Andretti United, Hispano Suiza Xite and JBXE came fourth, fifth and sixth respectively in qualifying and fought in the second semi-final, named the ‘Crazy Race’. Andretti United took the last position in the final. The shootout between the bottom three teams ended in failure. Veloce were unable to take part at all due to a large crash in qualifying, and the other teams, Segi/Ganassi Racing and Cupra/ABT collided during the race, ending it for both teams. The final saw RXR take the first win of the series, with Andretti United crossing the line second and X44 rounding it off in third. The next race will be held in Senegal for the Ocean X-Prix on 29-30 May.