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Extreme E: the future of racing or a total greenwash?

Extreme E is off and running and we were there, in Saudi, to witness the first event

Published: 19 May 2021
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As perilous as it looks, the 30-metre descent isn’t the problem. It’s what happens when the car, a 550bhp pure-electric Dakar-style beast, gets out of shape over the sand. Even the silkiest drivers can’t legislate for an airborne Extreme E car landing at a tricky angle and pitching into a rut. Inevitably, they are forced to back off a bit, but that doesn’t solve the dust problem. There’s serious talent on the XE grid, including motorsport royalty, and they know they’ve got their hands full.

Al-’Ula is in the north-west Medina region of Saudi Arabia. An area the size of Belgium, it manages the feat of looking ancient and feeling spiritual, while also generating a serious sci-fi vibe. Think pod racing sequence in Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace via Indiana Jones and Mad Max: Fury Road. The first venue in an acutely climate conscious series that will later visit Africa, Greenland, Brazilian rainforest, and the tip of Argentina, with a male and female driver line-up, this is racing off-the-grid which makes moving around a challenge in itself. That’s where the St Helena, a former Royal Mail cargo vessel newly refitted to accommodate XE’s 63 containers and nine cars, comes in. It’s a floating paddock, apologetically emblazoned with the words ‘not electric yet’ and a giant black X. Heading across the Red Sea towards her in a brace of tenders is a poignant reminder of our beautiful world, as the fat, orange sun drops swiftly behind the horizon in an evocative and provocative act of nature.

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People have grumbled about her diesel power, but there’s no doubt the St Helena is a very cool thing, the “soul of Extreme E”, according to series founder Alejandro Agag. In fairness, her two 57-litre Mirrlees Blackstone engines now run on the cleanest low sulphur marine diesel available rather than the evil ‘bunker’ fuel that’s global transport’s dirtiest secret. She has two cranes, two huge hatches and a hydraulic floor. But she can also now sleep up to 175 people, with several well-appointed lounges in which to entertain and inform. More importantly, the swimming pool is now a science lab for XE’s experts to conduct experiments in each territory they visit. A hydroponic system onboard enables the chefs to grow their own produce. The ship’s first officer, a dry-witted Irish fellow called Nevan Holland, says he hopes X won’t mark the spot as the St Helena makes her passage through pirate-infested waters en route to the next round in Senegal.

XE’s lead climate scientist is Professor Richard Washington, the driver of its sustainability remit. As we all settle in, he notes in his introductions that an academic is delighted if a new paper gets a peer review, and overjoyed if it’s published in a scientific journal that might be read by 1,000 people. Well, he has a high quality audience tonight. Most of the XE grid is onboard, including Jenson Button and Carlos Sainz, along with motorsport luminaries such as David Coulthard, David Richards, Zak Brown, and Nico Rosberg, as well as some of the world’s fastest women. None are in the habit of wasting their time.

“Extreme E works on several fronts,” Professor Washington tells me later. “It’s initiating legacy projects, it provides a platform to talk about the climate science issues, it’s got clean energy, and it has great cars on the back of that clean energy. I think that’s a good showcase. Of course, people will poke holes in it, and there will be accusations about the way it’s happening and why we’re here. But I’m a pragmatist and we desperately need to move forward. A certain amount of policing needs to occur, in terms of how we do things. But we could police each other so much that we just stay at home and close the door and never come out. And that simply isn’t going to work.”

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The next morning we abandon ship and are driven to a remote beach, and the spot on which endangered turtles are born and miraculously return to in order to lay their eggs, after 30 years of swimming the oceans. Rising sea levels are flooding the hatchlings before they’re born, while the plastic detritus washing up on the world’s beaches is proving deadly to all sorts of marine life. So we wander through the sand picking up crap, a tiny gesture that will be amplified via some powerful social media feeds. It risks looking like the worst kind of virtue signalling, and plenty of people here have seen the inside of a private jet on more than one occasion. But it’s a talking point, and it’s oddly affecting to see the mighty Carlos Sainz swinging a bin bag over his shoulder.

It’s oddly affecting to see the mighty Carlos Sainz swinging a bin bag over his shoulder

There are other issues, not least the inescapable fact that XE is kicking off in Saudi Arabia, a country in which homosexuality is still illegal, free speech repressed and women were only allowed to drive three years ago. A recent report by human rights organisation Grant Liberty claims Saudi Arabia has spent £1.1bn on ‘sportswashing’ in the past few years, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is actively rebranding the country as environmentally proactive (forget all the oil). TG spoke to most of the drivers, and the feeling was that female empowerment is better served by actually coming here to race rather than protesting about it.

Which brings us onto the event itself. We arrive on site on Thursday evening after a lengthy camel-dodging drive north, and tour the track in a Toyota Hilux. It’s epic, a computer game made real. Whatever else the armchair critics might say, the innovation, commitment and sheer graft of all involved is incredible. Imagine the challenges posed in transforming this patch of desert into a global racing, broadcast and telecommunications hub. The ship might still use diesel but a giant hydrogen fuel cell powers the paddock.

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Do you have an issue with sport as entertainment? McLaren CEO Zak Brown doesn’t. Among his many investments, he’s the co-owner of United Autosports, which has partnered with Andretti Autosports to enter Extreme E (its driver line-up pairs 23-year-old British rally driver Catie Munnings and reigning world rallycross champion Timmy Hansen). Brown’s driver took him to a camel race by mistake, but the straight-talking Californian is as unruffled as ever. “I remember laughing when Alejandro presented Formula E eight years ago,” he explains. “And I was wrong. It’s OK to be wrong as long as you learn from your mistakes. Alejandro is a real visionary. I wish more people in racing were as commercially focused as he is. We’re in sport entertainment. The majority of motorsport starts with the question ‘what are we going to do technically and by the way we hope it works commercially’. Alejandro is the other way round. He achieves a balance I think other series could learn from. There’s diversity and equality in XE, sustainability, short-form content, and it’s economical.”

The format and track undoubtedly favour the rallycross stars, which some of the bigger names freely admit. “It’s a bit unknown for all of us,” Jenson Button tells me. “It’s a very different experience to anything I’ve raced before. It’s another world.” His trepidation is borne out once the shakedowns start. None of the teams have had much running, so they’re all on the same vertical learning curve. Teething problems are unavoidable, and the desert heat means batteries are overheating. There are problems with the power steering, and rumblings of discontent about inadequate suspension travel. This makes the cars a serious handful; US trophy truck racers have 35mm of suspension travel compared with XE’s 17.5mm.

It turns out to be a baptism of fire for many drivers. German driver Claudia Hürtgen suffers a huge crash when her ABT Cupra is pitched into a monstrous end-over-end somersault. A few minutes later she appears and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. The footage is box office gold, of course, and hours later the whole world knows about XE (even my mum sees it).

Veloce Racing’s weekend is over before it really gets going. The hugely versatile Stéphane Sarrazin rolls his car, and while the damage doesn’t look too bad its comms antennae has deformed the steel spaceframe chassis. The car’s a write-off and the leanness of the operation means there’s no spare. His teammate, brilliant young racer Jamie Chadwick, barely has any wheel time at all.

I always have fun. That’s the most important part. Happy driver, fast driver

Keeping track of everything across the heats is tricky, and the final rounds prove slightly anti-climatic; the volume of dust kicked up makes it impossible for drivers to follow each other. But the commitment on show is still eye-popping. Nico Rosberg’s Team RXR has triple rallycross champ Johan Kristoffersson and Australian rally champion Molly Taylor to thank for its overall win. Taking a wide line into the third turn, the Swede outflanks no less a talent than nine-time WRC champion Sébastien Loeb. Taylor, meanwhile, proves just as canny a racer, having survived a jaw-dropper earlier in the weekend.

“I’d had a power steering problem in my shakedown, so my quali lap was the first time I’d driven half the track at speed,” she tells me. “I just had to go flat out. I was watching the other cars and thought you could go harder over that particular section. Turns out you can go harder but I maybe went too far to the other end of the scale. Learning the car, learning the bumps, it’s trial and error.”

XE’s breakout stars are mostly female: British rally driver Catie Munnings finishes one lap on three wheels after a blowout, while American truck racer Sara Price, Cristina Gutiérrez and Christine Giampaoli Zonca are all consistent, impressively rapid and not remotely fazed by the challenge or their male counterparts. “I always have fun,” says Zonca. “That’s the most important part. Otherwise you’re not going to go fast. Happy driver, fast driver.” Roll on Senegal.

TopGear.com Electric Awards sponsored by Hankook

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