Thoughts on Extreme E

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have a strong interest in motor racing. You mainly see comments on Formula 1, but there are other race series out there, and this year a new one has been unveiled.

Extreme E is an off-road series for electric cars, with the additional concept that the purpose of the series is not just entertainment and development of electric vehicle technology, but also raising awareness of climate change. In view of the latter, the races all take place in remote parts of the world where the effects of climate change can be seen, and the series has a philosophy of minimal carbon footprint and “race without a trace” — that is they tidy up after themselves. The commitment to the environment has attracted interest from some of the top names in the sport — Sir Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, Carlos Sainz Sr., Sebastien Loeb — and there is a fascinating mix of drivers from different disciplines.

Unlike slick operations such as Formula 1, Extreme E is very much a seat-of-the-pants job at the moment. The team behind the series is still learning a lot about how to stage an entertaining race, and they are deliberately self-hobbled by their decision to minimise the at-venue presence. The inaugural race over the weekend was interesting, but showed up some of the cracks, not least in the TV coverage.

From a driving point of view, Extreme E is just what it says on the tin. The Al-Ula circuit in Saudi Arabia is a stretch of rocky desert that eschews even the dirt roads in the region. At one point the cars crest a blind ridge and drop 100 metres at a 45 degree angle. I certainly shouldn’t be let anywhere near roads like that, and I have huge respect for anyone who can actually drive it without crashing, let alone do so at speed.

Because the series is brand new, so is the car. The Odyssey 21 is an electric sports SUV designed specifically for the series by Spark Racing, the same people who build the Formula E cars. Inevitably with a brand new car there are teething problems, and the biggest issue with the Odyssey appears to be the power steering. Accoring to the good folks at Inside Electric, the teams basically have a choice of settings: you either run with full power steering and risk it breaking while you are out on track, or you run a lower setting and have to do a lot of the steering yourself, which on a track like this is seriously hard work. Failure of the power steering was apparrently why Sir Lewis Hamilton’s X44 team did so poorly in the final.

Also brand new is the battery, which has been developed by Williams Engineering (who also build an F1 car). I missed the first Qualifying session on Saturday because it started at 7:00am UK time, and when I watched the second session several drivers were commenting that they were running reduced power. The Sky commentary team had no idea what this was about, but again the folks at Inside Electric have been doing the work. Given the heat of the desert venue, the Williams engineers found that the batteries were not cooling down as quickly as they had expected, and consequently they could not be fully charged between the two qualifying sessions.

I shouldn’t be too hard on the Sky team, because they were not at the circuit. Commentating on something happening thousands of miles away is not easy. But I’m sure that if Ted Kravitz had been with the Sky team he would have wanted to find out what was going on, and would have found a way to get the information.

This sort of thing is important to the TV coverage because for much of the time there isn’t anything interesting going on. There are some fabulous camera shots from drones, and from inside the cars, but watching a driver wrestle with a steering wheel is never going to be as exciting as wheel-to-wheel racing. More about that later. For now I’ll just note that the commentators need to find interesting things to talk about.

They had them too, because Extreme E is the first series to insist on gender parity in the drivers. Each team has one male driver and one female driver (no place for non-binary drivers yet) and they drive equal numbers of laps, with the drivers changing places half-way through. What we (and by “we” I particularly mean female fans) wanted to know was how well the women were doing compared to the men. The commentators didn’t seem interested in that. Indeed, they often forgot the names of the women drivers, or referred to “the Button car” even when Jenson’s teammate, Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky, was driving. I know that Jenson owns the team, but that’s a bit poor.

One thing that did catch the attention of the commentators was the performance of Catie Munnings for the Andretti United team during Qualifying 1. She got a puncture in her right-rear early on in the lap, but still managed to bring the car home with a respectable time. It was an astonishing feat of driving.

What we didn’t get were lap time splits. The timing screens only reported the joint time of the team. However, Matt Warwick of the BBC has been digging. He reports that Catie had a faster time than her teammate, Timmy Hansen, during the final. Also Christine Giampaoli Zonca of the Hispano Suiza team regularly out-paced her partner, Bristol’s Oliver Bennett.

What Warwick didn’t report was how the times recorded by Rosberg Extreme Racing’s Molly Taylor compared to the men in the other teams. Molly regularly beats male drivers back home in Australia, which is why she’s the national rally champion. She and Johan Kristoffersson were clearly the class of the field at the weekend. I’m sure she must have out-paced most of the men, in identical machinery.

You will have noticed that I mentioned two local drivers. Jenson Button is from Frome and Ollie Bennett from Bristol. There is a third West Country driver in the series: Bath’s Jamie Chadwick. Sadly she didn’t get to drive at all. In Quali 1 her teammate at Veloce, Stéphane Sarrazin, hit a large lump of desert grass and rolled the car. It was by no means the worst crash of the weekend, but by some freak accident it bent the roll cage on the car. That’s not something that the team could repair in a tent in the desert, so for safety reasons the Veloce team had to withdraw from the race with Jamie never having got to drive.

Qualifying was interesting, and included a couple of spectacular crashes, but it was Sunday’s races that most fans would have been looking forward to. The qualifying, and a couple of semi-finals, sorted the nine teams into three groups, who then raced for position within that group. (I am not going to call anything “The Crazy Race” unless Dick Dastardly and Muttley actually compete in it.)

The bottom three cars were actually only two because the Veloce team had withdrawn. That left the two other teams that had experienced crashes in Qualifying. It had become obvious in the semi-finals that serious racing would be impossible save for the long straight at the start. The cars were throwing up so much sand that visibility was zero for a car trying to follow close enough to pass. Kyle Leduc in the team entered by IndyCar mogul, Chip Ganassi, proved this conclusively by trying to overtake Claudia Hürtgen in the ABT Cupra car. He had no idea where she was on the road, and slammed into the back of the other car, ending the race for both of them.

The other races all settled down into the male drivers having a short race from the start to the first corner, and the two who didn’t get there first backing off to make sure they had enough visibilty to get to the end. This does not make for exciting racing. It also meant that the women drivers were under orders to bring the car home safety and not take any risks, because they had a 30 second cushion on the car behind.

Because each race takes place in a very different environment, this may not be a problem for other races. Alternatively the management may decide to make the series more of a time trial challenge. The series is young, and they have time to adjust. I’m sure they’ll be spending the month that it will take for the ship that carries the cars around the world to get to Senegal thinking hard about this.

However, as well as the actual racing, I do hope that they think a bit about the TV coverage. It wasn’t only covering the racing where they fell down. The stated purpose of Extreme E is to draw attention to climate change. Wherever they go, the drivers get to see and help with local conservation efforts (Jamie Chadwick posted pictures of her working on beach clean-up to Twitter). Also the ship carries a science team with a fully equipped laboratory. What were thet doing? We don’t know. The TV coverage relied only on pre-recorded material supplied by the Extreme E management. There was no reporting on the environmental issues from the venue.

If I had a hotline to Alejandro Agag, I would be telling him to get an science reporter out there with the teams, and ask her to do live coverage of each venue. I’d want to see what the drivers were up to off-track. I’d want to talk to the team crews about setting up and tearing down the paddock area. I’d want to talk to the science team and local conservationists about the local wildlife and the specific threats that each venue faces from climate change. This is your message, guys, get it out there.

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