It can be hard to convince people to get on board with something that doesn’t exist yet, but it’s something Extreme E has had to do for the last couple of years.
Yet despite not running a single race yet (its delayed maiden round is set for April), the burgeoning all-electric series has already attracted a host of big names. There’s drivers like Sébastien Loeb and Mattias Ekström, team owners like Lewis Hamilton and Michael Andretti, and likes of 2009 Formula 1 World Champion Jenson Button who’ll be serving both roles.
But away from the people, XE has also attracted impressive manufacturer interest. Although the series has nothing to show for its hype yet in terms of an actual sporting product, it’s not too difficult to see why automakers are interested in this new way of racing. On the face of it, there is no better racing series for manufacturers right now.
Thanks to ever-tightening regulations, road car manufacturers are being forced to go electric with their product ranges. All the while, we the consumer continue to demand bigger, more capable vehicles to keep our kids safe while we complete the three-inch drive down the road to their school.
XE has electric technology that the manufacturers are so keen to promote so they can stay relevant, and it brings that tech in the form of big SUV-like vehicles that are a common sight on our roads today. It’s a win-win, and factor in the incredible job the series is already doing to highlight the environmental plight of our planet and you get the real perfect package.
Volkswagen was the first to publicly commit to XE with its Cupra brand – a performance offshoot of long-time subsidiary Seat which in recent years has brought in a range of bigger vehicles to compliment its popular hot hatchbacks. It teamed up with long-time Volkswagen Group ally Abt for its XE foray.
Joining it was another Spanish brand, Hispano-Suiza. A company that wasn’t aiming to reinvent its image, but rather start from scratch completely. The legendary luxury marque may have been around since 1904, but it wasn’t until recently that it started to get back into the industry for real – although one hastens to add that there’s currently two Hispano-Suizas vying over use of the name, but that’s a story for another time.
Thirdly, General Motors joined the party by teaming up with Chip Ganassi Racing to bring the GMC brand and the relaunched electric Hummer into the picture.
The Hummer name is usually associated with big gas guzzlers and 1990s and early 2000s excess, but in joining XE that image can be reinvented as something environmentally conscious, all while helping GM’s advertising department shift a few new cars to new customers. Less ego, more eco.
And that’s the thing. Yes, we haven’t seen a race yet, only promise. And yes, XE might not even work – although all signs point to it being the best new motor racing series in years (this writer’s opinion of course) – but unlike anything else it gives manufacturers a genuine opportunity to connect with their customers.
They aren’t putting stickers onto a spaceship-like single seater that nobody can relate to, they’re not backing a GT racer that represents a machine that no normal folk can realistically expect to own either. XE wants its cars to look like the ones people want to buy, and the sorts of cars manufacturers want to sell.
While at first manufacturers will be limited to providing only the bodywork for the one-make Odyssey 21 racer (something that will keep costs low, but advertising return high for manufacturers), drivetrain technology will be open for development in later years. Formula E, which like XE is the brainchild of Alejandro Agag, had a similar plan which has resulted in a plethora of manufacturers take part since its first season began over six years ago.
There has only been three manufacturers to commit so far, but it doesn’t stop there. Speaking to a collective of media outlets – including DirtFish – towards the end of last year, Michael Andretti revealed that his outfit, which will compete in conjunction with Zak Brown’s United Autosports squad, is also wooing automakers in a bid to bring them to the series.
“We’re actually scouting OEMs as well, I know BMW is looking at it but a lot of them are looking at it, so we’re open,” he said, referring to his team’s outgoing FE partner. “We’re not only looking at BMW but we’re looking at other OEMs as well and I think it’s a great platform for a lot of these companies that have new all-electric SUVs coming out and I think it’s a great platform to show what they have.
“I’m pretty bullish on where it’s going to be about two or three years from now with OEMs, sort of the way it was when we started Formula E.”
Look anywhere else in motorsport – Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR, even the World Rally Championship – series just aren’t attracting automakers any more. But then look at XE. The fuse has been lit, and there’s about to be a very big boom.