“You can’t win championships like this. It’s unacceptable driving standards and I’m sure the organizers will take appropriate action.”
Those were the strong words of David Richards after the Prodrive-led Team X44 entry was taken out of the first semifinal of Extreme E’s Island X-Prix last weekend. But was his outburst a heat of the moment reaction to an isolated, less than ideal situation, or a reflection of the championship as a whole?
Besides the heavy shunt between Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle LeDuc and then-Abt Cupra driver Claudia Hürtgen in the Saudi Arabia season opener, it’s hard to recall a multi-car collision with such wide-reaching consequences. A case could be made for Rosberg X Racing’s heavy-handed pass on X44 into the first corner in Senegal that also resulted in the latter’s retirement, but that brings us onto the real issue – the Spark-built Odyssey 21 cars.
Fundamentally, motor racing is a non-contact sport. But as is the case with almost every off-road category, contact is inevitable, especially when three, four, or five cars spread out across a wide area have to all squeeze through the same relatively narrow pre-defined waypoints.
The start of both the Senegal final and the Sardinia semi had the same thing in common: hard racing, the sort that inevitably invited the sort of ‘rubbing’ that you get across the off-road racing spectrum, from low-level rallycross right the way through to trophy trucks.
In Senegal, X44 was pushed out wide and consequently suffered a suspension failure.
In Sardinia, at face value, Timmy Hansen’s sweep across into the X44 entry of Cristina Gutiérrez might’ve seemed a tad overzealous, but, on closer inspection, that contact appears to be the end result of a chain of events that began with the Andretti United-run car coming together with Ganassi’s one.
Of course, Gutiérrez’s charge was halted by a rock hidden in the undergrowth, but one has to wonder, would a more resilient car have ended up there in the first place? From the initial contact she was a passenger, pogoing across the landscape until there was nowhere else to go.
A lot has been made of the suspension and steering struggles throughout the course of the year, and while paddock sources have told DirtFish on multiple occasions over the course of this season that such problems are fixed, the same things seem to rear their heads time and again.
It’s mightily frustrating. Extreme E has the potential to be a hugely entertaining championship – in fact, it is, when the cars are working – but these all-too-frequent failures are putting a real dampener on it all.
In Sardinia, a track regarded as the roughest of the season so far, every stage of the competition featured a retirement due to a mechanical issue. Most notably, X44 – again – dropped out of the final early with both of its car’s front wheels pointing at each other, while the dominant Ganassi team was robbed of a long-awaited first victory in similar circumstances.
Ask up and down the Extreme E paddock, you’ll get considered responses of patience; people know this is a new series and are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. But four rounds in, and the same problems that were being talked about in Saudi Arabia are still occurring. It seems less about being understanding and more about making excuses at this point. The car is simply not up to the task.
But it’s not a lost cause either, not by any means.
Speaking ahead of the Island X-Prix, Carlos Sainz – one of the unluckiest drivers in the series when it comes to reliability – once again offered to use his extensive rally-raid experience to assist in developing the Odyssey 21.
“I think it’s a matter of just testing and identifying what the priorities are,” he said, when asked if he was still open to helping with development work. “We need to think that this car was nearly not developed because of the pandemic.
“They could not test the car properly and we are suffering from the fact that they were not testing the car properly. And then we are finding different problems every time and I think that this is an issue that needs to be addressed seriously because we need to find solutions.
“I’m happy to help everybody, I’m sure all the teams are happy to help. Of course the suspension can be better, but also the main thing is to work on the reliability, [preventing the] random reliability issues that we are having at the moment.”
Only one round remains of this maiden Extreme E campaign before the off-season begins, giving the series, car builder Spark, and the nine – soon to be 10 – teams a chance to knuckle down and solve Extreme E’s one real problem once and for all.