A lot of Star Wars comparisons were made back at the Desert X-Prix that opened the Extreme E season. Well, if that was Star Wars, the Ocean X-Prix is almost definitely The Empire Strikes Back. For the tricky second entry, XE has created something rather special.
But before we get into that, I’m glad I got a firsthand look at the track before putting metaphorical pen to paper.
I had a first impression when I saw the track map ahead of my flights out here. I had another impression when I arrived on-site today, greeted by a long, beautiful beach surrounded by dunes of varying heights.
Both, as it turns out, were way off the mark, as I found out when race director Scot Elkins took me out on track in a Polaris RZR to get a look at ground level – well, when we weren’t flying over the dunes at least.
This isn’t like the Al-‘Ula course in Saudi Arabia. Nor is it like a rallycross course, a discipline often compared to XE. The Ocean X-Prix course is unique, although it does have something of a Nürburgring Nordschleife quality to it, with a hefty workout bookended by long runs down an arrow-straight piece of real estate.
That’s where we begin, with a lengthy sprint down the beach, invoking images of the late Malcolm Campbell and the daredevils that used to bomb down Daytona Beach in the early 20th century. After a few hundred meters of flat-out running, a heavy slam on the brakes takes drivers away from the coastline and into an incredibly technical and demanding sequence of twists, turns, and undulations.
“After Saudi Arabia, which was a pretty quick track, the aim was to have a more technical track with more line possibilities and average-to-low-speed areas and this is what we achieved and after having the first lap out there, I’m quite happy that we succeeded and we have exactly what we wanted,” said Extreme E test driver Timo Scheider.
“We have some tricky areas but no dangerous areas. But for sure you have to manage your speed, you have to manage the driving because for sure we still have areas where you have to pay attention to because if you are too quick on some stages, you can damage your car, you can spin or even roll off, which we don’t hope so but at the end of the day they will face [a] completely different track layout to Saudi Arabia.”
Gaining an advantage here won’t simply be about who will be fastest or bravest, but who will be smartest. Nature’s played its part in the course design, with the dunes, humps, and plants creating a series of multiple-choice course options for drivers.
There’s places like Gate 20, where the track splits in two presenting a high and low line, and a similar split before the subsequent checkpoint; a solitary line through 22 where drivers will be forced to play chicken or risk falling off into a shallow ditch off line. It’s almost as if the track has multiple joker laps, albeit not by design, but by capitalizing on the unique challenges that the landscape can throw at a motor race of this type.
Drivers will need to bully, get their elbows out, and work extra hard for every position – and that’s exactly what we’ve been asking for
“We love it, it’s very technical, it’s completely different to what we faced in Saudi Arabia,” said Jutta Kleinschmidt, another of XE’s in-house testers. “Here it’s slower, but it’s very technical and you can find many lines to go through so [it] will be tricky.”
Naturally, however, expect the fastest lines to be favored as the weekend goes on. But with rutting and other evolutionary factors sure to be at play, the strategic chess match on track may well continue until Sunday afternoon.
All that said, overtaking is going to be tough. There’s 31 checkpoints this weekend, up from the nine used last time, and they range from wide open to being barely wide enough for the colossal Odyssey to get through. Namely gates 15 and 16, a short trip through a tunnel-like bushy area, where overtaking will be a mammoth task.
It’ll be tricky in several parts of the second and third sector, but not impossible. The drivers, for all their smiles and camaraderie on Wednesday and Thursday, need to get mean. They’ll need to bully, get their elbows out, and work extra hard for every position – and that’s exactly what we’ve been asking for.
What’s more, there’s less ski slope-like dives and climbs, but enough natural jumps given by mother nature to make a Nitro Circus Live show look tame. It’ll be physical, too.
Al-‘Ula was beautiful, but wide, open, and very fast. Nice buzz words, but not great characteristics for genuine side-by side racing as we learned. Here lessons have been learned.
Lac Rose is about to give us another driving challenge, but also a sporting and a physical challenge; the likes of which short course off-road racing has likely never seen before.