It started with an email. One Molly Taylor came close to sending straight to the bin. She wasn’t going to fall for it.
Nico Rosberg? Yeah, right…
“Honestly,” she told DirtFish, “I thought somebody was taking the p***. Nico Rosberg emailing me? As if…”
She didn’t bin the email. Instead, she took a punt and replied. In doing so the Sydney-born rally driver took the first step on a journey that would deliver her and Johan Kristoffersson to the podium’s top step on a sunny Sunday in Saudi Arabia.
Last week was the latest offering from the brain of motorsport’s very own visionary, Alejandro Agag. Seven years on from taking the perceived electric equivalent of Formula 1 to city streets around the world with Formula E, the 50-year-old Spaniard set his course on the roughest roads in the most climatically perilous parts of the planet.
Welcome to Extreme E.
Arriving in AlUla just after a stunning desert sunrise on Sunday morning, there couldn’t have been a better start to the day. Cup of coffee, cinnamon Danish and a semifinal involving X44, Acciona Sainz XE Team and Rosberg X Racing.
Sébastien Loeb v Carlos Sainz v Johan Kristoffersson.
Yep. That would do.
Extreme E’s work in bringing gender equality to motorsport is one of the pillars of this pioneering series, but every now and then there’s a moment where the men came first. This was one of them. There was, in reality, no chance of Cristina Gutiérrez, Laia Sanz or Molly Taylor taking the wheel first – something all three readily admitted.
This was nothing to do with sexism, more to do with nine world championships, two world championships and three world championships.
Kristoffersson did admit there had been a discussion about Taylor running first and part of the decision-making process was a five-part reaction test, which he won by 0.02 seconds.
Was that the deciding factor? Unlikely.
Kristoffersson’s wide-line approach to the first open right-hander won him the race. Behind, it all got a bit tasty between former Citroën WRC team-mates Loeb and Sainz. The two traded paint in the second corner with the Frenchman squeezing the Spaniard out.
Sainz’s post-race analysis was typically intense, drawing DirtFish a diagram in the dust to show how things had played out. He is frustration at missing the final was obvious and – as team owner and driver – he had that look in his eye. The look that said he would be having a quiet word with Loeb. Not that Loeb had done anything wrong, it was just a further part of that debriefing process.
The crazy race provided Andretti as the third finalist to join RXR and X44.
Talking of trading paint, Claudia Hürtgen pushed the boundaries of Extreme E’s race without a trace mantra as she spread parts of her ABT Cupra XE car liberally across the desert floor. Her huge Saturday roll was something of a monster, slamming all four corners of into the sand. The German emerged from the car with a bump to her knee and a sore tongue after she bit it.
The car needed an all-nighter (just as the Chip Ganassi Racing machine had after Kyle LeDuc’s shakedown shunt), but with team-mate Mattias Ekström getting his hands dirty, the job was done.
And done just in time for her to suffer another crash in pretty much the same place. But this time it was a combination of her conservative approach to what had been her nemesis and LeDuc’s Ganassi car that appeared locked-on and laser-guided as it piled into the back of her.
The American was at a loss to understand the German’s approach, while Hürtgen was also struggling to grasp precisely what her rival was up to.
Watching the action unfold alongside Agag, he said: “I don’t want people getting hurt, but I want racing and we definitely got racing here.”
He wasn’t wrong. Twenty-six seconds down when he replaced Price behind the wheel, Kyle got his head down and drove a superb lap. And don’t forget, this was his first shot at a clean run, having crashed on Friday then suffered powersteering problems in Q1 before skipping Q2.
When everything is on the line when it really counts, that’s always the moment I enjoy the mostJohan Kristoffersson on the race in the final
LeDuc’s descent down the second of two super-steep sand dunes was accompanied by the red mist as Hürtgen came into sight.
Whose fault was it?
I’m new to this racing thing, but surely the onus is on the car making the pass to do so cleanly? He was in the dust and had just hit the hyperboost button, giving him twice the power of his rival. That happened at precisely the point where she looked to be throttling back, re-living her cartwheeling progress through the same airspace just a day earlier.
The perfect storm resulted in a second shocking accident in 24 hours. Fortunately, both walked away.
See below for more news on how Ganassi’s weekend went down the toilet.
As far as DirtFish was concerned, the AlUla track was insane. In a very, very good way. It’s everything we thought the world could have wanted from the inaugural Desert X-Prix.
We were wrong. Apparently. The drivers wanted more dips, dunes and drama. What they didn’t really want was mile-long straights where the dust meant you had to drop back or risk moving off line and into the camelgrass.
They were probably right. But still, those rocks, those dunes, those valley floors and those awesome lines. And, as if that wasn’t enough, there were pinch points like a car width-wide gate at the top of the 45-degree steep dune. If racing had progressed to that point, it would have forced some big decisions: do you carry speed and look to make the gate first, then deal with popping over the top with attitude on the car and potentially tumbling down the hill?
It was, in a word, gnarly. If you want two words, it was, totally gnarly.
And here’s the best bit, some of the drivers didn’t even get the chance to drive down the gnarliest bits.
A two-hour window was opened for the recce on Thursday. With most of the crews running standard 4x4s, there was no hope of climbing the biggest dunes.
“We had to run up them,” said Kristoffersson. “It was a little bit crazy, we got three laps in, but we kept getting the car stuck and having to dig it out. We didn’t see a lot of bits – this is why I flew past the gate near the end on the shakedown lap. I hadn’t driven there before and I didn’t know where the gate was – until I was in the air and looking down on it: “Oh, I should be down there!””
How RXR won it
Once again, it was an all-male startline for the final, with Kristoffersson, Timmy Hansen and Loeb leading the ladies on lap one. As the weekend wore on, the male domination of the driving seat at pivotal times forced Agag to question whether he needed to step in to deliver gender equilibrium via a lottery.
Such a plan delivered debate and divided opinion immediately.
But the analogy of a husband taking the car keys out of his wife’s hands as they approach the car on the driveway was one which sat awkwardly for an organization which placed such emphasis on egalitarianism.
That’s another debate for another day.
For now, the light went green and the men left the line. Hansen quickest, the other two in pursuit. Loeb’s car was eliminated when it lost powersteering, but Kristoffersson put in arguably the move of the weekend to take a different line to the leader, braving a big, big two-wheeled moment to dive into the lead.
But the atmosphere changed when we got off the boat – the same guys we’d been having a laugh with all got a bit more seriousJenson Button on the competition
Over to you to describe the biggest 10 seconds of the weekend, Johan: “Those, let’s say 10 seconds after the start, going down that straight, that adrenaline you get rushing through the body, that is really, really what you are working for.
“All the work, all the training, all the preparation, all of the long nights between now and the race weekends when you don’t go to bed, you don’t get to bed because you analyze and look at all the videos online and everything.
“When everything is on the line when it really counts, that’s always the moment I enjoy the most. That’s just how I am, so I really like when I get a big responsibility; you have done all the preparation, everything you can, now it’s up to you in the car to take the right decision and balance that thin line. And that’s just the best feeling you can have. I like that.
“It’s all worth it when you’re able to get to that point to make the lead.
“It’s really, really cool.”
And that moment?
“Oh yeah, the one on two wheels, that was a moment. A big one.”
American dream turns to a nightmare
Just after 10, Friday morning, 28-year-old Californian-born racer Sara Price prepares to make history. Sitting at the start of the first shakedown lap of the inaugural Desert X Prix she closed her eyes and started to move her right hand through the air.
Off to the right. Straight and steady. Left and right. Then sharp left.
It went on for a while. Like a downhill skier standing in the gate waiting for the beeps, she was pre-running the course in her mind.
Gone. In a cloud of silently produced dust, the car disappeared towards the first right hander. Around three minutes later, the first woman to be signed for Chip Ganassi Racing – and the first person to start an XE lap – also became the first driver to suffer a failure.
An electrical fault robbed the car of power and stranded the American.
Standing waiting at the finish, her team-mate Kyle LeDuc walked by. Offering commiserations at the miserable start, it didn’t take long for conversation to move on to a wider view of off-road racing. LeDuc’s take on what racing is all about was fascinating.
“I grew up in the sand, so did Sara,” he told DirtFish. “All of this is new to the others, but to us it’s just Saturday.”
And last Saturday, like the Friday before it and the Sunday that followed, was one Price, Le Duc and the whole Chip Ganassi Racing team wouldn’t forget in a hurry.
There was more history for the Ganassi squad, when Le Duc became the first person to crash an Odyssey 21 SUV on his shakedown run on Friday. On Sunday, he wrote another line in history, becoming the first person to crash an XE racer into another when he arrived – rapidly – into the same space as Claudia Hürtgen.
I’ve got to be honest and say I was disappointed for the CGR pair. Talking to the pair of them before the event was an breath of fresh air. Like LeDuc said, they were born to this kind of racing and it would have been very cool to see them up there mixing it with the top European outfits.
Changing the weekend as well as the world
Announcing a major change to the sporting format of a global motorsport series is never an easy thing to do. Doing it just days before the opening road is an absolute no-no. Yet Extreme E did just that – and should be applauded for it.
The decision to bin side-by-side racing on Saturday (in favour of time-trial format) was exactly the right one. Question is: how much hindsight was required to understand that the desert in April might be dusty?
Agag talks of his team coming out here earlier in the year to complete a recce and running without too much dust. The excuse that the desert evolved, the sand moved and dust arrived is really not acceptable. But having the confidence and resolve to change is admirable.
And that policy is here to stay. Agag won’t be bound by convention and if he can see some way of making the racing safer and more efficient, he’s going to take it – obviously in collaboration with the teams – without hesitation.
It’s doesn’t matter. It’s not on television, nobody saw itAlejandro Agag on shakedown failures
The organizing team spent much of Saturday night pondering more of the same time trial format, a move which found plenty of favour among some of the teams, including eventual winners Kristoffersson and Taylor. Ultimately, Agag went his own way.
“It was my decision,” he said. “And I’m so happy I made this call. Kristoffersson was telling me: “I prefer timetrials,” but I guarantee you he’s for sure happier and more proud with a victory like the one he had today where he had to go for it and risk his car and maybe, you know obviously not his life, nobody likes to have a crash in all that dust.”
The changes didn’t stop with the format. There was a switch from OZ to beadlock Vision wheels in an effort to keep the Continental Tires on the rims. Again, super last-minute (and almost a little bit too last minute after it looked like the new wheels might be trapped in customs, but they made it in the end), but, again, the right call.
What struck me in Saudi last week was the genuine spirit of togetherness from the teams. They’re all setting out on this new adventure together and they all have to make it work. And nobody was more in the middle of that communal approach than Chip Ganassi Racing. So confident was the Indianapolis-based outfit that it happily swapped with Veloce to take the first shot at shakedown on the new wheels.
Button laughed at that talk of all-for-one.
“It was definitely there when we were on the boat,” he said. “I really liked that, the chance to spend time with the other drivers, it’s something that you just don’t really have the opportunity to do in other forms of motorsport. But the atmosphere changed when we got off the boat – the same guys we’d been having a laugh with all got a bit more serious.”
The other significant on-event evolution came with the power from the cars. With the batteries starting to overheat, the dictate was to cut the power output from 400kW (536bhp) to 285kW (382bhp) for Q1. When that wasn’t enough and there were still concerns about the cars making it through, that was further restricted to 225kW (301bhp) from Q2 until the end of the event.
Again, this is what comes of not being able to test the complete car in race conditions, but it certainly detracted from the challenge for the drivers.
“When you launch from the start with 500 and something horsepower you are going to get massive wheelspin,” said Kristoffersson. “When we take the start with so much less power, everybody just floors it. It would be better if we were having to modulate and feel for the grip.”
Presenting XE to the globe
Maybe it’s because we live in the Netflix era, but at times last week it felt like we were there witnessing the building of a documentary. Telly was, it appeared, everything. There was a classic moment when Price’s car stopped on Friday.
Typically bullish about the situation, Agag said: “It’s doesn’t matter. It’s not on television, nobody saw it.”
Reminded that, actually, we were there and we saw it, he flashed his smile and considered the situation disarmed. It would be naïve not to understand the potential pull of a sports documentary-style production deployed tell the real story of a series with multiple narratives.
But there will only be one lead in that production and it won’t be Taylor or Kristoffersson. It won’t be any of the drivers. Extreme E will always be the Agag show.
He’s charismatic, engaging and entertaining. Not to mention amusing.
Asked in the press conference how many people had watched the action via an impressive list of broadcasters around the world, he wouldn’t be drawn. “I said 25 million in the [first] Formula E press conference. I made it up.”
He really shouldn’t need to make these numbers up. The world is very well covered in terms – in Britain alone, for example, you can take your pick between the BBC, ITV, BT Sport and Sky Sports.
And the tech and investment behind delivering those pictures is nothing short of extraordinary. Being in the middle of the desert, mobile coverage isn’t exactly tip-top. In fact, outside of the last week, it’s non-existent in that corner of AlUla.
So, Saudi network provider STC shared the cost with XE to leapfrog mobile transmitters until full 4G arrived in the sand. Cabling more than five miles of cameras simply wasn’t going to happen, so instead line-of-sight transmission nodes were installed.
They not only carried and delivered pictures from the fixed camera points, but as a transponder-carrying race car passed by, onboard shots and data were grabbed, fired up to a satellite and down to a remote production team in London.
Then add a few drones and a roaming reporter crew and you’ve got the necessary team to deliver live. Andrew Coley, Jennie Gow and Karun Chandhok provided the soundtrack with a well informed and workable mix of entertainment, information and on-point messaging.
Live-wise, the were some rough edges, entirely forgivable given the location and the fact that this was first time out for everybody. But a highlights show should be enough to knock some socks off.
And this brings me back to my point on what the championship is. The sporting aspect was very well regulated and run to the letter. But there was definitely a feeling among the drivers and teams that they were secondary in all of this. There were some strong opinions on most aspects of last week and, Agag will need to handle this side of the job quite carefully.
He’s dealing with seasoned, consummate professionals – the likes of Carlos Sainz, Sébastien Loeb and Johan Kristoffersson have been around the world and won titles off-road.
They’ve each earned the absolute respect of the motorsport world and shouldn’t be confused with some of the more reticent young racers who might go as directed in Formula E.
And into what could be an already complicated equation will be thrown the upkeep of a virtuous equality drive and the ceaseless pursuit of sustainability. These are cornerstones of Extreme E and round one has shown there to be absolute substance to them. It’s debatable whether there’s been a professor of any flavour of ecology lecturing in Oxford or Cambridge for months, they’ve all be working with Agag in bringing the story to life and delivering it in an unforgettable way.
But again, those aspects have to be managed with the drivers. Like Kristoffersson said: “The science won’t take away the egos.”
The biggest surprise
Catie Munnings. I got that one wrong. I wasn’t convinced in Andretti’s choice for Timmy Hansen’s fellow driver, but she showed just how much I know. Not a lot. The way she dealt with a right-rear puncture in qualifying was quite superb. These one-and-a-half tonne Odyssey 21 SUV are unforgiving beasts at the best of times, but when you’ve got one corner trying to do its own thing, it’s even more of a handful. But not for Munnings.
It was quite amusing at times to be at an event and watching it through the eyes of a racing audience. Even Agag was agog at seeing the car completely crossed up with the errant Continental desperately trying to pitch her into a spin. She held on to it. It’s what rally drivers do.
And beyond that, she absorbed massive pressure on Sunday to deliver what could be a career-defining drive.
Good for you, Catie.
The biggest disappointment
It speaks volumes about the strength of Extreme E’s opener that it took me so long to come up with something, anything to fill this section. The obvious one would have to be the lack of wheel-to-wheel racing. Sainz, Button and the rest of the drivers warned us that this would be the case with the dust, but it was Hispano-Suiza’s Oli Bennett who put it most succinctly.
“It’s like hitting the limiter, getting to 100mph and then shutting your eyes,” he said. “And if you want to open your eyes, you have to gamble and come out of the line and risk running through the camelgrass. The worst was when you went into a corner, you knew where the line was, but you couldn’t always be sure there wasn’t something waiting for you in there.”
All this talk of dust brought to mind the WRC’s last visit to the Acropolis Rally in 2013. The organizers ran a couple of stages in the night around Loutraki. Being in the middle of the summer in the still of night, the dust hung for hours – laughing in the face of a three-minute gap. Kris Meeke came out of the stage furious. How bad was it? “It was like somebody had thrown a duvet over the windscreen.”
Slightly random, but it did the job.
Talking of slightly random, the only other significant disappointment from the week came when the shower fell off the wall in my AlUla accommodation.