Just as it had been in season one, Extreme E 2022 was looking like a Rosberg X Racing walkover. After three rounds it had two wins, and was seemingly waltzing its way to another XE title.
But then Chile happened. A rare technical issue left RXR out of the final for the very first time in its history, and presented an opportunity to its rivals.
It was an opportunity X44 was only too happy to exploit. But not without its dramas, as both of the title contenders RXR and X44 crashed during qualifying at the season finale in Uruguay.
While RXR’s Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky was just a low-speed roll, X44’s Cristina Gutiérrez had a far heavier tumble – causing extensive chassis damage, necessitating the switch to the series’ development car as a backup plan.
In the racing portion of qualifying, RXR’s situation went from bad to worse with contact from Abt Cupra at the start of their heat race wiping it out again. X44 meanwhile took a risk, a big risk, but one that ultimately won it the title.
With RXR registering a double non-score, a Q2 race win would set up X44 nicely for Sunday’s all-important racing. But with the threat of a ‘crazy race’ last chance qualifier berth still looming, X44’s Sébastien Loeb turned his attention to the five bonus points for the ‘traction challenge’ super-sector – a bonus that would give the team something its rivals would find almost impossible to overhaul.
“Even with zero points in Q1, to fight for a few points in Q2 maybe we would still end up in the crazy race,” Loeb explained, “so in this moment we started to think about the championship and to say these five points of the super sector, we need to score them.
“And maybe now is the best time because the track was still dry and we knew for the races with many cars they would put water all the time.
“So I was thinking maybe it was the last chance to beat, to do this time so we concentrated on that and we thought ‘OK we’ll see later trying to escape the crazy race’”.
In that Q2 race, Loeb duly dropped back at the start, smashed in the fastest traction challenge time of the weekend, with his team’s end race result bearing little relevance. Nevertheless, that fastest sector time was mightily impressive given that the team was saddled with an unfamiliar car and unfamiliar setup – and displaying typically tactical and canny thinking from the nine-time World Rally champion.
“We tried to put our setup in it but to do it properly [on the Saturday] was too short so we had something mixed,” Loeb said. “The feeling with the car was really strange, even the pedals were not in the right position so we had to put something in the back to touch the pedals.
“Everything was a bit on the limit but finally we were able to drive with it and make the best time in the super sector.”
Five bonus points in the bag, and another rotten session for RXR, the pendulum had well and truly swung in X44’s favor. But as smart as it might have been to bag those extra points before Sunday’s racing (and track conditions would likely prevent that time from being bettered), X44 still needed to win the crazy race to keep its title hopes alive.
What’s more, RXR was in the crazy race too. Only one could advance – it was effectively ‘winner takes all’ and the pressure was mounting.
“For sure we were in a stressful situation but again I knew that the only thing we could do was improve our [own] situation,” Loeb said. “We came here not leading the championship so we had nearly nothing to lose so it was just trying to forget about the pressure, about the risk, and just go for it.
“Cristina took a very good start – I think the pressure was more for her because it’s always a bit more stressful to be on the start and she managed it really well so she gave me the car in a very good situation, then it was OK to win it.
“But what we tried all weekend was to forget about the pressure and give our best and see.”
Both began on an equal footing, but early contact from Xite Energy Racing and JBXE derailed RXR once and for all; broken steering and a penalty for a switch zone infringement (too many team members attending to the damaged car) as the team rallied to repair and attempt to snatch back the traction challenge points compounded the team’s day.
X44 meanwhile won, meaning that a top three finish in the final was all that it needed to get the title. But even that wasn’t straightforward, with the team coming home fourth in the final, only to be eventually elevated into that crucial third place thanks to a penalty for Andretti United.
It was typical of the weekend as a whole, where both X44 and RXR had to rely on things happening to others in order for them to benefit, and while not an ideal situation to be in, Loeb pointed to previous similar situations that made it more bearable to deal with.
“For sure it’s not easy to be at the end, to think you won and finally to hear maybe you are under investigation, but OK, that’s how it works all the year, that’s how it works in Extreme E and you have to cope with that,” he conceded.
“We have to accept it, it’s not the easiest, not the funnest way to finish the races when you are not sure of everything but these kind of races with really intense battles with some rules that are not really strict and you never know if it’s OK, a little touch, too much, not enough, so yeah, we are used to it now so we accept it.”
Gutiérrez was the driver to finish the final, and the season for X44, and she was tasked with getting by Andretti United’s Catie Munnings, but through a wall of dust. Nevertheless, eventually crossing the line as champion provided her with the perfect personal redemption story after her qualifying crash that set the team back the day before.
“It was crazy because when I took the car I saw Séb with all the dust and I knew that it would be difficult to overtake on the track,” she said. “It’s sometimes crazy to see the track, to not hit the flags and everything.
“I tried to manage to catch Catie, Catie also was very fast this weekend so it was not easy.
“On the radio they told me that someone was going to be penalized but we finished and I still didn’t know because after that I wanted to be sure that we won, to be relaxed and not celebrate before we won officially.
“It was a roller coaster. It seems much better than the normal way because now we need to take a breath and to believe in what we made.”
After the title triumph, Gutiérrez said “I can’t believe it”, and was quick to praise her team – and Loeb’s Q2 genius – for the squad’s seemingly impossible turnaround.
“It was a very tough weekend for us, especially with my roll,” she said. “I tried to put my mind in order after this crash and the guys did a crazy job with the car.
“We took the car from the championship so it was our first time that we drove this car in quali two, Séb made the supersector. We need to do everything to win the championship and we made it. I think it was a crazy weekend but I think finally we deserve it and this is the most important thing.”
For Loeb, it was another title in a career that’s yielded countless honors, but that didn’t diminish the achievement at all.
“For sure I enjoy the moment because it’s a new championship, a completely new style of championship with a hard battle on the track, sharing the cars between us, so it’s another atmosphere and I enjoyed it a lot and to be able to share the victory together is another good moment so for sure I enjoy that,” he said.
On the surface, this appears to be the comeback of all comebacks for X44, while RXR’s world fell apart. But Johan Kristoffersson believes that RXR’s title challenge began to unravel in Chile back in September, not Uruguay.
“I think it’s been out of our control for the last two events really,” he told DirtFish. “We were struck by some technical issues in Chile and then also here this weekend it didn’t really go our way.
“I mean, we tried our best but in the end it didn’t turn out to be our way but sometimes it’s like that in motorsport. Sometimes you have the margins on your side and sometimes not, so yeah, that’s how it is.”