“Nico doesn’t enter a team to lose, so there is a fair bit of expectation for us to do well.”
As preparations for the inaugural round of Alejandro Agag’s all-electric off-road series Extreme E reach their final stages, all eyes are on AlUla in Saudi Arabia.
And for good reason too. Apart from the focus on sustainable motorsport, Extreme E is packed with some of the biggest names in racing and a healthy blend of rally, rallycross, off-road and circuit racers.
And while the bulk of the field for season one is primarily Europe-based – with a smattering of US names including the might of Chip Ganassi Racing – one driver is carrying the hopes of Down Under.
Teaming up with triple World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson as part of 2016 Formula 1 champion Nico Rosberg’s team Rosberg X Racing, Molly Taylor will be the only Australian contesting Extreme E this year and is hopeful her participation will help transform perceptions of electric mobility back home.
While the northern hemisphere has enjoyed a boom in the sales of hybrid and emission-friendly cars in recent years, Australia has been a decidedly more difficult market to crack.
Not surprising given the size of the country and the endearing love for big meaty V8s, which are still immensely popular. Electric car sales have stagnated in Australia over the past year, with just 6900 sold in total.
But that’s not to say that electric mobility isn’t at the forefront of most Australians’ mindset for the future, far from it, and Taylor believes that Extreme E and motorsport in general has the potential to transcend society in a country which has often been on the receiving end of climate change-induced natural disasters.
Speaking to DirtFish, Taylor said: “Australia is, I would say, a little bit probably behind a lot of the more progressive European countries [on electric mobility] so we have a lot of work to do.
“Hybrids and plug-in hybrids are getting popular as well, but the problem in Australia just now is that, logistically we have a lot of challenges because we’re such a big country so the infrastructure to go fully electric is a huge challenge.
“Talking about climate change Australia is important too, given that we have been bearing the brunt of a lot of that [with the forest fires] so it’s something very close to home.
“I definitely think Extreme E is a good way in creating awareness, and taking positive action against all that is something that’s really special to me.”
Taylor is, of course, far from a rookie when it comes to the big stage, having been part of the 2011 intake of the FIA Pirelli Star Driver scheme to find the World Rally Championship’s next big thing. She was in good company that year, with future Citroën and Hyundai WRC driver Craig Breen ultimately coming out on top at the end of the season.
The daughter of four-time Australian Rally Champion co-driver Coral Taylor, it is hardly surprising that Molly followed in the footsteps of her mother, winning the drivers’ title in 2016 as part of the factory Subaru team.
Although she’s more than handy in a conventional combustion-engine rally car, how hard was the switch to an all-electric SUV?
“Very different,” she says. “Driving an SUV is one thing and then it being electric as well and also left-hand drive, it’s a whole heap of different things [to get used to] but I was actually really pleasantly surprised with how the car is to drive.
“You can really get a good feeling with it which I suppose, from a driving perspective, we want to be able to get that feedback from any car you drive.
“Compared to a regular rally car that I am more used to, I think you don’t appreciate how much you rely on external noises [that aren’t there in an electric car] for example when you’re changing gears.
“To hop in a car that’s very quiet is strange but you pick up on a whole lot of different noises, [for example] the pickup from the gravel into the wheel arches, things like that, noises that you don’t really hear [when in an electric car] are your primary inputs in a combustion car, so all those things are quite different.”
“There’s some adjustment to get that same sensation of how fast you are going because sometimes it might not feel like you going as fast but then once you learn the sensors of that car then it’s no more difficult to drive.”
Once a racing driver, always a racing driver in that case. Extreme E has some of the best in the business, each learning relatively new cars with very limited testing – a solitary two-day full power test at the MotorLand Aragon circuit in Spain last December.
Such limited running in unknown cars might seem counterproductive for a brand-new series but, as Taylor explains, this is a positive.
“It is really important that they’ve created an even playing field as there is quite a big experience range, so it’s going to be interesting to see so many drivers with different backgrounds all going into something so different.”
Such is the attraction of Extreme E that almost every team has significant star quality, with rallying greats Carlos Sainz and Sébastien Loeb matched by the likes of multiple bikes champions Sara Price and Laia Sanz.
Taylor is understandably reveling in the Rosberg set-up and is confident the team can hit the ground running come the first round in Saudi Arabia. On top of that, the influence and knowledge within the team from owner Rosberg and team-mate Kristoffersson is already rubbing off.
“It’s fantastic to have someone like Nico as a mentor,” Taylor says. “It’s a pretty awesome opportunity that not many people get the privilege to have so I feel very lucky and he’s very hands on, very engaged, very open and supportive.
“To be able to have someone with that experience that’s willing to give you so much of their time as well to help is really going to be an incredible asset for me in my learning and development.
“With Johan, he’s obviously got a lot of experience and he’s just a laid back easy to get along with guy and it’s a great atmosphere.
“And what’s great is that it’s not a team-mate situation where we’re competing against one another; we’re all together so it’s very much everyone helping everyone else and whilst our domestic championship is very competitive in Australia, to be able to learn from people like Nico and Johan is a huge boost in my own personal development as well.
One area where Taylor is looking to learn from her team-mate in particular is in Extreme E’s race format, which is similar to that of rallycross, whereby cars line up alongside each other and race in heats, semifinals and finals. A far cry from stage rallying…
“Yeah, that’s going to be the biggest difference from my side,” Taylor explains. “I think Johan’s rallycross experience will be really valuable there and it’s going to be very exciting to watch.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it all unfolds [because] we all sort of don’t really know how that’s going to play out in reality. We’re all going to be along for the ride at the same time, so I think that’s going to make it even more of a spectacle and exciting for the fans to watch.”
It really is a step into the unknown for the most part, although those drivers who contested the Dakar Rally in January – Sainz, Mattias Ekström, Cristina Gutiérrez and Sanz – will have some idea as to the characteristics of the AlUla surface.
But that’s the allure of Extreme E for Taylor: testing yourself on some of the toughest surfaces in the world, while continuing to raise awareness of the impact of climate change and global warming.
“I think there’s a lot of hype heading into the first round and just people are excited to see how it evolves,” she says.
“We’re all in this for the same reason which is to raise awareness about climate change, which is something I really care about and we need to do something about.
“The series is so ambitious in what it’s setting out to achieve and that probably has taken a few people by surprise. And really, it’s making everyone think: ‘why shouldn’t we be doing it like this?’ It makes a lot of sense and having the names involved in the series and all the locations that we do will only help it grow.
“What [Extreme E founder and CEO] Alejandro [Agag] has done with Formula E, he’s proven that electric motorsport can work and that it is the future, and now more broadly across society in general and in the automotive space, people are much more aware about climate change across the board and what the future of mobility is going to be like.”
While so much is uncertain about Extreme E’s bow, one thing is guaranteed before things kick off in Saudi Arabia: there will be action aplenty and the dawn of the off-road future will begin in earnest.