For Carlos Sainz, so much of last weekend was totally alien. The Spaniard’s not a man who has ever compromised on testing. Race preparation wasn’t just short for last week’s Extreme E series, coronavirus made it non-existent.
After an hour of complete frustration, Sainz forced himself to look at the bigger picture, then went in search of Spark Racing Technology’s chairman Nicolas Wertans, with whom he spent the next hour.
Despite numerous power-steering problems and a handful of other issues, Wertans told DirtFish he was “happy and relieved” at the Odyssey 21 SUV’s maiden competitive outing.
It was a similar story from XE CEO Alejandro Agag, who compared last weekend’s Saudi Arabian opener favorably with the first Formula E test when 18 of 20 cars went down on their respective shakedown runs.
Beyond the technical problems, there was also a deep-rooted concern about the BOS damper on offer – a damper that is currently scheduled for use on all four remaining rounds of the 2021 series.
Lack of pre-event testing
Asked for his thoughts on round one in AlUla, Wertans told DirtFish: “It’s a great day. It’s not just fine, it’s very fine. We have been developing and testing and engineering this car for two years. We delivered the cars six months ago and there was some anxiety and some stress.
“The guys are very demanding competitors with huge experience. They were not here to judge the car but to race against each other. We knew they would be extremely strong on what they request from the car, but we are relieved and happy right now.
“We all saw some accidents, but from these accidents, there were no injuries, which is great. We are happy and relieved.”
Three race simulations were planned, but one-by-one COVID-19 canceled them. That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of pre-event testing completed.
“Always you want more testing,” said Wertans, “but [what] Alejandro Agag [said] is 100% true – we had testing events canceled at the last minute. This meant we didn’t have [time running] rims, tires, dampers, suspension – so many different things and the battery, obviously.
“In reality, we missed 10 to 15 days of testing. But we did make hundreds of kilometers – we were here [in Saudi Arabia] testing for nearly two weeks a year ago. We did all we could. It’s totally awkward to race with no simulation. It’s a huge thing. We tested, but this is not the same as a race sim.”
Asked about specific power-steering issues, Wertans said: “We should be careful what is being said before we know. I left a meeting [to talk to DirtFish] where we were looking into a power-steering [issue]. There aren’t so many. I know one team thought it was a power-steering [problem], but no. The power-steering issue happened after – or during – the accident, but it wasn’t the cause.
ABT Cupra driver Claudia Hürtgen said she was suffering power-steering problems before her qualifying crash.
Wertans added: “I wouldn’t talk about one particular person or accident if she said so…
“Many of these power-steering things are small. You know we have big wheels and big tires in very demanding terrain. We have done hundreds of kilometers in testing without any problems.”
It’s not for me to decide if we give [the drivers] a choice of different [specifications of] dampers. That’s up to the championship, but it’s not something we would recommendNicolas Wertans, Spark Racing Technologies chairman
One of the higher-profile failures came on the very first lap of the AlUla Desert X-Prix circuit, when Sara Price stopped in the Chip Ganassi Racing car. Wertans felt the rough nature of the track was partly to blame.
“There were some big bumps on the track,” he said, “and sometimes they will make some events in the electronics or in the car happen that cannot be fully explained. And if some of the components, batteries, controllers, or inverters can see a default and shut off. But this issue, it’s already so long ago. It’s gone and it’s solved.”
When Veloce’s car was ruled out with damage to the rollcage’s main hoop, some questioned why there wasn’t a spare chassis for Jamie Chadwick and Stéphane Sarrazin.
Wertans: “In its DNA, the championship wants to be frugal in terms of freight and spares. It’s a compromise what we bring on site and what we don’t. If we break a chassis in the morning, to [be able to] have a spare ready for the afternoon is unlikely.
“We have to make a bet about what are critical parts that can be repaired. The chassis could be, but it takes a lot of space and weight [on the St Helena transport ship].
“We would love a spare to be with us, but we don’t have one and we cry for the team – but this was known for the whole stakeholder group.”
The damper question
BOS dampers are well known and well recognized in the world of off-road racing and Wertans rightly pointed out that the suspension hadn’t failed on any cars.
That said, all the drivers DirtFish spoke to talked of a lack of suspension travel and an absence of feeling from the damper itself.
“BOS is highly respected among WRC and Dakar drivers,” said Wertans. “But maybe there are some discussions about tuning and valving. It’s all about development time gathering race data. This will be fixed.
“We have one damper for the whole season and we all feel it can be improved in its development and yes, sure, this can happen in time for Senegal.
“We have considered many different dampers, but we had to choose one – it’s not for me to decide if we give [the drivers] a choice of different [specifications of] dampers. That’s up to the championship, but it’s not something we would recommend. It’s more freight, more diversity and cost and I don’t think Extreme E would recommend this.”
Wertans admitted some issues were still being analyzed, including the electrical issue which halted the JBXE car. Twice.
“This was no specific issue,” he said. “These kinds of things happen in any motorsport series. We’ll return the components and see what was the root cause, but it’s too early to say right now.”
Having watched Sarrazin and Hürtgen roll their cars, there were questions about the gullwing doors which open upwards from the sill above the roofline.
“These were all planned according to the highest standards,” Wertans asserted. “The drivers can break the window [to] get through. It has all been planned and checked and tested. I don’t see an issue on that.
“This was the first race of a new series in difficult terrain. We are fine. We are very fine.”
What about the battery?
Overheating batteries were another cause for concern in Saudi Arabia. A Williams Advanced Engineering spokesman told DirtFish: “We expected a difficult situation on this event with the hot weather and the sand.
“The sand is absorbing the energy and the torque – this is so demanding for the drivetrain and the battery. The altitude is 900 meters and this means the air is thinner and this is not so good for an air-cooled battery – and don’t forget the drivers were full throttle for 80% of the lap.”
The decision was taken to cut the power to the cars, a decision Williams felt was the right one.
“It would have been on the limit for the battery [to run full power]. To get the battery recharged between races would have been difficult and the cooling side could also have been tricky. But there was also the question of safety [for running full power].
“We came through this event and I really feel this was the most difficult [event]. I think the other races will be less complicated than this.”
Modifications to the fleet of nine Odyssey race cars are expected in time for next month’s Senegal race – including improved cooling for the battery.