The action may eventually have been impressive in the Arctic last weekend, but Extreme E’s Greenland trip initially looked set to be remembered for reliability issues. And the victory fight in the final was, ultimately, decided by one car not being as capable as its driver.
Friday free practice took place in wet and windy conditions with a 42F air temperature, but battery overheating quickly became an issue with the cars running – and therefore discharging the battery – at 275kW of power.
That issue knocked out Veloce Racing and Ganassi Racing, which was also affected by flaming rear brakes. Rosberg X Racing had the all-electric Odyssey 21 SUV turn off as Johan Kristoffersson hit the brakes for the driver switch zone, and Acciona Sainz was hampered by a power-steering failure. JBXE had a puncture that required the car to be dug out of the sandy switching bay, then also had the car stop on the circuit.
Veloce’s Stéphane Sarrazin explained his issue to DirtFish: “My car slowed down step-by-step, and stopped at the end. No warning. Just when the car stopped, after that I saw a light.”
The boss of another team said the raised power output of 275kW was a failed test, and expected a reduction back to levels previously used.
“We’re running 275kW today, which is beyond the limit to do two full laps because the course is so long. And a lot of time on full power, so obviously if the battery’s overheating, you run out of energy fairly quickly. There is a point where it degrades. So if the battery starts degrading, you lose power, so you know it’s coming.”
The track had already been shortened before practice, with the part going from the far hairpin on the glacial riverbed to the bouldered ‘Rock Garden’ sector near the finish simplified from twists and turns to consist primarily of long straights. That 5.386-mile lap was, however, still too long and had to be revised again after the mess that followed on Saturday.
The battery is an issue, which we are addressing. We are going to install cooling for next year. The car still has some glitches. But overall I’m happyAlejandro Agag
XE’s founder Alejandro Agag addressed some of the concerns on Friday evening.
“It feels really like we’re getting, we’re not becoming an adult yet, but we’re growing up. So you can see things are working a lot better,” he began.
“Of course, everything’s a challenge. And when you do things in remote locations like this, it’s very, very difficult.”
How come in Arctic weather, overheating of the Williams Advanced Engineering-supplied battery was happening?
“The battery is an issue, for sure. Which we are addressing. We are going to install cooling for next year. So already we will have a big improvement on the cooling for next year. Already on this race we are going higher in power, we wanted to do that. The car still has some glitches. I can see Sainz having some steering wheel glitch. But overall I’m happy. As long as we have races, I’m happy.”
That was a reference to XE’s inaugural event in Saudi Arabia, where much of the racing got turned into time trials instead.
And when the racing began at the Arctic X-Prix, it delivered.
Sarrazin and X44’s Sébastien Loeb went beyond the limits against each other in semifinal one, with Sarrazin claiming the lead with an outrageous move down the inside of the ‘Rock Garden’ and proving the Spark Racing Technologies-built car could withstand the roughest of terrain.
“It was just instinct. I could not stay behind, so my way is like… right, I go right. And bam, I went,” said Sarrazin enthusiastically.
“And I had a puncture, very, very, very bad. But my car was OK, I had only one more corner to do, I did the corner and the last jump on landing I lost my front.”
Sarrazin had earlier been passed in similarly outrageous fashion by Loeb, which he had no problem with. However, he did take issue with the car.
“At the moment the car is not strong enough,” he said. “We can see from all the teams. But it’s a new championship, first season, so we need time. Every championship you need time, and it’s already a great show and amazing championship. Extreme. Extreme.”
What enabled the drivers to fight through Sunday’s semifinal was the shortening of the lap and a reduction in power. Initially it was to 225kW, then to 200kW. While it served its purpose, it’s rare to see new cars being turned down quite so dramatically to complete races, even in spec series.
Qualifying problems on Saturday that contributed to these changes included a mid-lap reset (RXR), failed power-steering (Veloce), stopping entirely when touching the brakes for the switch zone (Andretti United, JBXE), electrical issues and impact damage (Ganassi, JBXE), and an immediate lack of power (Xite Energy Racing).
Ganassi’s exit from Q2 was particularly dramatic, with the rear-left of the car being ripped off while Kyle LeDuc was at the wheel. DirtFish asked Ganassi’s team principal Dave Berkenfield about the mound hit, and he confirmed it was a failure of the kingpin, a spec part.
Worse was to come on Sunday for Ganassi and its rivals. Issues first befell Abt Cupra, as the rear-right driveshaft broke exactly 15 seconds into semifinal two and essentially left the car with three-wheel-drive thereon.
In the Crazy Race, Ganassi retired with broken front-right steering and Xite Energy also retired after a front-end landing punctured the car and caused a leak that sent the inverter’s temperature sky-high.
“I think this was just simply wheel-to-wheel racing and the tire rod gave out. So we’re just getting it direct [side-on hit],” Berkenfield said to DirtFish.
“This car is a brand new car, right? Honestly, the series is shaking it out. So we’ve got eight, nine cars in the field working it out, including the series’ test car. We’ve been trying to define course length and battery power settings and understanding the heat and thermal dynamics of how the battery holds the heat and drops heat. And what is heat soak, and all of that stuff.
“This is incredibly challenging. We’re in the middle of nowhere in Greenland right now, and we’re trying to hold a motorsport event, so I don’t think it’s necessarily something that’s an easy solution, right? It doesn’t necessarily just take, ‘we need more of this’. There’s so many pieces to that puzzle.”
Circuits being adapted to suit cars rather than the other way around goes against the fundamentals of motorsport, but, as Agag said, there won’t be much done to flip that picture in the remaining two events. Berkenfield said pushing the car beyond its limit is all in the name.
“It’s called Extreme E, right!” he said. “I think Spark’s built a great car. It’s just all these drivers are world-class drivers, and we’re finding the limit of it. I know that Spark has a good plan to get ahead of all this stuff, and they’re working diligently.
“What you don’t see in the back end of all this is every single one of these teams is working with them, and they’re working with us to try to fix all these problems. We’ve had a few problems, but every team’s had a few problems.”
With that in mind, and after watching the final where a thrilling battle between Andretti and RX was ended by Kristoffersson’s car turning off after a big jump, DirtFish sought out Spark’s “good plan”.
This incident in particular was a good one to analyze, as Kristoffersson was at full throttle but moving with no rolling resistance while in the air, and the ECU then had to work out the car’s direction and speed as it landed.
“If you have too much variation on the car, any car, it’s like you’re going full throttle and then everything is blocked,” said Spark engineer Habib Gharibdoust.
“So in this case, the system is just not responding because it’s not normal behavior. It’s just reporting a problem, and because of the problem, if the problem is very important or is just [new] information, it will answer in a different manner. Maybe it will stop the car, or will just reduce the power, or just say that you have a problem.”
These issues come down to the drivers conducting “abnormal behavior” the software can’t handle, but scapegoating drivers in the pursuit of victory is tricky
All three outcomes occurred for drivers engaging in rapid speed changes, and is why traction control systems are used in many series to ensure drivers don’t ask too much from a system that can’t provide it. Spark’s software solution right now is logical, but shows the car isn’t fully up to the demands of off-road motorsport.
“When the variation in the power demand is sometimes very high, you can’t provide the power in the best time or the right time,” Gharibdoust explained. “And this time the system is just [doing its job] detecting that something is wrong. If it can’t provide the power or the energy that you are asking, it will just go in failsafe mode.”
This comes down to the drivers conducting “abnormal behavior” the software can’t handle fast enough, but scapegoating the drivers for doing their job in the pursuit of victory is tricky. And with limited track time in XE, they can’t find many of those limits until it’s too late.
“Sometimes we can do it, and sometimes we are pushing too much still,” Gharibdoust added.
“I think the main thing is the system has limits. And if you push too much and you exceed these limits, the system will not answer correctly.
“It’s racing, so we are playing with the limits.”
After the conclusion of the race weekend, DirtFish spoke to Agag about the car problems. He admitted the circuit layout initially in use was too long, and that repeated reliability issues isn’t a good luck for a series yet to establish itself.
“I hate it,” he said of the image problem the unreliability feeds into. “But I think in Johan’s case it was even more than that because it was a 20G impact, so that’s like a Formula E crash.
“Normally he would have gone slower but he just said, ‘I’m going for it, I don’t care’ and that flight was just stratospheric. These cars take a lot, so I guess things get loose and so on but we’re going to have a look at everything.”
Will that include the introduction of upgraded components to increase strength?
“We can change some components, like for example twice we had crashes on the tire, like what happened to Sara [Price, Ganassi driver] was that [Xite Energy driver] Christine Gutiérrez crashed into her, exactly on the tire. And then there is a piece on the tire that breaks. So you can reinforce that piece. Sometimes you reinforce the piece and something else breaks.”
The fear then, though, is whether XE could end up with another problem via the solution it needs most right now.