The second season of Extreme E, the electric off-road racing series which takes teams to environments across the world that have been hit by climate change and helps restore them in addition to racing on them, begins in Saudi Arabia on February 19/20.
DirtFish’s writers looked back at the inaugural season of five events, with five scheduled to take place this year, and wrote what they want to see improved and changed for 2022.
No sand surprise
What do I want from season two of XE? Not being surprised by dust in the desert would be a good place to start.
Last year’s Saudi Arabian opener was something of a shocker, when the series organizer was apparently caught off guard by a bunch of racing cars ripping through the sand and creating a cloud. That realization impacted on the racing and forced format changes which bordered on the event becoming a farce. XE’s answer to the dust question will be interesting to see this weekend.
It goes without saying, it would also be nice to see less technical issues. Power-steering and suspension problems apparently plagued the progress of the Odyssey through last year.
All of the above can be forgiven in a rookie season. They won’t be this time around.
Overwhelmingly though, I want to understand what XE is. I still get calls from colleagues, fans and friends asking to explain what a series so focused on highlighting climate concerns at threatened, remote environments was doing by Capo Teulada – a stone’s throw from some of Sardinia’s most popular tourist beaches. Or Bovington Camp, a jaunty half-hour down the road from Britain’s retirement capital, Bournemouth.
Yes, yes, I know about the pandemic and I know about the entirely more laudable intended calendar including Brazil and Patagonia (rather than the Mediterranean and the English Riviera) but I’d rather see events cancelled than run in such compromised fashion again.
A stronger narrative
It’s the second album that’s the trickiest. So goes the tired old chiché, but it certainly rings true for XE.
While there was plenty to be encouraged by in season one there was equally plenty to be sceptical about – and Alejandro Agag and his organizing team won’t be afforded the same leniency now that they’ve had a year’s worth of experience to get things right.
My main gripe with XE last year was the lack of a true season narrative. Perhaps it was down to the initial fragility of the Odyssey 21 which disturbed rhythm and form, or the wider (and incredibly laudable) environmental goals the series has that it naturally wanted to push hard, but for whatever reason the actual competition almost felt like a slight afterthought last season.
The final round in Dorset – by far the most competitive weekend to-date where the championship was also on the line – quashed some of those concerns, but XE could do with the racing action to hog the limelight and some real rivalries and storylines to form to keep it worth watching in my opinion.
And it would also be nice for a firmer rule regarding driver running order to be introduced. Grid Play currently exists, so why not use that to determine which driver from each time lines up first and second for the upcoming heat?
That way we should lose the scenario where it’s all the males against each other and all the females against each other – teams often prefered to put their male drivers out first – but seldom any mixing. In a championship that has (rightfully) pushed gender equality, let’s see that being fully embraced.
Brand variation and reliability
Now let me start off by saying there’s nothing wrong with single-make racing, but a bit of visual variety never hurt anyone, right?
That said, XE involves multiple manufacturers already, and in a world obsessed with SUVs and crossovers, and an automotive industry pivoting to electric vehicles, it’s the perfect championship to attract more still.
The series will keep the technical underpinnings of the Odyssey 21 for the foreseeable future, which is necessary for cost containment (and also aids the field’s broad level of competition), but it would be good to see more visible variation between cars.
Last year we had General Motors’ GMC Hummer EV represented thanks to unique bodywork on Chip Ganassi Racing’s entry, and this year Abt Cupra’s Odyssey will feature Cupra styling cues too. But why not an Artura-inspired McLaren, a JBXE entry with Lotus-like features, a Hispano Suiza-badged car adorned with Xite Energy’s colors, or a Prodrive Hunter lookalike wrapped in the purple of X44?
Of course, this is all inconsequential as long as the cars remain the same under the skin, but it would enhance the already excellent visual appeal of the series, give something for car fans to latch onto further, and for those interested for reasons other than the automotive side, it could help bridge both sides of the audience and build up brand association.
Naturally, with days to go before the season opener (and the cars heading directly to Saudi Arabia from 2021’s Dorset finale), such a change would be impossible to bring in right away.
But eventually, how cool would it be to have multiple ‘cars’ in the series?
This next point might be moot given we know a solution is already in the works, but XE could definitely benefit with reliability improvements.
It has the drivers, teams, locations, and competition boxes already checked if you ask me, so after a successful building year in season one, the only thing left on the list is refining the cars.
In a new series that’s barely comparable to anything we’ve seen before, there was always going to be teething troubles, nevertheless, the Odyssey 21’s brittle nature throughout the first season was frustrating. So what needs to be done?
Primarily the car needs to toughen up. A championship with the word ‘Extreme’ in its name will naturally throw everything, and more, at its competitors, so they need to be able to tackle all that’s thrown at them.
Some teams did do a better job than others, XE’s top runners had fewer reliability issues, so if that’s not better preparation then it’s remarkable luck (or bad luck for the teams repeatedly hampered). Whether it was the same teams affected over and over or not, technical failures were still too frequent.
That said, improvements were made gradually throughout 2021, and the car will be getting a much-needed upgrade when the St. Helena sails back to Europe for round two in Sardinia.
Improved suspension and shock absorbers, the development of which was assisted by a Ganassi team bustling with trophy truck talent, is on the way. That should stop the frequent failures from hard landings and improve general driveability over the toughest of terrains.
All of that should have the knock-on effect of improving the racing too, which was already decent when the cars and circuits combined in perfect harmony.
Failures of format
One of the weakest aspects of XE last year was the head-to-head format for qualifying.
It took too long and as a result any major excitement was instantly lost. There was no hype, few major on-track battles and was definitely inferior to other aspects, such as the Crazy Race and the final.
Thankfully, XE appears to have acknowledged that the head-to-head battle needs to be scrapped and is looking to change the format for this year.
Speaking at the unveiling of Abt Cupra’s 2022 line-up, Jutta Klienschmidt told DirtFish: “We had the information that they changed this, so it’s not 100% confirmed, but it really looks like this and we all hope this.
“So the idea is to make five and five out of the 10 cars and then, the second qualifying, they mix it according to the result of the first one.
“I think that would be much more exciting and we are really looking forward to it, because I also was, yeah, a little bit bored this system from last year. It was too long, and I think now you will have the same format like the finals in the qualifying and this is great.”
It’s not a great sign when even the drivers are saying the system is boring, and so it is something that must be fixed in order to improve the show. But moving to group races for qualifying is something that could definitely work.
With group races, there’s not only more excitement and unpredictability, but there’s naturally more action to watch and a higher chance of a driver making a mistake, not to mention a higher chance of a crash which could significantly alter a team’s weekend.
It prevents the top teams from running away with qualifying at every round and allows some of the underdogs to achieve some unlikely results.
It might not be the key to resolving all of XE’s flaws, but it will definitely be a part of the answer to make the championship more engaging to watch over an entire weekend.