Going into the inaugural Extreme E season, a lot of eyes were on Chip Ganassi Racing. A driver line-up boasting countless off-road racing titles, a crew equally as successful, and factory support from General Motors and its rebirthed Hummer product.
It was an approach that differed from the rallying and circuit racing-centric teams that made up the rest of the field, so naturally there were bucket loads of expectations behind the series’ only all-American team.
But while wins and a championship challenge – or dominant title charge – were what many expected, the reality was rather different as the team endured a torrid campaign that ended with it languishing second bottom in the points with just a sole appearance in the final.
That wasn’t a fair reflection of the squad’s campaign though, with a number of part failures punctuating the team’s year. But the team isn’t about pointing fingers, and is already looking at how it can improve its own performance for season two.
“I think going into season two and 2022 we’re going to be definitely looking for some different performance measures here,” team boss Dave Berkenfield tells DirtFish.
“I’m just looking at the level of competition with all the competitors and realizing how these guys standing on the podium got there and I think that for our team it’s going to turn into a consistency thing.
“X44 and RXR, they deserve where they’re at, they were quick [and] consistent through the whole year. For us, we had moments there but we were not consistent. So some self reflection on the team and things we can do better, but we’ll get there. [The] goal’s the top step always, right?”
Pushed on the subject of many of Ganassi’s shortcomings throughout 2021 being out of its own control, Berkenfield acknowledges the team’s rotten luck, but reiterates that it wasn’t about to just wait for fixes on control parts and an upturn in luck in its quest for success.
“Yeah you now that’s a good point, a lot of these things have been out of our control,” he says. “In Q2 [at the Jurassic X-Prix] we had another steering-rack failure. You start wondering about those things because it was a brand-new rack, we hadn’t touched it ever before.
“I think the things that are in our control are just double-, triple-, quadruple-checking stuff, really talking about race management, when we push, when we don’t push, driver management, race education, foresight, you know, all those things are the things that are going to win these races.”
Winning the crazy race in Senegal was an obvious high point for usDave Berkenfield
While Chip Ganassi Racing wasn’t able to add any Extreme E trophies to its bustling cabinet that already features 14 IndyCar crowns, four Indy 500 wins, a Daytona 500 win, and landmark sportscar victories at Daytona, Sebring, and Le Mans, it was far from being a wasted first season in Extreme E, with Berkenfield able to point to a number of high points on the team’s year.
“I think winning the crazy race in Senegal was an obvious high point for us,” he says. “It was unfortunate because of the sporting format at the time that that didn’t transfer us into the final like it would’ve [later on in the season], so a real high point there.”
Of course, the evolving format of the past season meant that when Ganassi did get that heat win, it didn’t get it a main event berth – something it did eventually achieve two rounds later in Sardinia, only for yet another failure to cost them an almost certain round win.
“I think another high point, a low point to big high point, was just the way the team after Kyle’s big crash and big driver error moment in Saudi Arabia,” Berkenfield says of Kyle LeDuc’s frightening smash with Abt Cupra’s Claudia Hürtgen at the season opener.
“[We] rolled the tent down and said ‘hey, we got eight hours, let’s fix this car’. And it went to the last minute, but we made the grid.
“I’m real proud of the guys there. That was a no-sleep night and it really embodies what motorsports and team play is all about.”
The collaborative effort of the paddock – particularly among teams it has had comings together with on track – has also been another plus point for Berkenfield and the Ganassi operation, which is used to competing at the highest level of motorsport and not giving an inch to the competition either on or off the track.
“Seeing the energy and seeing the fanbase and knowing the paddock has each other’s back on a lot of stuff is really cool,” Berkenfield says.
“The other night we had a tear-off bubble on our car before one of these races and Abt had some guys that had some availability and helped us out and that’s the car that we ran into twice or we had problems with twice in Saudi, or they had two problems and then we ran into them.
“I was sort of chuckling, but let’s tear each other’s eyeballs out on the race track and be friends and try to be good competitors, support each other in the paddock.”
The support between parties in Extreme E extends beyond the competitors too, with Ganassi among the teams helping car builder Spark with improvements for season two. With the team’s car on US soil for an appearance at the SEMA show in November, Ganassi, along with Extreme E and Spark, took the opportunity to test out in the Nevada desert, benchmarking the car alongside a traditional off-road racing truck.
“We haven’t made any parts physically ourselves but we’ve assisted in the design of them through Spark,” LeDuc tells DirtFish.
“We did a big test in Nevada when we had our personal test session, we tested the new shocks then we tested Fox shocks with the series, [we] tried to get them better, make them better, faster, more reliable.
“The series is demanding it and Spark’s responding and they’re doing it with the teams involved so it’s going to get better because we’ve all got avenues of history and data,” he continues, explaining that steering updates were the first changes to be implemented off the back of that testing, with further developments set to arrive next season.
Berkenfield adds that despite the difficulties faced by Ganassi, and other teams as they grappled with the Odyssey 21’s reliability woes, Spark and Extreme E have done a good job in reacting to the demands of drivers and teams, and getting fixes and improvements in place.
“Spark [and] the series has done a good job recognizing some of the issues with this car,” he insists.
“These X-Prixs are really extreme and the terrain that is being raced on and the level of the drivers like I’ve mentioned to you in the past is significant and it’s at a very high caliber in the terrains that are very high caliber so the cars need to be at that standard.
“The series and Spark is doing a good job recognizing that they have some work to do, but they’re getting with the right people and the right people are providing the right levels of input, and so that we will see a little bit of a different car next year, which will just do the series [and] do all the teams a little bit more justice.
“The goal here is to just get to the finish at every X-Prix, at every event, at every round with all the cars and let’s see no attrition, no mechanicals, no part failures, throughout the whole system,” he says.
“So that’s the goal and then that’s just going to increase the competition, it’s going to increase the racing, and increase the excitement. It’s going to let the drivers push more, it’s going to be exciting.”
With round one of season two set to take place a mere nine weeks after the 2021 season’s conclusion – and much of that time consisting of the series traveling between race sites aboard the St Helena, the series’ own ship – major changes to the car aren’t expected until round two at the start of May.
But given the challenges Extreme E and motorsport in general has faced, and will continue to face over the coming months, Berkenfield isn’t too disheartened.
“Of course we would want [them sooner], we would’ve wanted them at round one of this year, right? So let’s just be honest with the situation, the situation is we’re in the middle of a really tight turn between the final round of season one and the first round of season two,” he says.
“The engineering challenges that everyone has undertaken to complete these fixes is not a minor task and the holidays and COVID and on and on and on, parts availability, supplier issues, supply chain, you know, all the things that go into it, the longevity of getting the right part is more important than getting not the right part in a shorter period of time.
“This series is tackling an immense amount of challenges and you well know all of them, it’s just the fact that we’re just chewing them up one bit at a time is really commendable for everyone involved.”