What we’ve learned after day one of the Desert X-Prix

High speeds, lots of sand and a surprising amount of drama. Here's what DirtFish makes of XE so far

Claudia Hurtgen (GER)/Mattias Ekstrom (SWE), ABT CUPRA XE

Two-and-a-half years after emerging from the idea bank of Alejandro Agag as the most extreme off-road racing series yet, and 27 months since its London launch, the all-electric Extreme E championship finally got underway on Saturday around a track made entirely of Saudi Arabian desert.

Last-minute format changes meant the first competitive sessions didn’t include side-by-side action, with a rally-style time trial format being used instead, but it still left a lot for DirtFish’s writers to mull over and to get excited about what’s to come:

Who’s fastest?

David Evans: XE’s all about equality, there’s no such thing as female and male racers, just racers. But we still want to know who’s the absolute quickest of those drivers, right? Thought so. Timmy Hansen was fastest of everybody on lap one (4m39.035s) while Johan Kristoffersson bested lap two (5m56.803s – a longer lap including the driver switch zone). If we were interested in being more gender specific, Christina Gutiérrez was the quickest woman on lap one (5m04.779s) with Molly Taylor taking lap two (6m03.873s).


Photo: DirtFish Media

The car is tough

Dominik Wilde: Spark may not have built an off-road vehicle before it was contracted to produce the Odyssey 21, but it’s already been put through the wringer.

The all-electric SUV been bounced, bashed, flipped, and rolled, but each time the drivers have emerged without a scratch and more often than not the slender crews that the teams have on site have been able to get them back in running order in the tightest of timeframes.

The formbook means nothing

DE: The all-American Chip Ganassi Racing team landed into Saudi Arabia as favorites. As Kyle LeDuc so eloquently put it: “I grew up in the sand, so did Sara [Price]. All of this is new to the others, but to us it’s just Saturday.”

Unfortunately this Saturday spelled the end of any possible challenge for victory at the inaugural Desert X-Prix. Ongoing power steering problems ruled LeDuc and Price out of Q2 and left them in the shootout for seventh or eighth place on Sunday.

Cristina Gutierrez (ESP)/Sebastien Loeb (FRA), X44

XE is entertaining

Luke Barry: It was hard to think how XE could really fail in the entertainment stakes, but the series delivered on the promise and then some. With this being the first round, mechanical niggles were present – which was actually a pleasant reprieve for the modern motorsport fan who is used to bulletproof reliability at the highest level – and there were two big crashes, but the on-track action was captivating regardless.

We won’t know how the Odyssey 21s will race wheel-to-wheel until tomorrow, but the very first competitive day of XE action was certainly thrilling with the course making for spectacular viewing and the driver switches a real novelty for off-road fans.

Saudi sand dunes are big

DE: The first dune on the AlUla course in nothing short of an absolute monster. Standing on top of it is like standing with your back to Mont Blanc peering down the Aiguille du Midi. Except more sandy coloured. And a bit less cold.

Cristina Gutierrez (ESP)/Sebastien Loeb (FRA), X44



Penalty system needs to be refined

LB: Nobody particularly likes penalties in motorsport but they are a necessary evil. But the 2m55.5s penalty handed out to JBXE in Q2 was particularly galling.

Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky hit the ‘pit limiter’ button as she approached the driver change zone at the end of the lap, but her attempt to slow down sharply failed, immediately earning herself a penalty for going too fast. Then Jenson Button set off from the pit box 0.5 seconds too early once he got in the car, earning another penalty.

While Button’s is understandable given he theoretically gained time illegally, Åhlin-Kottulinsky’s seems very, very, very harsh – particularly given there’s a strong argument to suggest the speed limit in the pits needn’t be as low as 30kph (18.6mph) on sand. And on that topic…

Saudi sand might be big, but it can be soft

DE: Sandy-coloured sand might all look quite sandy, but the softness of the sand can vary enormously – as DirtFish discovered when our big bus sank into a big sandy hole on Friday night. Very disappointing.

Lots about an island and a boat

DE: St Helena is so much more than a remote volcanic outpost in the South Atlantic Ocean. In our world now, St Helena is the boat that brings the fever. This 344-foot ship underwent a refit that cost millions of euros to make it the floating hub of XE. If it runs both 57-liter engines, it can almost nudge 20mph and it takes 700,000 liters of fuel to fill the tank. Oh, and one more thing we’ve learned about St Helena – the part of the British Overseas Territory – rather than the boat: it has a British postcode, which is STHL 1ZZ.

Words:David Evans, Dominik Wilde, Luke Barry

Photos:Extreme E Media, DirtFish Media