Lewis Hamilton is on the cusp of becoming statistically the most successful Formula 1 driver of all time. Six world championships in the bag, a record-equaling seventh on the horizon, the Mercedes driver also has more grand prix wins and pole positions than anyone else.
One word is synonymous with Hamilton’s career: success.
Extreme E will be a change of pace for Hamilton. Success is not a given here, far from it. If anything, Hamilton’s X44 team has ground to make up on its rivals before the series has even hosted its first event in the deserts of Saudi Arabia next March. It’s starting on the back foot compared to many of its competitors.
Two types of motorsport fused together form the backbone of XE’s format: rallycross and rally raid. The tall, bulky-looking SUV bodies evoke Dakar-style comparisons, but in truth it’s a bit more like rallycross as drivers race on off-road circuits against each other at the same time, rather than spaced apart.
Every team will use a spec Odyssey 21 designed and built by Spark Racing Technology, and powered by identical batteries supplied by Williams Advanced Engineering. The body shapes can be tweaked in season one and powertrain development will be open to teams by season three. But for now, everyone gets the same car.
That means operations will make all the difference. And several teams on the XE grid already have experience running successful rallycross outfits.
Andretti United starts out with a very strong hand. It ran the successful Volkswagen team in Global Rallycross and Americas Rallycross, winning five titles in five years. It’s also got reigning World Rallycross Champion Timmy Hansen as one of its drivers.
QEV already has skin in the game too. It’s currently developing an electric rallycross car in conjunction with Olsbergs for RX2e, a support category for the top-level World RX series. As a bonus, it’s also got experience in Formula E as the brains behind the NEXTEV TCR team [now known as NIO 333] that ran Nelson Piquet Jr – a winner in Global Rallycross – to the title in the series’ inaugural season.
X44 has none of these things. For now, at least.
“I know absolutely nothing about off-road racing,” confesses Marc Hynes, who is in charge of X44’s first foray into motorsport as manager of Project 44, the vehicle for Hamilton’s business activities.
“I think that’s what’s quite exciting about this too; getting into a different form of racing and developing that.”
First up, is figuring out who’s running the team at an operational level. Project 44 never intended to run a motorsport team when it was founded back in 2015, but now it suddenly has one. It’s recently had its Odyssey 21 delivered too but right now it’s still figuring out who’s actually going to be running it. And driving it.
The good news is the off-the-shelf nature of XE’s first season means there’s no need for an army of R&D people trying to find tenths of a second from the battery technology, the inverter, or any other part of the powertrain.
Those similarities with rallycross means winning titles in XE – for the first two season at least – may well be possible with less than a dozen staff. Team Hansen, the reigning World RX Champion outfit, scored both the drivers’ and teams titles with a team of only 15 people.
X44 plans to take on the rest of the field with only half that number.
“Because this has got very few people on the ground, only seven people including your female and male racing driver, it’s not a whole lot of people that you need. So we’re working out how we best support those people on the ground,” continues Hynes.
“Because you’ve only got five races across such a long period of time, those fives races are the main focal point for everyone’s racing season and we’ve got ambition of how we offer opportunity and bring people through what actually is a very small number of people.
“It presents challenges but we’re inspired by breaking the mould, we want to drive positive change and sometimes you just have to do things a bit differently to achieve them. This platform gives you exactly that potential for breaking the mold of a normal race team.”
That raison d’être – breaking the mold – will be influencing X44’s personnel selections to a degree.
While every driver announced by XE so far has an off-road background – whether that’s rallycross, rallying, motocross, or something else – X44 is considering circuit racers for its driver line-up.
X44 won’t necessarily go down the Veloce route of bringing a big name in the technical department like Adrian Newey either, though Hynes concedes a balance is required to be competitive from the outset.
“As always, a balance of youth and experience is, particularly in the earlier stages of a team when we’re finding our feet, [the way to go]. Certainly, we are driven and motivated for giving young people a chance to develop, and that comes to technicians, for engineers, for drivers.
“When you only have seven [personnel] in the field, including those drivers, you need to have people that are going to be competitive and drive that team forward. It does present a short-term challenge but it’s a long-term project. It’s not just a one-year project so we do intend, and we will be dedicated to, developing young talent. It will take time, is the reality of it.
“We’ve got a chat going on with a few different drivers, female and male; we’re also researching the market as we’ve not so much instinct for the off-road racers, and we’re studying the challenges of getting circuit racers up to speed off-road. So it presents a lot of questions.
“We aren’t jumping to conclusions yet but we do have ambition to drive that positive change, and we’ll be working on it as we go through the seasons.”
Hamilton is a big name but, as it stands, X44 won’t be an XE powerhouse. Not just yet.
Abt, Andretti United, QEV and Techeetah are, on paper at least, the top teams heading into XE season one; organizations with plenty of infrastructure in place and all possessing first-hand experience of electric motorsport.
For now at least, Hamilton is in the unusual position of being the underdog.