Extreme E’s history-making trip to Greenland may have all seemed like the brainchild of series founder Alejandro Agag, but the foundations for the Arctic X-Prix were actually set by a famous rallying brand 22 years ago.
While it was a massively impressive achievement to logistically bring the XE circus to Greenland and the town of Kangerlussuaq, it would have then been impossible to do anything beyond that had there not been roads to take the paddock and people from the St Helena ship and Kangerlussuaq airport on the 12-mile journey north-east to the temporary circuit on the riverbed of Russell Glacier.
This is where the Volkswagen Group and BMW come in.
In spring 2000, construction began on the gravel road, which has a full distance of 23.8 miles and goes past the glacier to the very edge of the island’s permanent ice sheet. Construction finished a year later. It was made in conjunction with Volkswagen, which wanted to test how its cars would operate in near-freezing conditions and on hard ice. Yep, after completing the primarily single-lane track they then established a colossal 93-mile road over the ice sheet.
Greenland government documents from 2000 show plans for a compound on the ice that would have housed facilities around a 900m-squared workshop for around 40 workers who could live there for six months at a time, with a test track going around the facility. It may have been easier to build a test site in Canada or Iceland, but the ice simply wasn’t hard enough there, nor were there guaranteed to be winter conditions all year round.
The country’s oldest telecommunications company TELE Greenland, which has a history dating back 142 years, then installed systems that synchronized what was going on at the ice sheet to various VW Group bases across Europe.
What’s more, the airport used to be a base for the US Air Force, which had also worked on a local road network. The runway was therefore long enough and strong enough to withstand the weight of planes carrying cars, and the location was secret enough that no prying journalists would get photos. In fact, you can still see the wreckage of a crashed US military plane at the side of the road today.
When Volkswagen headed to the Dakar Rally with its Race Touareg some years later, people were blown away by the scale of its preparations. The truth was though that VW had surveyed the whole world for ideal testing locations, or built its own simulations of them, long before then.
A 10-year operating permit was given to Volkswagen, and the government wanted to attract other automotive firms. The issue with ice though is it doesn’t stay still, and when VW came to realize its road was moving by some distance every day it left permanently in 2005.
A decade later, VW’s rival BMW got approval to test in Greenland in the autumn and it used the (snow-covered) gravel road, as well as frozen lakes west of the glacier and a large river basin, which is now the XE track. To use these under-threat spaces it needed Environmental Impact Assessment certificates, something that came very handy in 2021…
“Extreme E fits so well with so many things for us, because this is also for the motor industry,” Laust Løgstrup, vice-director of the Qeqqata municipality that Kangerlussuaq sits in, told DirtFish.
“Because first we had Volkswagen, they build this road you went on all the way to the ice cap and you can go up there. But actually we also had BMW testing [hybrid] cars in 2014 here in Kangerlussuaq,” he added, just as ice the size of a house crashed into the water off the face of the glacier.
“Two years ago, Extreme E came here and they landed in Kangerlussuaq. Ali Russell [XE chief marketing officer], Carlo [Duarte, XE scientific committee] and I went on a tour and we went out here. And they have only said one thing: ‘We’d like a place where there is no vegetation, we don’t want to destroy the existing vegetation’. And we said we had one good place.
We are building an off-road track in the other direction, and we have this road already. We hope motor tourists would come and say, 'XE was here, we can drive the same track as these greats'Laust Løgstrup
“We drove from the airport out to the site here, and then they said, ‘This. Is. Perfect. We don’t destroy vegetation here, you can see the ice cap behind, this is perfect’.
“We went around to look at other things, but there is nothing [to compare], only this. And then they said, ‘Can we get an environmental approval first so we can race here? We’d like to announce it very soon’. This was announced as the first. And we said, ‘Yes, you can get it right away’, because BMW tested their cars on the track.
“So we had already got an environmental approval for having cars driving around at speed there. So that’s also why we want, it’s good for us to have XE here because the car industry will see again, ‘Ah, there is something about this spot in Greenland here’. So there’s also a small hope for that. And you can say the idea for BMW is that the season for winter testing is longer near the ice cap, it cools down, so the season is a little bit longer here than in northern Sweden where they normally test.”
But if manufacturers do not come to test prototype road and performance vehicles, then there’s a back-up plan that’s just as exciting and would certainly merit a DirtFish return after getting to do a lap of the XE circuit ourselves.
“We are building an ATV [quad bike and off-roader] track the other direction, and we have this road already,” said Løgstrup. “And of course we hope that motor tourists would come and say, ‘Extreme E was here, can we drive on this same track as Sébastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz and all these great rally champions and teams owned by Formula 1 team drivers and so on’. And of course we think that could be a new market.
“In England, I know that at Silverstone you can go with your own car and pay to go around the track there. So we think we can do that as well. And when you’re here and doing that, then you could also go on a ATV trip to Sisimiut, to the coast.”
When DirtFish put this to Agag, who didn’t know of the plans to keep the circuit in some form, he was surprised but immediately came around to the idea.
“I love that,” he said. “That’s a legacy. Because you start creating a culture of motorsport in the country. I think that’s fantastic. I didn’t know that.
“And like we say always, race without a trace. So probably this place a month after we’ve gone, and a couple days of wind, you won’t see we’ve been here. But if they want to have the track, they’d probably have to put some signals or something to guide the cars.”
He added: “Laust is very keen on building that road.”
At this point, DirtFish had to dig a little deeper to find out more on the second road. Or rather, had to get municipality approval to dig deeper.
The Arctic Circle Road is the next big road project in progress, and will connect Kangerlussuaq with the west coast town of Sisimiut that is 110 miles west. This is going to be a nation-first, as no two settlements in the country have ever been connected before by road.
Kangerlussuaq’s own road network is Greenland’s largest, but because they’re only local trips it means range is never an issue for electric cars, and a lap of the Arctic X-Prix circuit on top of that shouldn’t decharge a battery pack entirely. The colossal volume of glacial meltwater that goes past and into the sea means hydropower will be able to power vehicles sustainably too, with 20billion Danish Krone ($3.183bn) being invested in the municipality to build energy plants. It could become the perfect place to test battery technology needed for, say, the Dakar’s electric future.
The new road has been in planning for years, and in the 1990s a hiking path was created that takes a full week to cross and requires travelers to carry everything on their back for the trip. If you want to transport seafood from Sisimiut to Kangerlussuaq, that’s going to smell nasty if carried on foot. There’s no access by boat up the fjord either for half of the year as it’s frozen, and international flights are mostly via Kangerlussuaq.
It’s no surprise then that Malik Berthelsen, municipality mayor, called the long-planned road for cars “the road to freedom”.
After BMW left, DKK 54m ($8,587,650) was given in parts by the municipality for a winter-resistant three-meter wide ATV track that could then become a full gravel road to be built to connect the two towns through an indigenous hunting ground and what was soon to become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Greenland government approval came in 2019 (after the Danish government rejected similar plans from the US Air Force decades prior), and the new road truly broke ground in July of last year.
Løgstrup said the project “has to be” profitable, and plans to split funding 50/50 between the municipality and the government. Oxford Global Projects is publishing a report supporting government investment and detailing the economic benefits of the road. The second phase of construction occurs this year, and is aimed to be completed in 2022.
Once done, incoming manufacturers could more sustainably ship their cars into Sisimiut all year round, then drive to Kangerlussuaq and beyond. The existing ATV track has already got the ire of hikers and hunters, who do camp on the route and sustain parts of it, but the preliminary path is essential for discovering where in the rolling topography a proper road can be safely built.
Arctic conditions will inevitably damage the road every year, and erosion gets accelerated by use, making the maintenance of the route for all the parties who intend to use it particularly difficult financially. It’s why attracting automotive testing and motorsport back again, and the money that brings, will be crucial for the future of transportation in Qeqqata.
So will the Arctic X-Prix be taking place again next summer?
“Greenland for sure will be on next year’s calendar, it’s been a great event, to come here is fantastic,” Agag said.
“Really this is the spirit of Extreme E, this is real, this is a real extreme race. That ‘Rock Garden’ [sector of the circuit] for example, I love that feature, it’s a killer on cars.”