Racing San(d)s Sight: Recap of The Extreme E Desert X Prix
History was made last weekend with the debut of the Desert X Prix and the first ever Extreme E race. And extreme it was. Drivers wrestled the 1,650 kilo Odyssey 21 SUV across the desert sands, with a formidable yet thrilling 100-metre drop in the mix. There is incredible talent across the board, but an incredible start and consistent driving put the Rosberg X Racing team at the top of the podium. The team’s drivers Johan Kristoffersson and Molly Taylor put in a supreme effort all weekend, topping almost all of the time sheets. They were close to a clean sweep, easily winning both the semi-final and final but missing out on topping both qualifying sessions with a time penalty in Q2.
Andretti United clinched a sensational second place in front of Team X44’s third, a bold achievement considering the latter team had Dakar Rally heroine Christina Gutierrez and nine-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb. (X44 also reportedly had a power steering issue) Despite coming last in the Final, Team X44 were still the runners up in the championship standings due to their higher qualifying position. Andretti’s Catie Munnings suffered a puncture in qualifying but brought the car back safely to allow them to win the Crazy Race after an incredible lap from Timmy Hansen.
One of the biggest criticisms seen during the race however, was the issue of visibility while racing on sand. Desert races aren't new, one example being the Dakar Rally which actually raced through Al'Ula last year. So why was it an issue for Extreme E? Well it all comes down to the race format.
Regular rally raids often employ a staggered start, allowing participants to set off one vehicle at a time. Slower drivers will often let faster ones coming through go ahead without a fight, and the end result is based on how fast the competitors complete the race. In contrast, Extreme E has time trial qualifying sessions but three car races on Sunday. Therefore the issue of sand becomes much more prevalent when you are right behind a driver who won't let you overtake. In fact last weekend brought along a huge change to the qualifying format in particular due to the excessive sand, going from multi-car qualifying heats to solo laps. We also saw it heavily impact the Acciona Sainz XE team in the semi-final, when Carlos Sainz Sr chose to drop behind to recover visibility. Sainz and partner Laia Sanz ended up last in the race, losing the chance to take a spot in the Final.
There was also a huge crash in the shootout race (to determine 7th, 8th and 9th place) between Chip Ganassi’s Kyle LeDuc and Abt Cupra racer Claudia Hurtgen, where both thankfully walked away unharmed. Many chalked the incident up to poor visibility based on LeDuc’s onboards, but Dave Berkenfield, Ganassi’s team principal, cited the changing track conditions and bumps in the sand, saying “I don't think that was an accident waiting to happen… The racing lines are going to be different; the racing is going to be different.” This essentially boils down to: whichever driver that has the best start (and therefore clearest sight) will have a significant advantage. Strategy became much more important than raw pace, as despite Andretti being over 30 seconds slower in qualifying sessions, Hansen had a fantastic start and momentum throughout the race to beat X44.
And if you had the chance to watch the race or the highlights, you will be familiar with the edge-of-your-seat overtakes by Kristoffersson on Sunday. The Swedish racer took a line that went further left before cutting across on the first right-handed turn, making for a skilful switchback that allowed him to jump the other cars. From onboard videos, it seemed like a ridiculous move with the visibility he had, but he successfully performed the move on both occasions granting him a well-deserved lead position. He did mention after his semi final lap that he “felt sorry for [X44 and Acciona Sainz] behind us, after the third corner there's not really a race anymore."
"...after the third corner there's not really a race anymore."
On that note, the coordination over the camera shots were questionable at times. Firstly, in order to reduce their overall carbon footprint, Extreme E has decided on setting up cameras around the tracks and using drones to capture aerial footage, all of which is sent back to the media centre, decorated with graphics and broadcast all over the world. This meant that with the sand being thrown up by the SUVs, action between battling cars are hard to spot. The overtake by Kristoffersson was practically invisible until Extreme E released the aerial clip on social media to show how the switchback happened. With there being reportedly only three drones and preset cameras, you can expect some things to be missed. The highlights video on Extreme E’s YouTube wasn’t much better, with people commenting on how it was awkwardly pieced together with some things missed. It wouldn’t be a hard feat to just promote the whole race, given that there is an existing livestream on YouTube. Even if they were to polish up the broadcast with better angles, races were only around 12 minutes long and it would provide much draw and additional context to a new series entirely unfamiliar to most.
Then despite Extreme E being a pioneer for gender equality in motorsports, remarked by Munnings as “an amazing platform for female drivers,” the outcome was slightly disappointing. There was a focus on the terms ‘girls’ or ‘lady racers’ as opposed to men or just drivers for the male racers - unless we would like to spark the trend of ‘gentlemen drivers’? There is also a various amount of experience across the female drivers, for example with Gutierrez’ existing rally experience to Sanz, who is an established pro on 2 wheels instead of 4. Given the development of the racing during the weekend, it would be wise to allow the driver with the most or closest experience with rally driving to start the race. Many teams chose to start with their male drivers, and in particular JBXE and the Hispano Suiza Xite Energy Team. JBXE’s team started with Jenson Button on the first lap and switched to Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky, and Hispano Suiza went from Oliver Bennett to Christine Giampaoli Zonca. Arguably both females have more and at least equal rallying experience than the males, so with teams needing a strong start would it not have been a valuable option to have them start?
Lastly, the race location itself was put into question. It is a beautiful location and the work done by the Legacy Programmes with undoubtedly be very helpful, but Al’Ula as a venue seemed detrimental to the series. Again the sand was a big issue, and for a series promoting gender equality Saudi Arabia doesn’t seem like the most progressive season opener. The country has already faced backlash in regards to Formula 1 and Formula E’s choice of circuits, and Amnesty International has actively labeled this as ‘sportswashing’. In the words of Amnesty UK’s head of campaigns Felix Jakens, “with critics of the government either jailed, exiled or hounded into silence, the Saudi authorities have pursued a twin-track approach of crushing human rights while throwing large amounts of money at glittering sporting events.” Also, Saudi Aramco, one of Formula 1’s sponsors this year, is a huge polluter. Their aim to highlight climate change, their project in conserving turtles and using zero-emission, renewable energy is entirely at odds with Aramco’s oil production. So their message on sustainability falls a little flat as of now.
It is a true shame as Extreme E’s aim is to raise awareness about issues at their race locations. Undoubtedly this does work to a certain degree as it has clearly just been debated. This first race was definitely successful, with it being mentioned all over social media as a sensational prospect for motorsports. But still, as a brand new series needing to maintain that enthusiastic audience there was definitely room for improvement, and in with more time I’m sure they will have many more details ironed out. For now, we look ahead to Lac Rose, Senegal, the location of the Ocean X Prix on the 29-30th of May.
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