Extreme E returned this year looking less like an eccentric motorsport outlier than a glimpse at its sustainable future.
When the Extreme E championship was announced in early 2019, the idea of an off-road championship for electric SUVs competing in remote locations to highlight the impact of climate change seemed outlandish.
Three years later, with the second Extreme E season starting in Neom, Saudi Arabia, it no longer seems fanciful. In fact, it feels almost mainstream. The reason why? Sustainability.
This is the hottest topic in the industry today. It’s no longer enough simply to build an EV: car makers are racing to eliminate carbon emissions, recycle materials and protect the environment. In that context, Extreme E feels hugely relevant.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, given the form of series creator Alejandro Agag. When he launched Formula E back in 2014, sceptics doubted an electric single-seater championship could last, due to the constraints of EV technology. It’s now an FIA World Championship with seven major manufacturers represented on its grid.
Extreme E isn’t there yet, of course. The championship faced numerous challenges during its inaugural season in 2021, and there’s certainly room for improvement. But there’s clearly potential, too: it had works-backed entries from Cupra and GMC Hummer, three teams owned by Formula 1 champions and a driver line-up that mixed stars from racing, rally and rallycross.
“I compare it to a Marvel film. It’s Avengers Assemble: we’re bringing the best of motorsport together,” says Extreme E marketing chief Ali Russell.
The on-track action had potential, too: while heavy dust ruined the first event in Saudi Arabia, for the most part the identical 394kW Spark Odyssey electric buggies looked the part, were robust and reliable, and could cope with hugely varied terrain and provided good racing.
Another challenge was the abrasive, rocky surface in Greenland that challenged even Continental’s largely bulletproof Extreme E off-road tyres. The unexpected issues were the consequence of new cars racing in a new format on courses laid out only weeks in advance. It forced organisers to adapt and adjust on the fly – which became a real strength.
“With electric cars, we can control the power output and battery capacity really easily, which you can’t do with a combustion-engined car,” says race director Scot Elkins. “So we could easily adjust the power tosuittheterrainbetter. With the events we’re running, the cars don’t always need to be super-fast to produce great racing.”
The Spark buggy will remain unchanged for season two, but as with Formula E, there are plans to eventually upgrade it and free up some powertrain development. “The challenge going forward is how to put these cars through more jeopardy in environments that are increasingly challenging,” Russell says.
The hope is that, like Formula E before it, as Extreme E grows, so more manufacturers will be tempted to join. Cupra has renamed its buggy the Tavascan EV and given it a major bodywork overhaul to closely link it to its forthcoming electric SUV.
Russell says: “Manufacturers are so important to building a championship, and developing future technology that can go into road cars. We talk about being a championship of change and impact, and manufacturers can have massive impact.” He adds that there are “a variety of ongoing discussions that are incredibly healthy”.
It’s not just car firms attracted by Extreme E’s environmental angle: it also helped secure the series TV deals with the BBC, ITV and Sky Sports.
“Broadcasters want entertainment and, with our short-form concept, the action is hugely entertaining,” says Russell. “But broadcasters are looking at how to provide positive role models to society. They’re looking at the environment, equality and diversity, and looking for ways to engage with the young generation.”
Having teams of male and female drivers who swap over mid-race has been a big success, providing equality and opportunity in a sport where female representation has often been lacking. “We’re massively proud of that,” says Russell. “Speak to the female drivers and [they will tell you] it has transformed their careers.”
But the foundation of the series is about the environment. “Our goal is to tackle climate change and to tackle it through the development of the electric vehicle,” says Russell. “We want to prove EVs can work in different environments. But we’re also a test bed for sustainability. This really is a sustainability lab in a variety of locations.”
It’s perhaps easier to be cynical about that environmental messaging – especially for a series that races in oil-mad Saudi Arabia. And while each Extreme E event featured a sustainability programme to help raise awareness, they were sometimes seen only in videos of drivers picking up plastic bottles from a beach. But series bosses insist there was a more serious side: the St Helena ship used to transport the championship’s freight featured a built-in lab where scientists could run projects from each location. And there was more work behind the scenes.
“The legacy programmes make a massive impact in each location we go to,” insists Russell. “We helped plant a million mangroves and build facilities from upcycled plastic in Senegal; we worked with Unicef to educate every schoolchild in Greenland on the perils of climate change.”
Besides, Extreme E is a work in progress. It certainly isn’t carbon-neutral motorsport yet. The best example is the St Helena. The former Royal Mail ship that carries Extreme E’s freight around the world is powered by two massive diesel engines that each produce more than 2600kW. They have been converted to run on more economical, low-sulphur diesel, but they still burn an eye-watering 10 tonnes of fuel per day.
Series bosses don’t try to hide that, though (witness the words ‘NOT ELECTRIC… YET’ painted on the side of the St Helena), and it’s still better than alternative ways of transporting such a high volume of freight, such as flying.
It’s the same story in the paddock. The cars draw electricity from an innovative system by AFC Energy that uses solar power and water to generate hydrogen that fuels a generator, effectively providing a green off-grid energy source.
The power supply to the paddock itself is another example of work in progress. It currently uses a series of generators fuelled by a vegetable-oil-based diesel replacement. The plan is to phase in the use of more green hydrogen to that power supply for this year and potentially to use temporary wind turbines.
Such small steps to sustainability are similar to those being made more widely in the car industry. And that’s key to Extreme E’s future: the issues that it has been addressing are truly relevant to the current climate. That gives the series a good base to work from: the next step is proving how it can use a philosophy of sustainability to make itself sustainable.
Who to look out for in 2022
The 2022 Extreme E grid was still taking shape at the time of writing, but the big news on the team side is the arrival of Formula 1 squad McLaren, which will field the strong pairing of Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour for its first season.
Reigning champions Rosberg X Racing are back, but while Johan Kristoffersson returns to the Nico Rosberg-led team, Molly Taylor has been replaced by former JBXE racer Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky.
Elsewhere, Sébastien Loeb and Cristina Gutiérrez both return for Sir Lewis Hamilton’s X44 squad, while Abt Cupra has tabbed four- time Dakar Rally winner Nasser Al- Attiyah to join Jutta Kleinschmidt.
2022 Extreme E event calendar
19-20 February: Neom, Saudi Arabia
7-8 May: Sardinia, Italy
9-10 July: Scotland or Senegal
10-11 September: Antofagasta, Chile
26-27 November: Punta del Este, Uruguay