When Extreme E (XE) was announced by Formula E founder Alejandro Agag two years ago, such a novel concept seemed even less credible than his idea of an electric single-seater racing series did before Dieselgate.
Not only was this to be an amalgam of rallying and circuit racing contested by 410kW electric SUVs but quite literally a race to save the world, broadcasting races from damaged locations with the goal of raising public awareness of environmental and sustainability issues.
But already the scepticism and scoffing is dying down. XE has been awarded FIA International Series status and fleshed out with a number of star names, both human and corporate. It’s not content to be seen as a Mickey Mouse Cup. That much is clear.
American motorsport titans Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing will each run a car, as will reigning Formula E (FE) champion Techeetah and the Volkswagen Group’s new electrified sporting road car brand, Cupra (in collaboration with Abt, the motorsport outfit that runs Audi’s efforts in FE and the DTM touring car series).
The signing of Formula 1 design expert Adrian Newey by the Veloce team has also drawn attention and the drivers of the mechanically identical Spark Odyssey cars will include rallying legends Sébastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz and World Rallycross (WRX) champions Mattias Ekström, Timmy Hansen and Johan Kristoffersen. Ekström, who was tempted across from WRX by the Abt team with which he won the DTM in 2004 and 2007 and is currently on the Dakar Rally, reckons the rallycrossers are best equipped for the unusual challenge of XE. “Especially when it comes to the jumping, loose gravel, close contact and four-wheel-drive sliding experience,” says the 42-year-old Swede.
But is this a serious campaign, or just a chance for fun with some old friends? And more broadly, is XE an entertainment show rather than serious competition; or even primarily a environmental concern, with the sport an afterthought? “I’m not there for any show,” Ekström says. “I’m there to win the race. If you want to see it as a show, go ahead, well done, but I want to have a big trophy. That has always been my aim. When I put my helmet on and go racing, I’ll do my best and try to win. And there will be a couple more boys and girls who will have the same opinion.”
Uniquely, XE decrees that each car must be shared by a man and a woman. “I actually have been beaten by girls before, and I have no problem with this,” says Ekström, who will share driving duties with fellow touring car veteran Claudia Hürtgen.
You might well think that these drivers are joining XE simply because it’s a solid opportunity to race, but for Ekström at least it holds greater relevance. The truth is that, like a famous compatriot of his, he is passionate about conservation – although it took him many more years than Greta Thunberg to take notice.
“I drove in the DTM for 17 years,” he says, “and we were consuming tyres and fuel and parts like there was no tomorrow, but there was never anyone asking if that was good for the environment. In XE, we will be allowed to use 10 tyres per season. In the DTM, we used 10 sets in a weekend.