Why Cupra is racing in Extreme E

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Racing is baked into Cupra’s name and brand image, but an electric off-road series is very much new territory.

Plenty of car makers have a rich motorsport heritage, but few can accurately claim that it’s baked right into their name like Cupra can. It’s hidden in plain sight: Cup Racing.

What was once a badge used for Seat’s motorsport efforts and hot road cars is today a stand-alone brand with a broader, more rounded focus, but it still has competition at its heart. “Motorsport is still very important for us,” says marketing chief Thibaud Vincent-Genod. “It’s in our DNA, so it’s natural for us to look where we can be involved.”

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In recent years, its focus has been on touring cars with the TCR-spec Cupra Leon, expanding into the electric Pure ETCR series in 2021. But Cupra took a bold leap last year, becoming the first manufacturer to sign up for the new Extreme E category, with a team run by Abt, the German tuning firm that has also run Audi’s title-winning DTM and Formula E works efforts.

That said, walk through the various tents assembled on an otherwise innocuous patch of Saudi Arabian desert that forms the Extreme E paddock for the 2022 season opener and Abt Cupra doesn’t exactly stand out as one of just two manufacturer-backed teams.

You won’t find any of the trappings normally associated with a major manufacturer’s motorsport project: the service tent is the same size as every other, there’s a small handful of mechanics instead of a vast phalanx and there isn’t a vast hospitality unit to entertain hundreds of vaguely interested VIPs. The only real clue is the Cupra Born parked in the sand behind the tent.

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But don’t mistake that lack of paddock presence for a lack of commitment: it’s actually part of the reason Cupra is here. Such small infrastructure is inherent to Extreme E to keep costs down and to maintain its commitment to environmental sustainability – which Cupra, like all car makers, is hugely keen to promote. That means the events are spectator-free and there are limits on staff numbers and freight so as to reduce the carbon impact of travel.

There’s a communal dining tent for teams and one hospitality tent so sponsors can entertain a few guests (because sustainable motorsport still needs money). In a way, Extreme E isn’t really built for manufacturers – and that’s largely by design.

“Manufacturers are always welcome, but you have to build championships that can exist without them,” explains series founder Alejandro Agag.

He also founded Formula E, which grew dramatically thanks to an influx of manufacturers but has lately had to cope with Audi, BMW and Mercedes-EQ announcing their withdrawals.

“The problem with having a lot of manufacturers is that only one can go to the board on Monday and say ‘we won’. So if you have nine manufacturers, you have eight losers.”

Notably, unlike in Formula E, manufacturers have no freedom to develop powertrains. But that hasn’t deterred Cupra, nor has it stopped it learning, even if the project is run not from Martorell but from Kempten, Germany.

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“We work closely with the Abt guys and talk to them every week, and what they’re learning will definitely help in the future,” explains Vincent-Genod.

It’s not direct tech transfer but learning about EV powertrains. Cupra’s first XE season began badly, as Claudia Hürtgen had a massive crash. That led to an impromptu driver switch, and while the revised line-up of Jutta Kleinschmidt and Mattias Ekström (who won the 2021 ETCR title in a Leon) showed strong pace, reliability and set-up issues meant they never quite matched the front-running Rosberg Xtreme and X44 teams.

Rather than being put off, Cupra has upped its efforts for 2022, taking advantage of XE rules allowing it to fit its own bodywork. That task was done in-house by the road car design team, with design director Jorge Díez using the opportunity to preview the forthcoming Tavascan electric SUV.

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Alongside that, multiple Dakar Rally winner Nasser Al-Attiyah has been signed to replace Ekström (who is focused on defending his ETCR title) alongside Kleinschmidt.

Predictably, two Dakar winners showed plenty of pace in the season-opening Desert X-Prix, but things didn’t quite go to plan. Al-Attiyah accidentally entered the Switch zone instead of crossing the finish line in qualifying and was then involved in a contentious crash with Dakar sparring partner Carlos Sainz in the second heat. That put Cupra into the Crazy Race, from which only one car progresses to the final – and it came a narrow second behind McLaren XE.

It was a frustrating start, but it hasn’t dampened Cupra’s resolve. While some manufacturers would just throw more money or staff at the problem, that’s not an option in Extreme E and not why Cupra is here.

The unusual race format is part of the appeal. “It’s a new concept in motorsport pitched at a new, younger audience,” says Vincent-Genod.

“It’s a bit disruptive, so it’s ideal for a new, young brand like ours.”

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In that sense, four years into its existence as a stand-alone brand, Cupra is using XE to push into the future. But it’s also about building a link to Cupra’s racing roots. After all, it’s right there in the name.

Jutta Kleinschmidt didn’t expect to land a full-time works drive at the age of 58 – not least for a youth-focused manufacturer in a series for EVs.

The first female Dakar Rally winner isn’t afraid of new tech: she signed up to be an Extreme E reserve partly as she was so enthusiastic about EVs.

She was called into action when Abt Cupra’s Claudia Hürtgen fell ill in the second race of last season and impressed so much that she retained the seat for the rest of the year, then was kept on for 2022. Was she expecting that? “Not really,” she replies. “Cupra is a young, modern brand, and there’s lots of young female talent they could have chosen, but my age didn’t put them off.”

Kleinschmidt is passionate about Extreme E’s gender mix and admits that she mentors the younger women – off the track, at least. “Everyone is nice until the race starts,” she jokes.

While door-to-door racing is also new, she isn’t easily intimidated: “I started racing Dakar on a bike with no mechanic or service crew…”

James Attwood

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