Extreme E 2021 series preview: “A new volume of motorsport history”

When the new FIA Extreme E (XE) World Championship gets under way near the historic city of Al-’Ula in Saudi Arabia this weekend, it won’t just be the first round of a new motorsport series but also the start of a whole new concept – one that’s provocative, challenging, groundbreaking and exciting in equal measure.

The brainchild of Formula E founder Alejandro Agag, XE is an off-road championship for identical 550bhp electric SUVs competing head-to-head on off-road courses marked out by gates. Each team features a male and a female racer who must swap at the midpoint of each race, and competitors can earn a boost by performing big jumps and winning online fan votes.

The races will take place without spectators (although that no longer seems novel) in five remote locations affected by climate change, with all the equipment and cars being transported on a ‘floating paddock’ cargo ship – which will also serve as a base for scientists conducting environmental research and enacting conservation projects.

A strong driver line-up includes Formula 1 champion Jenson Button and World Rally Championship icon Sébastien Loeb, while among the team owners are Button, Sir Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

So far, XE has stoked interest, debate and, yes, some cynicism from those questioning the ‘green’ credentials of a motorsport series touring the world on a diesel ship and starting its season in oil-money-fuelled Saudi Arabia.

Leaving all that to one side, XE still promises to be a very different form of motorsport. And that makes it a huge, entirely new challenge for the nine teams and 18 drivers partaking. XE draws in elements of rallying, rallycross and circuit racing, and the drivers come from across the motorsport world. That goes for the teams, too, which bring experience from Formula E, sports cars, rallying, rallycross and American racing.

There are also total newcomers, including Veloce Racing, a tech firm and esports squad taking its first step into real-world motorsport. That said, experience is hardly in short supply: it was co-founded by Formula E champion Jean-Éric Vergne and lists legendary F1 car designer Adrian Newey as its ‘lead visionary’.

Another old hand is team manager Ian Davies, who has worked in rallycross and rallying for more than 30 years with M-Sport, Ken Block and Olsbergs MSE, among others. Tasked with building the Veloce squad from scratch, he was attracted by the prospect of “a fresh challenge” – and certainly found it.

“Extreme E started with a completely blank piece of paper,” Davies says. “It’s the first electric off-road competition car. It’s not rallying or rallycross. It doesn’t have an established set of rules. All the sporting and technical regulations are brand new.”

Conversely, that step into the unknown makes experience more important than ever. So instead of trying to build up its own race squad, which would require investing in a workshop, equipment and so on, Veloce has contracted multiple-title winning Formula 2 squad ART to run its car. “It’s an approach that works well for us in getting us up to speed quickly,” says Davies.

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