Johan Kristofferson and Molly Taylor teamed to win the Desert X Prix in Saudi Arabia—the first event in the Exteme E series.
Winning team founder and past Formula 1 champion Nico Rosberg said that while he was happy for his team’s win, the electric SUV racing series’ aim is to “raise awareness of the problems the world is facing and show that we care.”
The off-road racing series was founded by Alejandro Agag, who also founded the Formula E open-wheel series.
Saying neither Johan Kristofferson nor Molly Taylor “put a foot wrong in really tough conditions, and they both showed unbelievable speed out there,” retired second-generation Formula 1 star Nico Rosberg saw two of his passion projects shine on a world stage this weekend at Al-’Ula, Saudi Arabia, with the Extreme E Series inaugural.
The 2016 Formula 1 world driving champion and owner of the Extreme E team that features Kristoffersson, of Sweden, and Taylor, of Australia, epitomized the spirit of the dramatically different new motorsport series even before any of the race cars started, days before his team won Sunday’s Desert X Prix.
“To combine my passion for racing and sustainability in the same project is awesome,” Rosberg, 35, said. “We’ve been out this (past) week, helping turtles and removing plastic from the beach. And of course, that’s not big impact on its own. But what we want to do is raise awareness of the problems the world is facing and show that we care. Since my F1 career ended, I’ve been focused on sustainability. And when (series founder) Alejandro Agag called me and told me about Extreme E, for me it was the perfect match.”
So were Kristoffersson and Taylor as they carved themselves a piece of auto-racing history. They dug deep in the desert sands—sands rich in history as the crossroads of the so-called Silk Road and Incense Route—to hold off the Andretti United tandem of Timmy Hansen and Catie Munnings and Lewis Hamilton’s third-place X44 team drivers Sébastien Loeb and Cristina Gutiérrez. The X44 pair were Saturday’s top qualifiers.
And the racers, male and female, regarded this first of five intercontinental races as a sweeping success, not only for Agag’s vision to alert the motorsports industry of severe climate change and its role in improving conditions but also for the advancement of gender equality in racing. Each team has two drivers, one man and one woman, and each competes for one lap in the two-lap format for the all-electric Odyssey 21 SUVs that are on center stage to prove a technological point, as well.
“It’s pretty cool to be part of this journey at the start of something that I think has an amazing future. This series is really throwing the traditional rule book out of the window and starting afresh,” Taylor said after stepping from atop the podium. “And and I think everyone will agree it was spectacular to watch. The male drivers we have here are the best in any motorsport category in the world, so it’s an awesome opportunity for us female drivers and a real investment in the development of female racing talent. This is just a dream come true all-round.”
“Molly performed fantastically. It was her that made the difference in the first Qualifying session,” Kristofferson said. “When you’re in the lead, you need to strike the right balance between backing off too much and risking too much, which is a new learning experience in this situation.”
Andretti United driver Catie Munnings, of Britain, said, “Extreme E offers an amazing platform for female drivers, and it’s super-cool to be racing against such fast girls. It’s been really nice to see everyone coming together, encouraging each other and creating a competitive environment. All of us—men and women alike—have been learning on the job and having a great time while doing it.
“I’m super-happy with the start to the season. This is a massive moment for my career and one I will remember forever. It’s been such a journey just to get to this point with a big build-up and no-one really knowing what to expect. So to finish with a great result makes it even more special.
After topping the leaderboard at the end of qualifying Saturday, X44’s Loeb and Gutiérrez managed to come in third, despite consistently losing time because of power-steering trouble in the final round. But Gutiérrez said, “The whole weekend has been really good, and it all just came down to some bad luck in the final with the power steering breaking. There was nothing we could do about that, so we have to be pleased to finish third. Extreme E offers such a great opportunity for female drivers to race directly against so many legends of the sport, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”
It was a huge step forward for women racers, for just a few years ago few would have imagined a seven-time and reigning Formula 1 champion would be giving driving pointers to a female Spanish rally ingenue. Gutiérrez said Sunday, “I’m very happy to be in such a great team. I spoke to Lewis [Hamilton – X44 founder] during the weekend, and he gave me a lot of advice and tips. And now I’m looking forward to going to Senegal to try to win.”
Alejandro Agag, founder and CEO of Extreme E, said, “We’ve worked so hard on this for many years, and finally everything has come together this weekend. It really has been beyond my wildest expectations. If I had written a script for the perfect weekend, I could not have come up with anything better than what we have witnessed these past two days. I’ve never seen such extreme racing in my life.
“This first race weekend will have a huge influence on how Extreme E evolves,” he said. “And one of the reasons I feel so proud is that we have built this platform where female drivers can shine like they deserve. What we have seen from them here is extraordinary – some incredible talent and courage—and overall, I think it’s fair to say we have really made our mark. I’m over the moon.”
Andretti United driver Timmy Hansen, of Sweden, agreed. He said, “Massive congratulations to Alejandro Agag and the entire Extreme E organization. To pull this idea off at such a high level is astonishing. It has exceeded any expectations that I had, and I’m excited to see where this championship will take off to. I think Extreme E has an incredibly bright future.”
The Rosberg X Racing team, Taylor said, had “an amazing start to the season. It feels a bit surreal, with so much anticipation and preparation leading into the weekend and we all came here not really knowing what to expect. It was definitely extreme. It was the first time we had experienced terrain like that, and on every lap, the course was changing–there were so many different variables to deal with. We just wanted to make the most of the little time we had in the car – every single kilometer.”
(The cars were ferried to the race site aboard the St. Helena, a heavily refitted former British mail and cargo ship whose purpose is to reduce racing’s carbon footprint while serving as Extreme E’s race control hub, broadcast liaison, hotel for participants, and science lab for biologists and archaeologists as the series stops in Africa, Greenland, and twice in South America.)
Taylor alluded to “a small issue in the pit lane during qualifying,” a 60-second penalty for exceeding the 30km/h limit in the driver switch zone Saturday. They also had less favorable grid slots in both the semifinal and final Sunday. “But aside from that,” she said, “we were the quickest in every session. You have to be fast when it counts, be smart when it counts, and take the big moves when it counts,” she said. “And for it to all come together when it mattered was really special. Huge thanks to Johan—his opening laps were just insane – and the team has done such an incredible amount of work behind-the-scenes.”
Kristoffersson gave “huge congratulations to the team” and said, “We had some minor issues, but we came here very well-prepared, which made our life so much easier out on-track. This sport isn’t only about the drivers—it’s about the team giving us the tools to do the job. With such a limited amount of track time, you need to have confidence that the car will do what you ask of it—and the Rosberg X Racing guys did an amazing job to give Molly and myself such a great car.”
Rosberg said, “This is insane. I’m so thankful to the whole team for the effort put in this weekend, which has been intense and really on the edge. Everything has come together so well, and everybody has worked together so well. Molly and Johan produced some phenomenal driving. Their performance was really inspiring, and I felt really proud watching them. To come back to claim victory after a 60-second penalty caused by a technical problem is just awesome, and they are definitely deserving winners. For the championship as a whole, it’s really been a good start.”
As winners of the fan-led GridPlay vote, Andretti United had the luxury of choosing its starting spot for the final. Hansen replicated his lightning launch from the Crazy Race as Kristoffersson focused his efforts on fending off Loeb for second. But then Kristofferson used a tactic that had served him so well in the semifinal to sweep wide going into Turn One and undercut compatriot Hansen on the exit in a sensational switchback move.
Kristoffersson, a three-time FIA World Rallycross Champion, then wasted no time in securing the lead, while Hansen settled into second and Loeb—grappling with power-steering problems—lagged back in third place. Kristoffersson handed the car over to Taylor with a half-minute advantage. Munnings would go on to narrow the deficit slightly in the second lap for Andretti United. But Taylor had the situation under control and wound up just a tick more than 23 seconds ahead at the finish.
That second-place showing completed a remarkable recovery for Andretti United following the team’s Saturday struggles. A punctured tire during qualifying had threatened to derail their weekend altogether.
In qualifying, the pioneering electric SUV off-road racing series produced some memorable action on the tricky, high-speed 8.8km track layout which was laid out in the midst of a breathtaking otherworldly landscape.
Kristofferson and Taylor set the pace in the first qualifying session, with Kristoffersson showcasing his effortlessly smooth style and Taylor demonstrating her famed car control as she artfully held on to a wild “bucking bronco” moment along the way.
Others weren’t as lucky. ABT CUPRA XE driver Claudia Hürtgen thankfully emerged unharmed from a sizeable barrel-roll almost within sight of the Q1 finish line. For Veloce Racing, Stéphane Sarrazin’s rollover enough to rule the British outfit out of the remainder of the weekend.
Following a difficult Friday, Segi TV Chip Ganassi Racing’s woes continued into qualifying, with a power steering issue that required Kyle LeDuc and Sara Price physically to wrestle their Odyssey 21 to the end of Q1. It was a situation that LeDuc described as “a fist fight” inside the cockpit. Further gremlins prevented Price from even reaching the start-line in Q2. That relegated Price and LeDuc to the Sunday’s Shoot Out race to make the grid.
Agag said, “There were some heart-in-the-mouth moments (Saturday), particularly for ABT CUPRA XE and Claudia Hürtgen. I think it’s safe to say we are all pleased to see her walk away from the crash—it is a testament to CBMM Niobium and their robust and tough chassis, which was put to the ultimate test today and delivered.”
Winding its way spectacularly between canyons, through ravines, across deep sand dunes and punctuated by 33 way points, the rock-strewn course was bumpy and undulating in equal measure, with steep climbs offset by ‘The Drop’—a 100 meter, 45-degree descent likened by some competitors to tackling a black ski run. For almost everybody, it represented a journey into the unknown.
Hansen figured the next race will be more of the unknown, as well: “Senegal next time out will be a completely different proposition, and almost like starting from zero again. With so many high-profile teams and drivers, we will have to be on our toes and work even harder.”
The odd team out on the eight-car grid for Sunday’s runoffs was Veloce racing, with France’s Stéphane Sarrazin and England’s Jamie Chadwick.
As the series heads to Lac Rose in Senegal for the May 29-30 Ocean X Prix, the top three in the championship standings are (in order) Rosberg, X44, and Andretti United. Segi TV Chip Ganassi Racing, still trying to get some traction in the mix with the American duo of Kyle LeDuc and Sara Price, is eight among the nine teams.
At Lac Rose, the climate-change issues will be rising seas levels and pollution that threatens the ecosystem (erosion, food scarcity, and food-chain/ocean contamination).
Rosberg X Racing (Johan Kristoffersson / Molly Taylor) 35 points
X44 (Sébastien Loeb / Cristina Gutiérrez) 30 points
Andretti United (Timmy Hansen / Catie Munnings) 28 points
ACCIONA | Sainz XE Team (Carlos Sainz Sr. / Laia Sanz) 26 points
Hispano Suiza XITE Energy Team (Oliver Bennett / Christine Giampaoli Zonca) 20 points
JBXE (Jenson Button / Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky) 17 points
ABT Cupra XE (Mattias Ekström / Claudia Hürtgen) 13 points
Segi TV Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle LeDuc / Sara Price) 12 points
Veloce Racing (Stéphane Sarrazin / Jamie Chadwick) 8 points