Feature: Andretti United fully charged for Extreme E curtain-raiser

2021-02-24 06:36:24 GMT2021-02-24 14:36:24(Beijing Time) Xinhua English

By sportswriter Michael Butterworth

BEIJING, Feb. 24 (Xinhua) -- Five races in some of the world's most remote locations, several of the world's top racing drivers in equal machinery, a commitment to gender equality, and a legacy program aimed at long-term environmental regeneration.

This is Extreme E, a new all-electric off-road racing championship set to begin in April.

The series is the brainchild of Spanish politician-turned-businessman Alejandro Agag, who also founded the electric single-seater Formula E championship in 2014. The subsequent growth and success of that series prompted Andretti United co-owner Zak Brown to take a chance on Extreme E.

"What Alejandro put together in Formula E was extremely impressive, so Extreme E was an opportunity I did not want to miss," says Brown, who is also CEO of the McLaren Formula 1 team. "I never thought Formula E would get off a PowerPoint page, and I was very wrong, and I wasn't going to make the same mistake twice."

Formula E has proved an honorable exception to the rule that new championships tend to arrive in great fanfare before collapsing once enthusiasm wanes and investment dries up.

"That's what I thought would happen with Formula E," acknowledges Brown. "But Alejandro has some serious investors behind him. With Extreme E, the messaging is right, the format is right, and there's substantial people involved."

The messaging that Brown refers to is largely rooted in environmental sustainability. The series' five rounds will take place across remote regions that have been badly affected by climate-related issues, with a commitment to restoration and raising awareness high on the agenda.

Measures have also been taken to reduce the carbon footprint of the series itself. Instead of vehicles and equipment being carried by airplane, a repurposed cargo ship will instead serve as a floating paddock, transporting all the series' facilities and providing living quarters when docked at the various stops.

In addition to highlighting green issues, Extreme E is also looking to ride the wave of social change, with teams obliged to run male-female driver pairings - a first for international motorsport.

"It should have should have happened a long time ago," says Andretti United driver Timmy Hansen of the push towards gender equality. "I'm proud to be part of the first season of this, being completely equal with male and female drivers. [Extreme E] stands for so much more than just racing."

Extreme E's unique commitment to equality and sustainability has attracted considerable interest in the series from across the global motorsport community, with ex-Formula 1 champion Jenson Button and former World Rally title winners Sebastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz among an impressive roster of driving talent.

"One of the coolest things about Extreme E is that nobody knows who's going to win," says Hansen's Andretti United teammate Catie Munnings, a rising star of Europe's rally scene.

"We don't know if it will suit the rallycross drivers, the rally drivers, or even the single-seater drivers, and I think that element of surprise is one of the most special things about Year 1."

Munnings, Hansen, and their rivals will all be competing against the clock and each other in the Odyssey 21 E-SUV, a fearsome-looking 550bhp machine capable of 0-100km/h in just 4.5 seconds. What's it like to drive?

"I thought it would feel big and heavy, but I was surprised," says Hansen. "The very first impression I had was that it doesn't feel that big at all. Not needing to change gear is a huge advantage. It's very easy, very natural to drive. You just jump in and drive fast!"

"It's amazing to drive," adds Munnings. "There's lots of different driving backgrounds coming into this championship, but everyone has got talent behind the wheel, and that's all you need. You can adapt very quickly to the Extreme E car."

The arrival of Extreme E comes as many major automakers are seeking to diversify away from fossil fuels in favor of electric power units, and several key markets have committed to an outright ban on combustion engines within ten years.

Such a move would appear to diminish the benefit and the prestige of manufacturers supplying combustion engines to championships like Formula 1, with Honda recently announcing their decision to leave that series at the end of 2021.

"I think it's inevitable," Munnings says of motorsport's shift towards electric propulsion. "We can't just live in our sport and ignore the world around us, especially when manufacturers are going electric. As a sport, we have to adapt, and there's new excitement that comes with electric as well. The world is changing, and it's something that we've got to embrace."

The first-ever Extreme E event will take place on April 3-4 in the desert of Saudi Arabia. Enditem