Sand, sun, and electric off-road SUVs: Extreme E holds its first race

Traveling to threatened environments in order to have a race to raise awareness about the threats to those environments might seem a little counterintuitive at first glance. But that’s the concept behind Extreme E, a new racing series for electric off-road SUVs, created by some of the people who gave us Formula E.

When Extreme E was launched, it promised challenging racing against a backdrop of spectacular (spectator-free) scenery in remote locations, with participants traveling by ecologically aware boat, not fleets of jumbo jets. And the first X Prix, held this past weekend in Saudi Arabia, certainly delivered in that regard, with action reminiscent of a Tatooine pod race.

The fledgling sport has already attracted some of the biggest names in racing. Formula 1 world champions Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, and Jenson Button are each fielding a team, and Button is also donning his nomex as one of the drivers. As are rally legends Sebastian Loeb and Carlos Sainz, and Laia Sanz, one of the most successful Trials riders and a distinguished Dakar competitor. Even GMC Hummer is taking part now that it has found a new lease on life as an EV brand.

Nine teams are each fielding a single Odyssey 21 electric off-roader; all are identical-looking save for the Hummer EV entry, which has been styled to bear a family resemblance. Built around a niobium-reinforced steel roll cage, it uses a 40 kWh lithium-ion battery pack (56 kWh total capacity) made by Williams Advanced Engineering (who will supply Formula E’s third-generation battery as well) and is capable of supplying up to 400 kW (536 hp) to a pair of electric motors. With specially designed tires and highly capable suspension, the Odyssey 21s are capable of tackling gradients as steep as 53 degrees, as well as reaching 62 mph (100 km/h) in just 4.5 seconds.

Yes, they’ve thought about how to charge the cars

Obviously, charging infrastructure isn’t the first thing you think of when someone says “remote location,” so Extreme E brings charging equipment with it on its boat, the St. Helena. In the days leading up to each race, the equipment uses solar panels to electrolyze hydrogen from water; that hydrogen is then used by fuel cells to generate electricity that charges the race cars. The chargers run at 40 kW, and fully charging each Odyssey 21 takes about 90 minutes.

Although the teams only have one car apiece, they also each need a pair of drivers, one female and one male. (Extreme E wants to do something about the ingrained gender inequality in racing as well as highlighting the consequences of climate change.) Unlike in rallying or Dakar, the teammates don’t ride together—instead they hand off the car from one to the other as you might find in sports car racing.

Extreme E’s approach of trying new things extends to the format of a race weekend. Before any racing could take place, there was a visit to Ras Baridi on the Red Sea, a nesting site of endangered green turtles. Extreme E will work with the Ba’a Foundation to help turtle conservation on-site, in addition to spotlighting the issue in its race broadcast.

For the first day of the Desert X Prix, the teams competed one after another in qualifying time trials; first, one driver would set a time on the 5.5-mile (8.8 km) course, at which point they would enter the pit lane and hand the car over to their teammate to do the same (with hefty time penalties if they drive too fast in the pit lane). Day two saw a series of three-car races to decide the eventual winner and championship order.

Star Wars pod racing meets Dakar

Despite the short races, there was plenty of action as cars had to negotiate deep dunes and a 100-m 45-degree descent that gave the cars plenty of airtime. Andretti United driver Catie Munnings drove well after her right rear tire blew early in her qualifying run, but there were dramatic crashes for Abt Cupra XE’s Claudia Hürtgen and Veloce Racing’s Stéphane Sarrizan, each of whom barrel-rolled their Odyssey 21s after getting a little too sideways in the sand. Both walked away unscathed, but Veloce Racing’s weekend ended there, with damage too severe to fix onsite.

On day two, the sand caused more complications, as the huge plumes being thrown up meant that visibility was non-existent unless you were in the lead or many seconds behind another car. The finale was a three-way race between Andretti United, Rosberg X Racing, and X44 (Hamilton’s team), which suffered from power-steering woes that put it out of contention. The win went to Molly Taylor and Johan Kristoffersson of Rosberg X Racing, who finished almost 24 seconds ahead of the Andretti United car.

Extreme E is decamping for its next event, the Ocean X Prix, which will be held at Lac Rose in Senegal on the last weekend in May.

Listing image by Extreme E