Extreme E, the off-road electric racing championship which races in exotic locations to highlight conservation efforts, starts its third season this weekend with a race in Saudi Arabia along the coast of the Red Sea.
The first two seasons of Extreme E brought us an abundance of chaotic racing, with purpose-built electric vehicles showing their incredible capabilities in difficult terrain.
Every Extreme E race location is picked to bring awareness to one aspect of how humans are affecting the world around us. This one, the Desert X Prix, brings desertification into focus. As the climate changes and gets warmer due to human activity (from carbon emissions, which Saudi Arabia itself plays a large part in emitting), fertile land can degrade and shrink, turning into desert terrain due to drought and higher average temperatures (or due to over-farming).
This has famously happened in the “fertile crescent” – the area in the Middle East, not too far North of the Desert X Prix’s race location, where human civilization first flourished due to the region’s exceptional fertility. That fertility has waned over time due to human activity, turning formerly fertile lands into desert.
The four other race locations this season focus on issues related to their locations as well. Races are given names related to the environmental issues they plan to focus on, though further details of each race are yet to be announced:
- Hydro X Prix, May 13-14 in Scotland
- Island X Prix, July 8-9 in Sardinia
- TBC, September 16-17 in Amazon or USA (theme and location has not yet been announced, but we’ll guess it’s about forests/rainforests)
- Copper X Prix, December 2-3, Antofagasta, Chile
The series is expanding this year, with a new format that consolidates each race down to a one-day affair. In place of time trials, qualifying sessions are now five-car races of two heats each, and the top 5 combined placements go on to the finals, with positions 6-10 going on to a separate race for placement.
Since races are now one day each, this means that the format has turned each race weekend into a doubleheader, thus doubling the number of total races in the season from 5 to 10.
A few drivers have shuffled teams and some new ones have been added, the most famous of which is Heikki Kovalainen, a former Formula One driver and race winner who has since been dabbling in various rallying series. The series also sees a new team this season owned by DJ Carl Cox.
Each session includes equal participation from a team’s two drivers. In contrast to other motorsports which are almost entirely male-dominated, Extreme E requires that each team have one male and one female driver, and that they share driving duties equally over the weekend, in order to advance equality and encourage opportunities for women in motorsport.
The teams are also equal in the equipment they use, with all teams racing in the same Odyssey 21 racecar from Spark Racing Technology. The cars are the same this year at last, though the standard Continental CrossContact tires used by Extreme E now include an increased percentage (43%) of sustainable materials in their construction.
The Odyssey 21 weighs 1,650 kg (3,637 lbs) and puts out 400kW (550hp), allowing it to race to 0-100 km/h (0-62) in 4.5 seconds. But this is an off-roader, not a track car, and with its niobium-reinforced steel frame, raised suspension, and huge tires, it can conquer rough roads and gradients of up to 130% (over 52º). And that 0-62 time supposedly applies on any surface, whether it be road, sand, or gravel.
As with last season, this season starts with a race in Neom, Saudi Arabia, site of a planned city concept in the country’s Northwestern Tabuk province. While the city is not built yet, plans call for the $500 billion city project to be powered entirely by renewable energy – which probably influenced Extreme E’s choice of it as a race location. Though the plans are not without controversy.
Neom made waves this year with a… let’s say “optimistic” video describing “The Line,” a concept for a 170km-long, 500m-tall branch of the city that could house nine million people in a car-free environment.
But the course will be different than the last two years. Rather than racing through rocks and sand dunes as we’ve seen before, this race will take place in a flatter environment along the Red Sea. Extreme E has raced in similar locations before, when it went to Senegal for the Ocean X Prix in season 1.
The change from desert sand to beach sand could help mitigate one of the problems we’ve seen before in the desert, where large plumes of fine desert dust get kicked up behind cars, making it hard to follow closely which results in it being near-impossible to pass a leading vehicle. Ocean sand tends to be coarser and results in less persistent plumes, improving racing.
In keeping with the series’ message to focus on conservation efforts with each race, Extreme E participates in a “legacy program” at each race location. The intent is to leave a lasting positive impact on each local community and environment with some relevant conservation effort.
For this year’s Desert X Prix, Extreme E will assist in the release of Arabian Oryx, Red Neck Ostriches and Arabian Sand Gazelles into the 25,000 square kilometer NEOM nature reserve. These three species used to be common in the area, but went extinct or near-extinct in the wild over the last century, saved by captive breeding efforts.
Extreme E will also plant more trees in the area, expanding on its regreening efforts from last year’s legacy program.
Beyond these legacy programs, Extreme E partners with climate scientists and uses sustainable practices when holding its races. The series is net-zero carbon, but also takes other steps like avoiding single-use plastic during race weekends, transporting all of the series freight by ship, and using second-life electric bus batteries for energy storage.
These sustainable practices will hopefully bleed over into viewers through Extreme E’s “Count Us In” challenge, which encourages fans to take concrete steps towards more sustainable practices in their own lives. Fans can then pledge these steps to their favorite team for extra brownie points.
Steps include things like driving electric or cycling more, flying less, drinking tap instead of bottled water, eating more plants and speaking up at work, among many others. Each is ranked by the effort it takes and the impact it causes, with a small description of what can be done, why and how.
The last two seasons have basically been two-horse races, with teams RXR and X44, owned by former Formula 1 teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton respectively, in close competition for the championship. RXR won season 1, and X44 won season two, both with extremely slim margins. But X44 has lost its star driver this year, Sebastian Loeb, who is widely considered among the best rally drivers of all time, while RXR continues with its line up of Johan Kristofferson and Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky from their second-place showing last season.
Extreme E says, however, that this will be the “closest season yet” – we’re not sure how they know this, but we’re ready to tune in and see a double dose of the wild electric off-road racing that excited us so much in the first two seasons.
To find out how and when to watch the races in your country, head on over to Extreme E’s Broadcast Information site. Final races start at 12 p.m. UTC (3 p.m. local Saudi time) on each day, which translates to 4 a.m. PST/7 a.m. EST on Saturday and 5 a.m. PDT/8 a.m. EDT on Sunday, since Daylight Saving Time starts on Sunday morning. In the US, the final race program will be aired delayed on Fox Sports 2 at 6:30PM EST on Saturday and 6PM EDT on Sunday (but check your local listings – and your clocks – due to the time change). Last season, races were available to watch after the fact on Extreme E’s website, though we don’t know yet if they’ll be available there this season as well.
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