Welcome to Extreme E — FORTLOC

Welcome to Extreme E

By Jim K. April 06 2021

Extreme E Desert XPrix

Image: Extreme E

Extreme E Desert XPrix

Image: Extreme E

Extreme E Desert XPrix

Image: Extreme E

A brand new motorsport enjoyed its debut race with a host of familiar faces. Extreme E's inaugural event saw F1, WRC, and Rallycross champions duel in the Saudi Arabian desert. The marketing of Extreme E guaranteed petrolheads worldwide knew about last weekend's so-called XPrix. There's no denying the social media, branding, and superstar names created a buzz.

But did Extreme E live up to the hype? No. But I'd like to think that is short for "Not yet." There is unquestionably enough of a concept in the sport for Extreme E to provide top entertainment. At this early moment, though, there wasn't enough meat on the bones for most to justify sitting down and watching the races for an hour and a half.

Having wide 'gates' the drivers needed to navigate between created the possibility of wildly different racing lines. The bonkers course resembled the pod-racing scene from Star Wars with a 45-degree downhill slope made of sand. Each teams' two drivers had different driving backgrounds across track and rally. And the cars, the Spark Odyssey 21 Electric SUVs, look phenomenal. Yet, somehow, these ingredients didn't mix to create anything greater than the sum of its parts.

The race weekend format sounded complex in theory. Crazy Races, Shootouts, Grid play, Hyper Drive. Two qualifying sessions. Just one semi-final… What did it all mean? Needlessly confusing naming, it turns out. In brief, the fastest teams from qualifying went into two separate races and the winners of those making the final. But while one semi-final of three cars saw two teams progress, the other (the "crazy race") had only one make it through. Even the commentators weren't sure of the rules.

As with all first attempts, there are many lessons Extreme E should learn before round two. Away from the naming convention, the biggest problem facing the new sport is exciting racing. For many, including myself, the qualifying events provided better viewing than the races themselves. It's too early to say if that's down to the cars, drivers, or the desert setting of the first race.

Visibility in all races was impossible for chasing cars with the sand kicked up from the leaders filling their windshields. With the single possibility of overtaking restricted to one corner, each head-to-head became a drag race from the line. Whoever led at the point would then remain unchallenged for the remaining 10-15 minutes of racing, "crazy" or otherwise.

So while Nico Rosberg's team, Rosberg X Racing, won the weekend, that was solely thanks to driver Johan Kristoffersson taking the lead in the first minute of the final race. Even with a driver change after one lap of the 8.8km circuit, teammate Molly Taylor just had to maintain the gap to be crowned the victor. The two chasing teams, Andretti United and Team X44, had no chance to pass. Thrilling viewing it was not.

For Extreme E to gain an audience, there needs to be more than one spot for drivers to pass one another. Thankfully, the sport will visit five varying remote locations during its season. Each chosen to highlight the impact of climate change, meaning there are rainforests and snow stages to come. That removes the flying sand problem.

Destinations

Extreme E Desert XPrix

Image: Extreme E

Extreme E Desert XPrix

Image: Extreme E

It's hard to say what would constitute a success for Extreme E. Proving electric vehicles work? Successfully merging Rallycross and rallying? Building a loyal TV audience? Despite being an FIA-sanctioned race series, its directive is to highlight the impact of climate change. To do that, all of the above must ring true. It's a tall order.

Taking influential sports stars to remote locations got Extreme E plenty of eyeballs in this first round. To keep them watching all season, though, the action needs to be compelling. Without any wheel-to-wheel racing, there'll be absolutely no one watching. There are no crowd-filled grandstands at the events, after all. Without an audience, there will be no one to share their climate message with, and the whole house of cards will fall.

The viewership element becomes more vital, still, when you consider the sport's financial model. Even if it were to run as a not-for-profit, the logistical costs are significant. There are only three obvious points of revenue generation; TV broadcasting, advertising, and the teams. You can be certain the first two won't stick around for long should the remaining four races be as potential-unfulfilling as the first. And although several of the teams have climate evangelists like Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg backing them, even Jenson Button spoke of needing to find money to compete. For benefactors' continued investment into Extreme E to shine a light on climate change, they'll need to know people will see the message.

I'm still hopeful for an improved show next time out. And judging by social media, I feel I'm not alone in willing the sport to succeed. There is plenty of time for the organizers to take stock and improve the spectacle with months between the races. Extreme E returns at the end of May for the "Ocean XPrix." I'll still be watching, and hopefully, you will be too.