Desert X Prix: Extreme E’s bold debut reveals potential to be more than just a novelty

The new motorsport series is the latest brainchild of Formula E boss Alejandro Agag which managed to combine fun racing with a social conscious in a spectacular setting

Lawrence Ostlere
Saudi Arabia
@lawrenceostlere
Monday 05 April 2021 18:15

Alejandro Agag declared it a triumph. “This weekend was better than everything I could have imagined.” The charismatic founder of Extreme E watched his bold plan come to life three years after first concocting an idea to race electric SUVs in wild and remote locations around the globe, and naturally he was eager to hail the first ‘X Prix’ as an unfettered success. 

The new series certainly enjoyed an eventful and at times highly entertaining debut in the spectacular desert-scape of AlUla, Saudi Arabia. The treacherous 9km circuit around giant sandstone rock forced drivers to tackle rolling sand dunes, one terrifying 100m drop and blinding plumes of dust, and it produced moments of great drama like British driver Catie Munnings’ incredible qualifying lap on three tyres and several hold-your-breath crashes, before a tense final in which Nico Rosberg’s team beat Munnings’ Andretti United and the Lewis Hamilton-owned X44. 

Agag would always call it a success, of course. The Spanish former politician and businessman is the man behind Formula E, which acquired FIA world championship status this year, and he has similar optimism for his new pet project. “The feelings now are just the same as in Beijing [the first Formula E race six years ago],” he said. TV figures have yet to be revealed but his strategy to hand out Extreme E’s broadcasting rights cheaply was a wise move which will have drawn millions of eyeballs. 

The plan to turn up in five ‘extreme’ locations from the Amazon rainforest to the Arctic ice is hugely ambitious, but the first race brought together a chaotic meld of ideas around gender equality, environmental awareness and daredevil racing, like pages stuck together in a recipe book, to create something genuinely new and interesting. It is not always seen as a compliment to describe something as ‘woke’ so it’s worth remembering the literal meaning – to be conscious of social injustice – and in this sense it is an appropriate way to describe a series grounded in a sense of responsibility.

The balance of male and female drivers, for example, who race one lap each as a pairing, is a potential masterstroke. The series provides a rare platform for talented women and several seized their first chance. Australian rally champion Molly Taylor starred with her aggressive style while Britain’s Munnings produced the aforementioned lap with a burst tyre, arguably the moment of the weekend. They also brought a welcome dose of personality amid some more stoic male drivers; Munnings dished out memorable one-liners, lauding teammate Timmy Hansen for “driving like he stole it”.

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There was even a lingering sense that organisers could have gone further. Teams were allowed to choose the order in which their men and women drove, which almost always resulted in the men taking the all-important first lap and the women simply finishing things off. Agag admitted he will consider randomly mixing men and women in the next race although he will face opposition from some of the teams and drivers – Rosberg XR’s Johan Kristoffersson was put out by the idea of manufacturing the competition.

Even so, it seemed like a missed opportunity. After providing such a platform for female drivers it was as if organisers resisted maximising their gender-equal pledge. If women are good enough to be there, why not see them compete? It might have created a mismatch (the calibre of male driver is exceptional with world champions from across motorsport), but it might also have produced gripping storylines as top male drivers like Jenson Button tried to catch and overtake in the final leg. Besides, the split times across the weekend suggested the women would surprise any sceptics, so perhaps there will be an intriguing tweak ahead of the second race on the coast of Senegal. 

The environmental aspect of the project is not quite so simple to grasp, and onlookers seeing a globetrotting motorsport banging the drum for climate action might understandably think it a contradiction. But dig deeper and it appears to be more than lip-service. There are some bold and welcome pledges, like a vow to record net-zero carbon emissions across the series, the promotion of fully electric cars, environmental legacy projects at each destination, and a fully staffed science department with their own floating laboratory. All of society must embrace the fight against climate change, including sport, and arguably motorsport has an especially important role to play.

In this sense Saudi Arabia felt like an odd fit for a first location, but the country has bold 2030 targets to diversify its economy away from oil and fossil fuels towards green energy and tourism. This is why local officials jumped at the chance to host a race which would showcase the stunning untouched setting of AlUla, with its Unesco Heritage site of Hegra nearby (an archeological treasure trove which has recently opened its doors to the world) and plans to become a model in sustainable tourism. 

It is hard to pinpoint whether Agag is a passionate conservationist or a savvy businessman who simply understands what the future looks like, but perhaps it doesn’t really matter. His track record for turning ambitious visions into reality is undeniable, and he has created something different which has the makings of a sport fit for a changing world. Extreme E still faces challenges going forwards if it is to follow in the footsteps of Formula E and become a fixture on the sporting calendar, but the early signs suggest creating a spectacle will not be one of them.