Team Rosberg X Racing takes opening spoils as Extreme E offers thrills and spills aplenty

After much hype and build-up, the opening round of the Extreme E Series certainly did not disappoint, offering thrills, spills and a victory for team Rosberg X Racing in in AlUla, Saudi Arabia.

The pioneering electric off-road series sees teams of male and female drivers competing in teams in every two-lap race as driver and co-driver. But these aren’t just any drivers. Superstars of motorsport include nine-time WRC Champion Sebastian Loeb, his legendary rival Carlos Sainz Sr, 2009 Formula One World Champion Jenson Button and female racing stars including Jamie Chadwick, Catie Munnings and Cristina Gutiérrez to name but few out of the seven competing teams.

The action is divided into a qualifying day that sets the order of running for race day, which sees the drivers going wheel-to-wheel for a chance to compete in the overall final. And Saturday’s action quite literally started with a bang, London-based Veloce’s Stephane Sarrazin experiencing a frightening flip on his opening qualifying session and damaging the car, meaning that reigning W Series Champion and Williams Racing reserve driver Chadwick didn’t even get the chance to run.

The Odyssey 21 ‘SUV’ is an impressive all-terrain vehicle indeed and delivers 550 bhp and limited to a top speed of 111mph. And, with the series’ main goal of highlighting the issues of climate change and racing around remote locations and wildly differing climates, the vehicle also has to be strong.

It was certainly a feature that ABT’s Claudia Hurtgen would have been thankful of during qualifying, as the slightest twitch saw her Odyssey flip into a spectacular barrel roll from which she soon emerged unscathed.

And there was yet more drama on race day, as the off roaders went wheel-to-wheel for the first time, Hurtgen again in the thick of it through no fault of her own as Chip Ganassi’s Kyle LeDuc piled into the back of her, sending both cars out.

It all meant that at the end of two frantic days of desert racing, there were three teams left with the chance of glory in the opening race. Rosberg X Racing duo Johan Kristoffersson and Molly Taylor, Lewis Hamilton’s X44 crew of Sébastien Loeb and Cristina Gutiérrez and the Andretti duo of Catie Munnings and Timmy Hansen.

With traction off the line all important and with rivals running into a veritable sandstorm behind, the start was critical. And it was Kristoffersson who was able to make the most of it, pulling off a great move to overtake Hansen into Turn 1 as his fellow Swede settled into second.

In this series, teams are allowed to designate which of their drivers starts and who goes second, be it man or woman. It was generally the case of former, then latter. And generally it’s the case that whoever leads wins.

Three-time FIA World Rallycross Champion Kristoffersson handed over to teammate Taylor with a comfortable 30 second advantage and it was enough for the 2016 Australian Rally Champion to get the job done, leading home Munnings and Gutiérrez.

“What an amazing start to the season! It feels a bit surreal, with so much anticipation and preparation leading into the weekend and we all came here not really knowing what to expect,” said Taylor afterward. “It was definitely extreme. It was the first time we had experienced terrain like that, and on every lap, the course was changing – there were so many different variables to deal with. We just wanted to make the most of the little time we had in the car – every single kilometre.

“We had a small issue in the pit-lane during Qualifying, but aside from that we were the quickest in every session. You have to be fast when it counts, be smart when it counts and take the big moves when it counts, and for it to all come together when it mattered was really special. Huge thanks to Johan – his opening laps were just insane – and the team has done such an incredible amount of work behind-the-scenes.

“It’s pretty cool to be part of this journey at the start of something that I think has an amazing future. This series is really throwing the traditional rule book out of the window and starting afresh, and I think everyone will agree it was spectacular to watch. The male drivers we have here are the best in any motorsport category in the world, so it’s an awesome opportunity for us female drivers and a real investment in the development of female racing talent. This is just a dream come true all-round.”

For teammate Kristoffersson, it was also a moment of huge pride and satisfaction after a job well done in what was a ground-breaking opening race not only for the series but in world motorsport.

“With such a limited amount of track time, you need to have confidence that the car will do what you ask of it – and the Rosberg X Racing guys did an amazing job to give Molly and myself such a great car,” said the Swede. “Molly performed fantastically; it was her that made the difference in the first Qualifying session. When you’re in the lead, you need to strike the right balance between backing off too much and risking too much, which is a new learning experience in this situation.

“In the Semi-Final and especially the Final, I really didn’t want to be in the dust after seeing some of the on-boards! Those first 30 seconds of the race are what you are really working for, when the adrenaline is pumping the fastest – we’re all adrenaline junkies here, and that’s the feeling you really want. It’s been such an amazing team effort overall, and I’m just super happy and already looking forward to the next event in Senegal – after a few weeks off first!”

Nico Rosberg is no stranger to success, having beaten childhood friend and rival Lewis Hamilton to the 2016 Formula 1 title. And there must have been additional satisfaction in again beating his old foe to the top step of the podium.

“This is insane. I’m so thankful to the whole team for the effort put in this weekend, which has been intense and really on-the-edge,” added Rosberg. “Everything has come together so well and everybody has worked together so well.

“We have a fantastic team of engineers and mechanics, who prepared perfectly for this first weekend with so many unknowns, and Molly and Johan produced some phenomenal driving. Neither of them put a foot wrong in really tough conditions, and they both showed unbelievable speed out there – their performance was really inspiring and I felt really proud watching them.

“To come back to claim victory after a 60-second penalty caused by a technical problem is just awesome, and they are definitely deserving winners. For the championship as a whole, it’s really been a good start.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.