First-day teething troubles were inevitable, but when Sara Price kicked up the dust with a whine from her twin electric motor Odyssey 21 for the opening Extreme E shakedown run in Saudi Arabia on Friday morning, the minimum hope and expectation must have been that she would return under her own spark. But that wasn’t the case.
An electrical fault forced her to stop four miles into the five-and-a-half-mile X Prix course in Al’Ula, and half an hour later her Chip Ganassi Racing entry returned to the paddock on the back of a truck. The problem was a setback for Extreme E, but more specifically for Price who lost valuable circuit time that she won’t win back, as the other eight cars headed out for their sortie runs on the fast desert course.
Everything about this Extreme E opener has an air of experimentation and improvisation, which was inevitable. Three pre-event practice races had been planned to help iron out the bugs, but pandemic restrictions spoiled that plan. So the shakedown has taken on a more literal meaning here in Al’Ula, ahead of qualifying on Saturday morning. No one will be feeling anywhere near fully prepared as the action gets serious into the weekend.
Teams and organizers have to cope with challenges as they appear. A late change from Oz to Vision beadlock wheel rims gave the teams another new issue to consider, especially when they were delivered late after a hold-up in customs. Earlier, on Thursday morning, it was confirmed that the race format was being tweaked because of concerns that the amount of dust thrown up by the cars made it almost impossible for follow closely in the heat of racing. The problem had not reared its head during the trial runs in January because of more humid conditions. Now, instead of qualifying heats, each of the nine cars will run one at a time on Saturday morning to decide who makes the semi-final, the so-called “crazy race” and the run-off for seventh, eighth and ninth places. Then three cars, two from the semi and one from the “crazy race” will line up for X Prix finale on Sunday afternoon.
RACER caught up with Ganassi’s Kyle LeDuc as he waited for teammate Price to return to the paddock after her breakdown. He was still smiling and enjoying our assertion that the off-roading pair are pre-event favorites.
“It feels good to hear that, but we have moderate expectations,” he said. “Chip hired us to do a job and we plan to deliver. I grew up in the sand and so did Sara. This is new for others — to us it’s just Saturday! We’re sharing information with others because we need this to work — we need it to be insane.”
Like all the drivers, the American — who would later roll on his shakedown lap, completing a difficult day for the Ganassi squad — has concerns and suggestions on how to make Extreme E work, but everything that is said is put forward in a spirit of constructive feedback. For LeDuc, fear of damage in wheel-to-wheel racing is something the organizers have to get over. “This series is in a rookie state,” said LeDuc. “We want contact, we want rubbing and you want that too. How do we show people this is insane? If you want this to be extreme, that’s how you do it. Extreme is to be side by side.”
Two-time World Rally champion Carlos Sainz Sr. shares that concern and if anything, believes the course is too fast and therefore too dusty to inspire close racing.
“It’s a pity it’s not slower with more small dunes,” said the Spanish legend, who had to abort his own shakedown lap (each driver is only getting one) because of a power steering failure. “It is high speed, which creates a lot of dust and that is very difficult. It has to be rougher. If it is just flat and simple for everybody it is difficult to catch and pass. If it is all flat it is not technical. In small dunes you can follow a car and learn from them. This is a learning process, but it is a pity. We have to be open minded and learn, because it is a big opportunity.
Sainz’s experience is drawn from the Dakar Rally, where he recalls running for 400km at a time just 10 meters apart from his teammates. But in Al’Ula a strong start looks sure to be key because of the difficulty in running close to and passing a rival. He’d trade the stunning mountain backdrop for a tweaked route across the sand.
“This is nice but after two minutes what do you want? A really nice backdrop or a good racetrack?” he noted. “I am not criticizing; I am trying to help. We must learn.”
Typically, series boss Alejandro Agag shrugged off the teething troubles, especially in the COVID-limited circumstances.
“We had a little glitch, an electronics problem on one of the cars, but they are all running,” he said. “It was good to have it early on because we haven’t practiced much. In the race just park them, don’t recover cars because here that takes an hour. Today there was no TV here yet. This is why we do it.”
And as he pointed out, this is not Agag’s first rodeo. “For Formula E, the first one [the shakedown at Donington Park in 2014], 18 cars stopped in the first session,” he says with a smile. “Eighteen! Of 20! So we’re doing amazing! It was a case of two corners, then another one — three corners. S**t! We cheered when one did one lap… This is more extreme. It makes it more exciting.”
The Extreme E opener airs this weekend on Fox Sports:
• Saturday – Qualifying, 10:00am-1:00pm ET, FS2
• Sunday – Preview show, 3:00pm-3:30pm ET, FS2
• Sunday – Semifinal and Crazy Race, 3:30pm-5:00pm ET, FS2
• Sunday – Final, 6:00pm-8:00pm ET, FS1
Check your local listings for air times in your area