No less than 14 world championship titles were represented on the grid for the first Extreme E race — or 22 if you also count those of team owners Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. This was World Rally Championship legend Sebastien Loeb vs “King” Carlos Sainz vs rallycross hero Johan Kristoffersson — no wonder anticipation simmered ahead of the first semi-final in the desert of Al’Ula on Sunday morning. What more could you possibly want?
More power, for a start, said Kristoffersson when he talked about the decision to reduce the amount from the twin electric motors by nearly half, from 400kW (536hp) to 285kW (382hp) for the first qualifying runs on Saturday morning to just 225kW (301hp) for Q2 and the Sunday races. High battery temperatures were the defining factor for the necessary compromise all competitors had to accept.
But did it really matter for the spectacle? Not really, given how the semi-final exploded as the three titans charged through the first two gates, jostling for a lead that would prove so vital. As predicted, billowing dust clouds have made following another car almost impossible on the Al’Ula course, so the race was always going to be decided in the opening seconds.
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Kristoffersson started on the far left, and as pole position man Loeb and Sainz held each other up, the Swede swept around into the lead on the wider outside line to claim the race-defining lead. Game over.
“My target was to try and get in front into Turn 1,” Kristoffersson told RACER. “Almost, but not enough.”
It looked pretty cool from where we were sitting, was it so in the car? “No, it was not cool, it was very slow,” he deadpanned, referring to the power cut. “It was like playing blitz chess, where you have three minutes each to play out your games going into Turn 2.” Nothing like a bit of exaggeration, Johan.
“It was a world of time trying to figure out what the others would do, and Carlos gave me the Christmas present of squeezing Sebastien tight into the apex of T2, so happy days from there,” he said. “Once I’d got in front, going out from T3 I knew as long as the car stayed in one piece and we didn’t make any mistakes or get any penalties we would win by a mile.”
Sainz showed us a gouge out of the right-hand door of his Odyssey where he and Loeb touched. “It was impossible, nothing you can say,” brooded the great man, who has worked hard to maintain his composure this week in the interests of being “constructive” rather than “critical” of Extreme E’s inevitable technical teething troubles. On the dust and how it affected the racing, he said: “I’m not surprised, especially with this wind early in the morning. We need more small dunes to keep the speed down.”
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Kristoffersson was also working to quash his naturally competitive instincts, in the interests of the greater good. But he couldn’t help letting the mask slip, in the wake of his Rosberg team’s penalty for speeding in the “switch zone” during qualifying that dropped them from the top of the times to third. A faulty speed limiter had been the cause.
“I drove really slowly in the pits during the semi-final and didn’t even use the software, which is so unreliable — I didn’t want to take any risks,” he said. “Molly [Taylor, his teammate] drove nice and steady. It’s difficult driving under your limit because you start to think a bit more. She did a very good job, just brought the car to the finish with a good speed.”
He revealed he used the Hyperdrive power boost off the line, but even so, turning down the kilowatts still made it easy flat. “It’s full throttle, especially with the reduced power we now have,” said Kristoffersson. “We’re supposed to have 400kW, but they cannot cool the battery enough. With full power we would get wheelspin and you would have to manage it. Now it’s a reaction game. With such different lines it’s down to who hits a patch with something underneath, and it’s a complete gamble.”
His description of how he kept an eye on his illustrious rivals was comical, given how much time he felt he had because of the power cut. “We have the camera [looking behind] in the dash display, so check the mirror, check the camera, check the mirror, check the camera, check the side, check the mirror, check the camera! It was such a long time it felt like a complete rallycross heat before you get to T2!”
From his 285kW run in Q1 to the 225kW he had to work with in Q2, Kristoffersson reckoned he only lost around six seconds. “Top speed is not massively different, but it’s that drive uphill,” he said. “It’s not that important. Of course we would like to have faster cars, but this is how it is. It’s all a learning curve and we have to respect everything is new. They made a good decision to adapt the format and go one by one [for qualifying] and that was 100% right. But it doesn’t mean we have to do it all season.”
Kristoffersson and Taylor, and Loeb and Cristina Gutiérrez in their X44 entry graduated to the X Prix final on Sunday afternoon, with Sainz and Laia Sanz now finished for the day, but secure in fourth overall for the event.
Meanwhile, Andretti United’s comfortable win in the so-called “crazy race” semi-final meant another rallycross hero Timmy Hansen and British rally driver Catie Munnings will join the teams owned by Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in the climax.
“I just hope no one gets lost in the dust and crashes and gets injured,” said Kristoffersson, speaking before the big collision in the shoot-out race between Kyle LeDuc’s Ganassi entry and Claudia Hurtgen’s Abt Cupra car, from which both drivers escaped unharmed.
“That’s my biggest fear. We had three serious crashes with cars running alone. It’s tricky when you have no vision behind at all. We’re still doing 150kph even with the reduced power, so when you hit one of those rocks…
“This series is all about sustainability — and it’s not sustainable to crash all three cars.”
The Extreme E opener airs this weekend on Fox Sports:
• 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