The feeling in the Extreme E paddock ahead of a race weekend is always a positive one, yet in Antofagasta, Chile, where the series is making its first trip to South America, that positivity has very much been turned up a gear.
It could be because of the warm welcome we’ve received from the locals upon arrival; it could be the barbecue and food trucks that have kept us well fed for the last few days; or it could be the wildly different track that’s been prepared for the inaugural Copper X-Prix.
Somewhat inspired by short course off-road courses in the U.S. — trophy truck racer Earl Desiderio had a hand in its design along with Extreme E head of sporting Guy Nicholls, who’s worked on every track to-date — this week’s track is considerably shorter than any we’ve had so far this season, measuring at just 3.05km/1.9 miles (Saudi Arabia was 6.9km and Sardinia was 6.2km). That means that for the first time, Extreme E races this weekend will be four laps long, with each driver doing two tours per contest.
That alone has got drivers smiling, with seat time in Extreme E being at a premium.
“It will be nice because we prefer more laps, but it’s a good idea to make a short lap and have two passes,” said Abt Cupra XE’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, who added that as well as keeping drivers happy, the shorter course would also help marshals react to incidents quicker.
XITE Energy Racing driver Timo Scheider agreed that the additional track time was a big plus, but also said that the change in race format wouldn’t lead to a change in approach for drivers.
“[It] is way better for driving time and it’s a challenging track — it’s more challenging to do those two or three or five special points always precisely or even better than the others,” he said.
So what is it about the track itself? Race organizers had suggested it would be a “roller coaster” like course and having sampled the track on Friday, I can definitely attest to that. With jump after jump, big banked turns and tremendously high speeds, this course wouldn’t look out of place at a Six Flags theme park.
“Right now we have the best-prepared track we’ve had so far,” said Scheider. “I think it’s the first time that we have had such a high-speed track and the track width, which is roughly 50 meters, makes it quite challenging to use all the space you have but be precise, keep the momentum rolling.
“And on the other side we have like five jumps in total — drops and jumps — so it’s the first time we’ve had to cope with this and you have to handle and position the car. There are a couple of challenges on the lap — it’s not like an easy lap where you have to focus on one or two points, it’s actually more around the track we have some hot topics where we have to take care,” he added.
Expanding on the topic of jumps, Andretti United’s Catie Munnings said that there were “small margins” that could prove critical when it comes to taking to the air.
“The course is very different to what we’ve had before,” she said. “[There’s] some challenges with some bumps, I think that … everyone’s kind of keeping their eye on to see how the other cars are behaving on it, because it’s really small margins from a driving side, whether you have a big kick or if you get no air. But yeah I’m really enjoying it so far.”
The setting for the Copper X-Prix is a familiar one for off-road fans, with Chile previously playing host to the Dakar rally, but Al-Attiyah insists that the veterans of the iconic rally raid like himself won’t have an advantage this weekend.
“It’s completely different,. When we’ve been here [before] it’s been completely desert, there’s no track markers,” the Abt Cupra man said. “It’s totally different to what we normally do.”
“It’s a bit like rallycross, so you need to be really precise. There will be a lot of contact here, I think, and a lot of high speeds, so we need to respect each other and make the event, the race high quality.”
“I think it suits the rallycross guys a lot,” agreed Munnings, while McLaren Racing’s Emma Gilmour commented that the course is “probably what I kind of imagined Extreme E was going to be like, with having that width in the track and a rallycross kind of designed course out in the middle of nowhere. And the elevation changes and everything just make it hugely exciting and very rewarding to drive.”
One of the rallycross stars in the field, Kevin Hansen, predicted that four-time Dakar winner Carlos Sainz would be the one to beat this weekend, and after his Acciona Sainz team (pictured, top) topped both practices, that prediction has been on the money so far. But he also pointed out that the competitive order in Extreme E has reached a level where no matter what your background, you can still be considered a threat.
“He’s (Sainz) the one that’s been doing rally raid for the longest and he was fastest on pretty much a rallycross course, so it shows that everybody in this championship is getting to grips with this more short course racing and I don’t think anyone has a big advantage anymore,” Hansen reckoned.
Three drivers in the field who aren’t best known for their rallycross exploits — Munnings, Veloce Racing’s Lance Woolridge and Rosberg X Racing’s Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky — have all sampled the discipline at various levels over the past year and all agree that those experiences will come in handy this weekend.
“Racing some Nitro RX in America has been super useful because I know this course has been by a guy (Desiderio) who’s kind of a legend over there. It’s been very cool actually to see that coming into the middle of the desert over here, because it’s been built like a proper racetrack — it’s very different to the normal tracks we’ve had,” said Munnings.
Woolridge, who made his rallycross debut in RX2e in Norway last month, added: “For myself, similar to Nasser coming from rally raid background, [I’m] more used to the rougher, more technical terrain so it’s having to change a gear in my head this weekend — there’s nothing to leave a bit of reserve for, the track’s there.
“I got a lot of door-to-door racing with Catie last race and then in RX2e and that was really good and I learned a hell of a lot, so it’s certainly going to be important this weekend.”
The blank slate afforded by the unending Atacama desert has opened the door for a wide track that figures to promote overtaking, too.
“The track is insane — so much elevation change, natural jumps everywhere. I think we’re going to see some great battles in the first three or four turns and it’s wide enough so it’s going to be very exciting,” predicted Hansen. “Everybody has to find a gap and we have the Hyperdrive (electric power boost) as well to benefit on some overtakes. I think it’s really fun, looking for that gap.”
Sara Price, who’s “day job” in American desert racing might be the closest to what we expect to see in Chile, feels that the combination of new factors in the Copper X-Prix course will help Extreme E’s varied field flourish.
“It is different than we’ve had, and I think it’s pretty exciting because it’s going to show different strengths of different drivers,” said the Chip Ganassi Racing driver. “Also I think we’re going to be able to make passes and be the closest we’ve ever been on this track. So it’s going to be setting us up for some very exciting racing.”
Of course, the increase in side-by-side racing opportunities also opens up the door for more collisions.
“I must say driving the track compared to the track walk was quite different — the lines and the speed we were going, you have to alter a bit,” admitted Veloce’s Woolridge. “I think there’s a lot of space but if there is contact, the cars are going high speed and there’s potential for a big accident.
“But after the last race, all of us in the drivers’ briefing had a talk — we agreed on respecting each other and of course safety is first at the end of the day, so I think we’ll all be driving with that in mind.”
Munnings was confident that despite the increased likelihood of contact, it wouldn’t become an issue.
“I think there’s enough space on the track to try new lines if you’re behind. There’s definitely overtaking options in pretty much every corner – there’s no single-file sections. We haven’t seen that before in Extreme E; we’ve always had rally-style sections where you just have to follow. So that’s definitely exciting.”
The Andretti United driver also noted that Extreme E’s GridPlay fan engagement concept — which allows the team getting the most fan votes to select their spot on the starting line for the final race — won’t have as much of an impact for this event due to the width of the track, boosting prospects for battles to continue until the very end.
“What’s nice about this track is that GridPlay isn’t going to determine it for everyone — everyone’s got a fair shot off the start,” she said. “And there’s a long race up to the first corner, so I think that is appreciated by all the drivers.
“I think it just gives it an element of fairness because the start isn’t defined by qualifying — which is tough if you’ve qualified first and then end up fifth, so it’s nice to make it more even for the final.”