Extreme E embarks on its third season in 2023 with a number of changes to the calendar and weekend format. Chip Ganassi Racing has also undergone a number of changes as it looks to finally deliver on its perennial championship-favorite tag.
Last year the team was in the thick of the title fight, winning the first part of the Island X Prix in Sardinia and ultimately finishing fourth in the points. But while Ganassi is clearly on an upwards trajectory, it hasn’t held station during what has been the first true off-season that Extreme E has enjoyed.
“If you ever think that you have something completely wired, you probably need to look in the mirror, right?” team boss Dave Berkenfield tells RACER. “We’re making changes. We’ve made team dynamic changes, we’ve made driver changes, personnel changes, process changes, schedule changes, travel changes.
“We’re looking at everything. We’re trying to optimize the things that we recognize we have some deficiencies in and grow those things that we did well in.”
Among those changes are RJ Anderson and Amanda Sorensen, who come in to replace Kyle LeDuc and Sara Price in the driving seat. Anderson’s something of a known quantity already, having debuted with the team at last year’s season finale, but Sorensen comes into the team completely fresh – although in teaming up with Anderson, there will be an element of familiarity in her new surroundings.
“RJ and I actually grew up together racing in the dirt, so when they told me RJ was the other driver that I was going to be working with, I was very excited because he has been someone that I looked up to for a while in the UTV scene,” she tells RACER. “He has so many accomplishments in that scene and in that industry, so I was excited when they told me that RJ was the person I was going to be driving with.”
That familiarity is something that won’t just benefit both drivers, but the team as a whole. With such a long spell between race weekends in Extreme E, team bonding is crucial.
“We’re going to build on that throughout the season,” says Berkenfield. “One of the challenging things with this series is just the long duration between rounds. So I think that it’s a key thing to embrace that and recognize that that’s a challenge and strive to create an opportunity for getting your male and female driver together in between rounds, and we’ll be working on that throughout the year.”
Although no team has had access to their Odyssey 21 race car during the off-season – all of the field’s cars remain on Extreme E’s St. Helena, the ship that transports the series’ infrastructure to each race – that hasn’t stopped the drivers and team getting some form of de facto pre-season testing under their belts.
“As far as testing, we’ve had a great test where we took Amanda and put her in one of my off-road vehicles and she showed some really great speed,” Anderson tells RACER. “So that was a really positive thing. We had the whole team out there working together.”
Anderson said that, while the test was in his own personal off-road vehicle and not in Extreme E equipment, Sorensen was able to get some seat time in and learn how the team operates so she’s ready to dive in when they arrive in Saudi Arabia.
Expanding on the team’s pre-season preparations, Berkenfield adds: “We have what I would call ‘service strategies’ that we have put in place from last year that will carry on through this year.
“While we might not have the car in front of us, we have lots of the pieces of the car – bits and bobs, if you will. We’ve been working on the car for the off-season as well as everything else that goes with it (like) the paddock pit equipment and preparation. Then the other side of it is just process – we really dug into the process and how we go racing.”
Although there have been changes under the skin – including the addition of veteran IndyCar engineer Al Bodey – something that has always set the Ganassi operation apart from the rest of the Extreme E field, and will continue to, is its foundations in off-road racing rather than rallying and circuit racing like other teams in the pit lane. It’s an element of the team’s DNA that will remain.
“There’s obviously some extreme talent and smart individuals across all the teams and you’d be a fool not to recognize that,” Anderson says. “But I do think that we have our own strengths where maybe some of our competitors don’t even realize.
“I think it’s something that maybe some of these rally-based teams and drivers are a little bit on their back foot where we’re trying to attack it from a different angle. So I think it does give us some strengths and moving forward throughout this third season.
“It’s definitely a different mindset, but I truly believe (it’s the correct mindset) going through that first round,” insists Anderson. “And I do know that this has all changed as well. I recognize that through the first two seasons there’s been some format, racing, and vehicle changes, but the way these Extreme E cars are fairly similar to each other as far as setups and parts that you can change out, you really have to be crafty with what you can work with – some of that being suspension, (and) that’s what we come from.
“All we do is work with our suspension to make our vehicle faster, and I think that’s a really key ingredient. I do think other teams in the paddock have kind of looked to our team to see like, ‘Oh, what are they doing?’ because we understand suspension and it’s something that the other teams aren’t as familiar with, so to speak.”
It’s not just the whos and whats that the team has been considering, but the hows, too. Berkenfield stresses that, while the team wants to win, eliminating mistakes across the board is a priority. He says the team has to recognize that pushing hard and suffering significant damage could take them out for the next round.
“We have to be prepared for that. It’s details, details, details. It’s having subassemblies built, having bodywork prepared, making sure that you have the right people on the team, making sure that you have contingency plans in place, making sure that the drivers know what the goals are, and then really reading the competition, reading the tracks, and making sure you stick to a plan,” he says.
“Extreme E is such a unique animal with so little time to be able to work on the car. You can get behind very, very quickly, and so staying in front of that is going to be one of my key goals and really emphasizing that and reinforcing that with the whole team, drivers included. We need to race competitively. We’re going to race really hard. We’re going to race just like we always do – to win.
“But if you can’t finish first, you have to finish second. And if you can’t finish second, you must finish third, so I think that that’s going to be our mantra throughout the season. Doing the obvious things right and staying ahead of the competition there. Letting them make mistakes while we don’t is maybe what the goal should be.
“I think that we’ve seen moments of brilliance from all the teams and it really is a competitive series. There’s an old saying that you grade yourself by those that surround you and we’re in very good standing. The rest of the competition is high, the other teams are as committed as we are, so it’s wide open.
“We’re going into the first round – 10 rounds to go here – and so I think we need to go out really, really strong and start the season strong and smart, but recognize that there’s a lot of racing, so the field’s gonna be doing the same thing. My hat’s off to the competition here. Every team has shown moments of strength and we just have to continue to show ours.”
That 10-race format is one of the key changes to Extreme E this year, with every race weekend becoming a double-header event. It’s something that everyone’s going to have to adapt to, but coming into the series as rookies might mean the new Ganassi pair has a leg up on the veterans – freshness to the series, but experience with traditional off-road racing.
“The way this format has changed is kind of digging deeper into the (core roots of off-road racing),” Anderson points out.
“I’m actually excited about it being a little bit different so that everyone has to adapt a little bit. I think it levels the playing field at least somewhat, especially people that are learning new cars and then new teammates and stuff like that.”
It’s a refreshed, rejuvenated, and retooled outfit, but it’s still Chip Ganassi Racing – a team that expects to win.
“We’re preparing ourselves and the team is preparing as much as we can to go out and win,” says Sorensen. “I definitely understand that I am a rookie coming into this, racing against drivers who have been in this series since the beginning.
“Not only am I just driving against drivers, I’m driving against (the top drivers in the world). That definitely puts a lot of pressure on my shoulders, but I feel like the team is prepared and we’re ready to go do what we need to do.
Anderson adds: “Obviously the name Chip Ganassi Racing speaks for itself. Every time I show up to the track, I’m going there as a student as well.
“I really respect and value what they’ve done and built as a team. They’re operating at the highest level, so I try to do that within my own space.”
Chip Ganassi Racing’s 2023 Extreme E campaign kicks off with the third Desert X Prix in Saudi Arabia on March 11-12.