Can high-speed SUVs save the planet? Extreme E begins bold new mission with first Desert X Prix

Perhaps the best way to understand what makes Extreme E such a unique venture is to know why the recent Suez Canal blockage nearly brought this weekend’s opening race to its knees.

The eco-series is so committed to its zero-carbon target that organisers shunned air travel for the seas, acquiring an ex-military vessel called the St Helena to carry cars, people and equipment on a three-week voyage from Liverpool to the venue in Saudi Arabia. Had the Helena departed only a few days later it would have run into the stranded Ever Given container, blocking its path to the Red Sea, and an entire race planned meticulously over the past two years would have been ruined.

The ship is a symbol of what Extreme E is meant to be all about, beyond racing SUVs across the planet’s most extraordinary landscapes. Team owners include Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Jenson Button (Button is a driver too) and all three have stressed the importance of the series’ mission to promote electric vehicles, raise awareness of environmental damage and climate change, and create a world-first gender-equal motorsport.

The Helena will travel to five spectacular destinations, beginning here among the striking sandstone rocks of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla desert before trips to the West African coast, the Arctic ice, the Amazon rainforest and December’s finale on a glacier in Patagonia. Inside the ship is a science lab and Extreme E has recruited a team of experts to help conduct its ‘legacy programme’ at each stop. Rosberg was among famous faces picking up litter on the beach of the Red Sea this week as the series began its environmental work protecting the endangered Hawksbill Turtle.

Cynics might suggest it is all very nice PR for a new motorsport trying to turn heads, and wonder just how much difference Extreme E’s souped-up geography field-trip can really make. But commitments like recruiting the Helena show a serious approach to its leave-no-trace policy, one of many bold steps to make Extreme E something groundbreaking. And after all, what is the goal of raising awareness if not a publicity exercise.

Read more:

  • Catie Munnings interview: ‘Motorsport can be selfish. Extreme E is about something bigger’
  • Why climate will be the winner when SUVs take to the Saudi desert
  • Introducing AlUla, ‘the world’s masterpiece’ opening its doors to motorsport

The climate crisis goes right to the heart of the race. Part of the mission is accelerating the drive towards electric vehicles, and the fully electric ODYSSEY 21 is certainly a brilliant advocate: a menacing 1.78 tons which goes from 0-62mph in 4.5 seconds. The environmentally friendly chassis sits on giant, near-metre tall tyres and it’s all powered by a revolutionary battery, designed by Williams Advanced Engineering, which uses hydrogen fuel cells and produces only water as a waste product, to be reused elsewhere on site.

And, of course, the goal is to put on a show. The racing itself promises to be intriguing as drivers from different backgrounds face off. Button’s Formula One talent may not be entirely suited to the course in AlUla, for example, where pits, dunes and jumps lurk in the 9km circuit, more akin to an obstacle course than a race track. He is competing against rally legends like Carlos Sainz and Sebastien Loeb, as well as rising talents like Britain’s W Series champion Jamie Chadwick and former women’s European Rally champion Catie Munnings.

Each of the nine teams has one male and one female driver, and the men and women compete on an equal footing, racing one lap each both in qualifying and the race itself (a quick ‘switch’ is needed, much like a triathlete emerging from the water to get on his bike). It is all the brainchild of Alejandro Agag, a Spanish businessman and former politician, who has compared Extreme E to mixed doubles in tennis. Munnings told The Independent this week she has been impressed with the “smart” format which doesn’t add female drivers as a token gesture but puts them at the heart of the race. 

Part of the fun is the sheer unknown quantity of all this. Testing was limited due to the eco-friendly aims so drivers barely know their cars and have never been to the race locations before. Some drivers like Sainz failed to complete a full lap during Friday’s practice due to technical problems and will do their first full circuit only during Saturday’s qualifying.

Ultimately it is the racing which must succeed as a televised spectacle (there are no live spectators due to the low-carbon aims) if Extreme E is to take off and be more than a one-season novelty, in order to give itself a platform for serious environmental change in the years to come. Such projects are not easy to pull off: cycling introduced the Tour of Scotland in 2019 with strikingly similar goals to be carbon-neutral and promote gender equality, but the poorly organised race folded within a year, showing just how challenging it is to launch a new event from scratch. But then Extreme E has already gone to extraordinary lengths, with the backing of big names, groundbreaking cars and a truly eye-catching plan, and there is real hope that it can last.

After two years in the making, and the world’s most catastrophic traffic jam narrowly avoided, Extreme E is finally ready to go.

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