Extreme E boasts a meaningful mission and compelling racing – ESPN – ESPN

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You have to get the fundamentals right before you start worrying about the details. It’s a truism that holds whether you’re building a house or developing a racing series, but there’s a step before that, too: you need to decide what those fundamentals are.
If the idea is to do something new, then leaning too heavily on what defines other series is a comfy way to try to do it but not one that’s all that likely to go well. No one wants to watch “Formula One but-,” after all.
This weekend, after two months of sitting idle, Extreme E is roaring back to life in Sardinia. The electric off-roading series doesn’t do a lot of the traditional motorsport fundamentals well: its calendar changes frequently, its rounds happen equally infrequently, it changes its format sometimes mid-weekend and teams hardly get to see their race cars, let alone take them back to their factories to study like bugs under high-tech glass.
And yet, it’s thriving. Despite a difficult, locked-down birth that saw its launch phoned in via holograms, the erratic schedule and leading the way on environmental and diversity issues that plenty of social media commenters will tell you motorsport fans don’t care about, XE’s audience is growing.
Some 135 million viewers tuned in last season, a 30% increase on the first. That’s small potatoes if you’re comparing it to F1 or NASCAR, but the World Rallycross Championship, in its second year back in 2015, was pleased with 11.4 million viewers in Europe, its largest market.
It’s not that Extreme E is a do-over of Formula E, even though a lot of the same people are involved, but it did come with some of the things FE didn’t necessarily manage.
The original intention with FE was that the driver field would be 50-50 gender split, which didn’t happen. Two women did start the first season, a collision between Michela Cerruti and Katherine Legge having the bizarre accolade of being the only two women to have had the opportunity to crash into each other in professional FIA single seaters.
There hasn’t been a woman in a race seat since Season 2 in 2015-16, though, and teams have only patchily given them testing opportunities. They were forced to in Diriyah in 2018, and that directive may have given XE the confidence to launch with an explicit gender split.
Each team fields a male and female driver. Because of the numbers game of motorsport, the women are generally younger, less experienced and have competed in less-high-level categories — with the notable exception of Dakar winner Jutta Kleinschmidt. But when some of the men are World Rally champions and Dakar winners like Sebastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz Sr. and Nasser Al-Attiyah, it’s not as though there are a huge number of male drivers who can claim to have reached their level either.
The gender anarchists among us might be left asking where non-binary people fit into that, but in the conservative world of motorsport, that’s a significant shift. And it makes a difference.
If you see the female drivers as the peers of their male counterparts and the fierce competition between them, then the idea that there simply are no skilled-enough women starts falling apart. The World Rallycross Championship fielded a chunk of the XE field to make its grid 40% women at its last round.
It’s a significant part of the appeal to teams. Roger Griffiths, team principal of Andretti’s electric racing teams, said that the titanic motorsport brand was attracted to the series because of its values.
“We strongly believe that motorsports should reflect the diverse world we live in, and Extreme E’s focus on gender equality and providing equal opportunities for female and male drivers was an incredibly important factor for us,” he said to ESPN. “This championship serves as a platform for promoting inclusivity and breaking barriers, which truly resonates with our values as an organization.”
With the names attached to the series, that’s clearly not just a draw for Andretti. The three F1-champion-backed teams (Jenson Button’s JBXE, Nico Rosberg’s eponymous effort and Lewis Hamilton’s X44) understandably receive a lot of the attention, but ultra-experienced outfits like Chip Ganassi Racing of NASCAR and IndyCar fame and DTM and Formula E champions ABT clearly aren’t there to make up the numbers.
Even as a spec series, with little latitude for technological development, automakers Hummer and Cupra have been attracted in, at a time when the vast shift toward electrification is making auto brands nervous and flaky about motorsport commitment.
Being there from the start, Griffiths told ESPN, was important.
“We were excited to bring the Andretti name, which carries significant motorsport prestige, to a series that embodies the future of racing, one that combines fierce competition with a meaningful purpose,” he said. “Ultimately, we saw in this championship the perfect blend of thrilling racing, a platform for positive change and an opportunity to contribute to a more inclusive and sustainable future for motorsports.”
Because it’s new and spec and doesn’t need year-round factory operations involving thousands of people, Extreme E can make decisions relatively easily. Unlike in more established series, there’s no manufacturers’ association or working groups or even the FIA to go through if it wants to change something, like introducing the Racing For All initiative.
Teams are limited to a handful of personnel traveling to events, but if they recruit a new engineer from an under-represented background, through the scheme, they get another pair of hands in the inflatable tent that serves as a trackside garage. By the last round of last season, in Scotland, five of the teams had taken up the offer with the other five expected to follow suit.
That’s something that’s come from the championship’s development and, unquestionably, Hamilton’s direct involvement. His X44 squad won last season’s championship, after another year of renewing rivalries with Rosberg, while very much putting into practice the intention to recruit and promote Black engineering and technical talent.
Hamilton’s influence is colossal in any context, but the opportunity to work on changing the makeup of top-level motorsport engineering is also what attracts people like rally and Le Mans legends Teena and Leena Gade, who run McLaren’s XE car. Committing to making a difference has attracted the best talent in racing, despite having plenty of other options to work in.
The same is true of the scientific committee that backs up XE’s legacy programs and sustainability efforts. The top academics might be bemused to find themselves onboard a floating motorsport garage, but when XE talks about the environmental issues in the locations it visits, it does so with both credible assessment of the situation and scientifically backed contributions to addressing it.
These efforts are tailored to the locales of each round on the calendar. In Sardinia this weekend, they’ve been working to repopulate bees, 500 hives of which were destroyed by catastrophic wildfires in 2021; in Punta del Este it was wind generation and sea lion conservation; in Scotland it was river management by planting trees on banks and tracking data on wild salmon populations.
The nimble series’ ever-evolving format could change again this weekend. The racing will still be closely contested; you can’t tell Loeb or Al-Attiyah not to go for it any more than you could Molly Taylor or Klara Andersson. The calendar could be rearranged before the traveling circus returns home on Monday, different broadcasters could be announced for every round.
But where XE has got it right is picking out its own fundamentals and building on them.

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