Is the Future of Motorsport Electric?

Yes. Of course it is.

With a finite amount of fossil fuels left on this Earth, one day we will inevitably have to set aside our love for watching petrol-fuelled racing machines being wrestled around racetracks by the world’s very best and let it give way to, well… the exact same thing but with cars that sound a bit… different.

The real question, however, is: how long will it be before the world’s premier form of motorsport is competed in with electric-powered cars? Have we already witnessed the beginning of a great dynasty?

Extreme E began this month and is an exciting new competition where all-electric SUVs will tackle courses around deserts, glaciers and rainforests, across 5 of the world’s most damaged habitats.

Now, racing huge cars across areas that have been left devastated by the effects of global warming may not sound progressive, but these locations have been specifically selected by organisers to raise awareness of the impact of climate change.

Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Greenland, Brazil and Argentina are where Extreme E’s first season of XPrix races will take place and all 5 will be better for it, with the carbon negative sport set to leave behind an environmental legacy that will help future generations, by planting trees, cleaning up oceans, or establishing renewable energy initiatives.

The environmental impact of Formula 1 is often criticised, with parts flown to and from the various venues of the Grand Prix. However, this will not be an issue in Extreme E, with the cars and equipment of the teams being transported from country to country via a cargo ship that has been modified to serve as a ‘floating paddock’; far more environmentally friendly than air travel.

Furthermore, with the racing taking place in some of the world’s most remote places, fans will not be in attendance, so the carbon footprint of the sport is reduced even more. If this wasn’t enough, instead of using helicopters to film the action as it unfolds, the entire series will be filmed by drones and then documentaries will be produced on each of the races’ locations to highlight the climate issues of that particular area and how we, as a society, can help.

Now, on to the cars…

It’s called the Odyssey 21, and it was initially unveiled to the public at the Goodwood Festival of Speed back in 2019, before Ken Block placed it third at the Dakar Rally last year. So, it has pedigree.

With 550 brake horsepower and twice as much torque as a World Rally Championship car, the Odyssey 21 has a top speed of 120 miles per hour and is designed to handle gradients of up to 130 per cent. If you watched the season’s curtain raiser in Saudi Arabia, seeing a 1.65 tonne, 2.3-metre-wide beast of a car do that is quite the sight to behold. Also, from the crashes that took place, despite having 4-wheel drive, the Odyssey 21 is clearly a lot to handle.

Speed? Tick. Drama? Tick. Excitement? Tick.

Extreme E has everything you could want from motorsport, all while using a vehicle that has bodywork made of plant fibre and tyres that are made from bits of dandelion. The pedigree of the competitors is right up there too. Three Formula 1 world champions are team owners: Lewis Hamilton (X44), Nico Rosberg (Rosberg X Racing) and Jenson Button (JBXE), with Button also racing for his team. Also among the driver line-up are former World Rally Championship legends Sébastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz Sr.

Rosberg’s team of Molly Taylor and Johan Kristoffersson took victory in the inaugural Desert XPrix, edging out his former Mercedes teammate, Lewis Hamilton’s team of Cristina Gutiérrez and Sébastien Loeb, into second place. Despite not having any fans in attendance, viewers can get involved in the action by voting for their favourite driver to gain a grid advantage, which requires a small fee that will go to a charity that focusses on sustainability.

The sport is a thrilling innovation in technology and is also experimentative in the formats to their races and qualifying, too. For example, the team that performs the longest jump on the first jump of each race is awarded an additional boost of speed and an extra championship point for doing so!

However, will the sport be here to stay?

This is where I am not so sure.

Without fans in attendance, only visiting 5 venues and requiring a lot of expensive equipment, the financial viability of Extreme E in the long-term has to be questioned. The hydrogen fuel cell generator that is used to charge the cars may be very clever, but it is also no doubt very expensive.

For the environment, it is fantastic, as hydrogen fuel cells generate energy while emitting no greenhouse gases, with water the sole by-product – and even this will be used elsewhere on site. However, despite the store energy in the battery of the Odyssey 21 possessing the ability to charge 2,600 mobile phones for one week, it cannot keep the car itself going for very long at all.

As is always the case with electric motorsport, if you are really throwing about your Odyssey 21, you will get roughly 20 minutes range out of it, meaning that Extreme E races have to be rather short. To put this into context, the average Formula 1 race is roughly 200 miles long. How long is an Extreme E race? 10 miles.

With the scheduled wait between races being as long as 3 months on one occasion – due to the environmentally-friendly way of transporting the cars and equipment – this is a long build-up for not a very long payoff.

The argument for quality over quantity is one that purist racing fans will make and with some success. However, for Extreme E to become the future of motorsport, it will have to garner the attention of the casual followers that make up the bulk of viewership numbers.

Currently though, putting on a spectacle such as Extreme E on a far more regular basis, that will attract more consistent viewership, is simply neither affordable, nor practical.

Sports such as Extreme E are the future. After all, the future of motorsport is electric. Just not the present.

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Luke Saward

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May 2022
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