All-Electric Racing Gets the Green Light
Racing isn’t something that you’d normally equate with saving the planet. Cars going in circles at high speeds, making lots of noise and putting on a great show for thousands of spectators, who have inevitably arrived at the track by car, it’s great fun, but not exactly a way to express your green credentials. But, racing is also where the latest automotive technology gets developed, including technology that makes cars greener. Because going fast means making the most efficient use of every bit of energy, not letting any of it go to waste. And as the automotive world shifts towards EVs, some intriguing forms of electric motorsport have started to appear.
What is Extreme E?
One of the most intriguing forms of electric motorsport is Extreme E, a new off-road racing series that played out around the world in 2021 in remote locations including Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Greenland, Brazil, and Argentina. Instead of events held on smooth racetracks in front of packed grandstands, Extreme E features electric-powered off-road rally cars, and with events from the remote locations streamed live online for a global audience. And instead of just being about competition and the glory of winning, the series is (almost self-consciously) about shining a light on climate change, with a save-the-planet component a key part of its communication strategy.
What does going off-road racing have to do with solving climate change? Its organizers, led by Alejandro Agag, the same man who started the Formula E racing circuit a few years ago, say that the series provides a high-profile platform to engage fans and corporations to get involved with the issue, and actually do some good.
Certainly, Extreme E seems to be putting its money where its mouth is in terms of the logistics. Conventional international motorsport relies heavily on air freight to maintain intensive schedules, meaning the carbon footprint of getting to the race is actually way bigger than the actual race itself. There is no air freight in Extreme E. Instead, the racing series utilizes just one ship, the RMS St. Helena, a repurposed British Royal Mail cargo ship, to transport the series from one location to another. The ship also acts as the hub for each race, holding team garages, offices, media center, and space for officials. The series claims this method of transport reduces logistics emissions by over 60 percent.
At each location, in addition to participating in an actual race event, the teams involved must also take part in “legacy projects” designed to leave the locations in better environmental shape than when they arrived. Examples of these projects in season one have included the funding of a turtle conservation project along the Red Sea coastline; the planting of one million mangroves with NGO TO.org and Oceanium in Senegal; cocoa agroforestry and Amazon conservation with The Nature Conservancy in Pará, Brazil; and the creation of a climate education syllabus for over 3,500 schoolchildren across Greenland with UNICEF.
How the Races Work
Head-to-head races, known as an X Prix, take place over two days, with each team fielding a male and a female driver who each complete a lap of the race course, including a driver switch incorporated midway. Course designers carefully selected course options, which provide the most challenging, exciting action for online viewers, using existing obstacles and features with elevation changes and jumps, in order to minimize environmental impact.
What’s remarkable about Extreme E is that in its first year, it managed to attract many high-profile names from all kinds of racing. Team owners include Formula 1 luminaries Sir Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, and Jenson Button; legendary German tuner ABT; and American racing legends Andretti and Chip Ganassi Racing. Each team fielded a male/female driver pairing, with significant driver talent including rally legends Carlos Sainz Sr., Mattias Ekstrom, Sara Price, Jutta Kleinschmidt, Emma Gilmour, Stéphane Sarrazin, and Sebastien Loeb, as well as circuit-racing champions Jamie Chadwick, and Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky.
Racing the Odyssey 21
All teams compete in the Odyssey 21, a fully-electric SUV designed specifically for use in the series’ abnormally tough conditions. A niobium-reinforced steel frame encases the driver and powertrain for incredible safety. Combined power output from the twin electric motors is 550-horsepower, enough to power the Odyssey’s four wheels to 62 mph in 4.5 seconds on any surface. Body panels, using standard bodywork provided by the series, or with designs for team partners like Ganassi’s Hummer EV, is made from natural flax fiber in a bid to be more sustainable, with a 75 per cent reduction in carbon footprint. Top speed of this remarkable SUV is 124 mph off-road, and it can climb gradients of up to 53 degrees.
The Odyssey 21’s batteries deserve specific mention. Specially-designed and developed by F1 supplier Williams Advanced Engineering, they are designed to withstand extreme conditions, and have a capacity of 54 kWh. Packed with over 3,600 cells, and using an 800-volt system, they are extremely efficient and light thanks to a lightweight carbon-fiber enclosure despite being protected against dust, water, and sand. Recharging during events is provided by custom AFC Energy infrastructure that uses solar energy to electrolyze green hydrogen stored in on-site fuel cells, which provide on-demand power for the teams.
Future of Electric Motorsports
As a sport, Extreme E is incredibly fun to watch. While the scream of internal-combustion engines is missing, all of the other elements that make racing entertaining are present and accounted for: wheel-to-wheel action, great driver personalities, mechanical (and electronic) calamity, and real drama. The spectacular landscapes through which the series races make it totally unique, and the streaming broadcasts are beautifully and professionally produced. In advance of the 2023 season, you can re-watch all of the broadcasts on the Extreme E website, and learn more about the locations, drivers and teams.