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Extreme-E's Big Desert Debut Did Not Disappoint

Extreme-E Desert X Prix
Cristina Gutierrez / Sebastien Loeb (Photo by Charly Lopez)

The brand spanking new racing series known as Extreme-E got off to a positively cracking start this past weekend. Called the Desert X Prix, the first of five racing events scheduled for Extreme-E's inaugural season was a thrilling blast of sun, speed, and sand - maybe mostly sand. It was actually very interesting to see how the environmental surroundings played such a huge part in the races themselves. It also served as a startling reminder that mother nature is always a force with which to be reckoned, no matter how far some go to ignore her.

I believe we’ll see this theme repeat itself at all four race events remaining in the season. Each of the five remote sites were chosen under what was surely a multitude of considerations, but a couple of primary concerns stick out: 1) each location represents a drastically different but equally fragile corner of the global environment, and 2) each site has already suffered at the hands of humans either indirectly as a result of climate change or very directly due to human interference - something I suspect we’ll see unsettling evidence of in race number four in the way of mass deforestation of the Amazon.

Extreme-E Desert X Prix, Andretti United
Andretti United Extreme E (Photo by Charly Lopez)

Extreme-E describes itself as “an all-electric racing series with a purpose.” That purpose is to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change and demonstrate that humanity can tread lightly while still having a good time, which brings us back to the Desert X Prix - and the desert and the racing. Both were equally impressive with enormous dunes and rock formations adorning the sweeping vistas across which flew nine different incarnations of the Odyssey 21 racing machine. And let me tell ya. She’s a real sweetheart. She bobs. She ducks. She weaves. She scoots. I understand that these are all very technical racing terms that most of the general public would not understand. But there are few other words to adequately describe the way she moves. And move she does.

Electric Odyssey 21 Specifications
Odyssey 21 Spec Sheet (Graphic by Extreme-E)

What she does not do is make a bunch of noise. The sounds that came out of the electric Odyssey 21 were of course very different from what you'd hear at your typical rally course or really any internal combustion race event, which are aurally dominated by screaming engines and the exhaust systems attached to them. The sounds coming from the Odyssey 21 were instead a mix of suspension noise and rattles on top of a jittery bed of high-pitched electric motor whine. It was definitely a more subdued soundtrack, and sometimes it played second fiddle to the lovely scenery and absolutely outstanding commentary from the broadcast team.

My personal favorite commentator, hands down, was Andrew Coley. It was Andrew that really brought the excitement and intensity of the race to my ears - to such a degree that without him, I don't think the races would have been nearly as enjoyable. It almost seemed as if he was narrating the races from inside one of the cars. That was the level of emotional involvement I got from him; and from the sound of things, I'm pretty confident that his adrenal glands were every bit as active as those inside the drivers.

Extreme-E Desert X Prix
Molly Taylor / Johan Kristoffersson, Rosberg X Racing (Photo by Sam Bloxham)

One big challenge that the desert offered its guests was poor visibility - especially if the guests in question happened to be in anything less than first place. The visibility issues arose due to the copious amounts of sand and dust kicked up by all of the relentless gnar shredding. Curiously, the Odyssey 21 seemed to have no defense mechanism for this, often leaving its drivers in downright dangerous positions. Maybe this was a calculated omission by the engineers for weight reasons or perhaps instead an omission by the race organizers for simple cost savings.

Either way, had I been one of the drivers, I surely would have been reaching for the windshield washer fluid button the entire time. The Odyssey is equipped with windshield wipers; but I don’t actually recall having seen them used at any point, although I certainly could have missed it. Maybe wipers alone were just ineffective against that much dust, which begs the question: are they also equipped with windshield washer fluid reservoirs and squirters? If they are, then why didn’t I see anyone using them? Would windshield washer fluid on that much dust have just turned it all into mud and made the visibility disaster even worse?

I don’t know. The dust part leaves me a little confused, if only because at times it made the races less exciting to watch because there was a clear and substantial competitive advantage to being in first place. That may sound odd, because being in first place is pretty much the whole point; but in the case of the Desert X Prix, maintaining that coveted first-place position left behind the leader a cloud of dust and sand so thick and unrelenting that the racers in back were forced to either slow down or choose a different and often less desirable line.

One clever duck, Timmy Hansen for Andretti United, even used Hyperdrive right off the starting line to grab the lead straight out of the gates, leaving his opponents in the… dust. You can think of Hyperdrive, by the way, kind of like a speed boost in Mario Kart. It allows for a significant increase in power for a brief amount of time. To be fair, in that particular race, Johan Kristofferson for Rosberg X Racing ended up passing Hansen in short order to gain the lead. But the issue with the dust trails and terrible visibility in this event, as I see it, was that that a second- or third-place driver's ability to pass and take the lead was greatly diminished. And very often that was the case on the second day of the Desert X Prix. Anyway I’m no racing aficionado, but to me it is the tight races with lots of passes that are generally the most fun to watch.

To compensate for the lack of passing, the Desert X Prix offered plenty of crashing. Why did all the crashing happen? Well, it was the dust.

Extreme-E Desert X Prix
Kyle Leduc crashing into back of Claudia Hürtgen

At the end of the two-day competition, it was Molly Taylor and Johan Kristoffersson for Rosberg X Racing that had amassed the most points, earning them the top spot on the podium. Truth be told, I think everybody walked away winners from the Desert X Prix, viewers included. The whole event was enjoyable and well put together. The fact that they were able to do it all under electric power with zero emissions, well that was just the icing on the cake. The next X Prix will be on the beaches of Senegal. If you haven't discovered the joy of Extreme-E racing yet, your next chance to do so will be May 29-30.

Extreme-E Desert X Prix
Sainz XE & Rosberg X Racing (Photo by Sam Bloxham)

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