Extreme E qualifying: Lewis Hamilton’s X44 beat Nico Rosberg’s team on absorbing debut

Extreme E made its debut as a new motorsport series on Saturday, taking on a brutally challenging circuit in the Saudi Arabian desert and putting on a show which suggested Sunday’s wheel-to-wheel racing will be a compelling watch.

This is the first of five global races as electric SUVs take on extreme environments from the Arctic to the Amazon, aiming to raise awareness of the climate crisis as they go. Nine teams comprised of one male and one female driver attempted one lap each of the 9km circuit, in two qualifying sessions, to register a cumulative time ahead of Sunday’s semi-finals and final. 

Diverse icons and rising stars from across motorsport were behind the wheel or on the pitwall, but it was a classic Formula One rivalry which took centre stage as Lewis Hamilton’s X44 team, made up of rally duo Sebastian Loeb and Cristina Gutierrez, beat Nico Rosberg’s Rosberg XE thanks to a retrospective time penalty.

Rosberg’s former Australian rally champion Molly Taylor and reigning World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson seemed to have the best grip of the Odyssey 21 car and snuck inside X44’s leading time. But Taylor had gone too fast through the ‘switch’ zone, the area where drivers swap over which has a 35kph limit (ironically she was 44kph too fast) and they fell back to third place behind both X44 and Sainz XE, for whom motorcyclist Laia Sanz and 58-year-old rally legend Carlos Sainz both impressed.

“There’s so much to think about for the drivers and apparently we made a mistake,” said Rosberg afterwards, watching on trackside in the Command Centre. “We had a problem with the [speed] limiter and they say we went too fast, so there is nothing we can do.”

The result means Hamilton’s team took the maximum 12 points from qualifying, but teams Rosberg and Sainz will have the chance to hit back when the top three from qualifying face off in what should be a chaotic semi-final, with two final spots up for grabs. 

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The action was fun to watch. Drivers made their way through AlUla’s stunning landscape, walled by giant sandstone rocks and confronted by huge climbs and sheer drops. The bumpy terrain sent cars bouncing over the dunes and every loss of balance drew the breath, hoping they could cling on. 

The first session took two victims, Frenchman Stephane Sarrazin (Veloce) and German driver Claudia Hurtgen (ABT Cupra). Hurtgen’s incident was particularly terrifying as she lost control on the rutted sand and rolled five times. Her team watching in the Command Centre fell silent, but she emerged safely a few minutes later having only bitten her tongue. She apologising for scuppering their chances but crash-outs were an inevitable reality of a newly designed circuit which holds so many unknowns.

Sarrazin’s crash was less severe but the damage sustained to the car’s cage meant Veloce were forced to withdraw from the rest of the weekend’s racing. That was an especially big blow to Britain’s rising talent Jamie Chadwick, who did not get a moment behind the wheel.

Naturally the afternoon session was more conservative. “It was a bit rough out there,” French rally great Loeb said after X44 won qualifying. “We had a good position from the first qualifying, so we didn’t take any big risk and just made sure to secure the points.” 

There was an impressive performance from Britain’s Catie Munnings (Andretti), who completed her first qualifying lap despite a burst tyre and along with Swedish rallycross driver Timmy Hansen secured fourth place. Jenson Button and his partner Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky (JBXE) suffered a speeding penalty and mechanical issues but managed to complete both qualifying sessions to finish sixth overall.

Time will tell whether Extreme E can become more than just a novelty and establish itself as a fixture on the motorsport calendar, but the early signs are encouraging, and suggest much more to come on Sunday when the battle between Rosberg, Hamilton and Sainz moves from the clock to the sand.

Desert X-Prix qualifying results

To follow…

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