Nestled in the beautiful, Mediterranean grounds of the Château de Lastours an important motorsport test was taking place.
Normally, one would expect to hear roaring engines and gear changes echoing off the rolling hills that litter the region, much like the annual Monte Carlo rally or Grand Prix.
But this week, it was silence.
To the average passer by there was nothing happening. A slight whip up of dust could perhaps be attributed to the wind. But overall, nothing special.
However, to the motorsport world it was something extraordinary.
For the largest test yet for the emerging electric SUV racing championship Extreme E was taking place.
Over six days some very high profile drivers, some from the world of electric racing, other from further afield, came to Lastours to get a taste of the hugely unique challenge that is the ODYSSEY-21.
Extreme E is the brand new radical off road racing series that features the electric SUVs in competition with each other. Not only is it there to showcase futuristic technology but it is also a means of raising awareness of climate disaster around the world.
To draw attention to regions that have been dramatically effected by recent climate change, the Extreme E paddock will sail around the world to various locations and race whilst drumming up support for the cause.
Not only will they garner support, there is a resident scientific team who travel with the series to explore the new technologies and to develop ways to beat climate change. They are led by scientists from Cambridge and Oxford Universities.
The format is made up of qualifying, two semi finals and a final.
Qualifying determines which semi final a team ends up in with the higher ranked four teams in SF1 and the lowest four in SF2. Three cars from the faster semi final progress to the final and only one does from the second semi final.
An overall winner is declared from the final race.
The cars are split between a male and female driver who will do half the driving each with a driver change mid race.
Catie Munnings, who is driving for Andretti United spoke about the unique and inclusive rule: “I was initially attracted by the adventure and travel of Extreme E, driving electric and the gender split was the icing on the cake for me. It’s a privilege and will give more women the opportunity to experience motorsport. Of course, women can compete in motorsport at the minute but this is another level of equality and sets the right example for future generations at the grass roots of motorsports.”
They compete in the ODYSSEY-21 which was being tested in Latours last week.
The car has 400kwh of power, which is an equivalent 550bhp. It has a 0-62mph of 4.5 seconds up some very steep gradients. The battery is courtesy of Williams Advanced Technology, the suppliers of the Gen1 and Gen3 Formula E batteries and the rest of the car is kitted out by Spark Technology. Tyres are courtesy of Continental.
Teams can use the stylish Extreme E bodywork for Season 1 or develop their own. They can also work with an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) and put on road going bodywork.
They were in the south of France to push the ODYSSEY-21 to its limit and give some huge names a taster of the car.
Theophile Gouzin, the Technical Director of Spark Technologies said of the test: “It’s been a really strong week here at Château de Lastours, with lots of track time and lots of different styles of drivers taking it out. We’ve seen a world of progress since we were here a year ago testing the car for the first time. Of course, there are still learnings and adaptions to be made and that’s what the testing is all about so this week has been especially useful as we near the end of our development.”
The first event scheduled for Extreme E is not far away now in January in Dakar, Senegal with teams set to board the floating paddock (yes, it’s a super cool boat) in December 2020.
Gouzin continued: “The feedback from the drivers has been really useful. A great detail about this car is that it is adaptable and we’ve been able to make little tweaks here and there to suit different driver styles, which proves teams can tune this vehicle and see immediate results. A great sign for the competitive ability in this one design championship.”
Two time Formula E Champion Jean-Eric Vergne was one of the many to trial the car.
“I loved it! A very, very good experience. I was really pleased with the power, it’s totally impressive.” said JEV.
“It is a totally different world to what I’m used to. I’ve never driven sideways before and here you have to slide so it’s something I’m discovering and I’m really enjoying it. For the first few laps, I had to almost re-learn the way I drive the car as it’s so different to the experience in a single seater. Rather humbling for me at first but I evaluated, took advice and saw progress really quickly which felt good. When I got up on the hill track it felt incredible and I didn’t want it to end.”
JEV has been someone who has fully embraced Extreme E as it has developed over the past couple of years.
He owns a team, Veloce Racing, which was one of the first to be announced and he was is a member of the driver pool for the series expressing interest in driving in the series, although nothing is certain yet.
Being such a figure in electric motorsport with his Formula E successes, JEV’s adoration means an immense amount for the series.
“This series is going to be huge amounts of fun and I can’t wait to drive it again and see even more improvement. Whether or not I drive in the series myself is not decided. I want Veloce Racing to win of course so will pick the driver best suited to the job. What I do know though is we are building a serious team entry and we can’t wait for Season 1 to get started.”
Veloce is one of the teams that have proved Extreme E’s not here to mess around. Lead Visionary for the team is Red Bull’s F1 technical guru Adrian Newey.
Not only is Newey involved in the series, another large Formula 1 name was announced a few weeks ago.
6 time champion Lewis Hamilton has his own team! X44 will be Hamilton’s first outside F1 venture in motorsport.
Hamilton said: “Extreme E really appealed to me because of its environmental focus.
“Every single one of us has the power to make a difference, and it means so much to me that I can use my love of racing, together with my love for our planet, to have a positive impact.
“Not only will we visit remote locations facing the front line of the climate crisis, we will also work closely with these locations and leading climate experts to share our knowledge and leave behind a positive legacy in each location which goes far beyond the race track.
“As Founder of X44, I am looking forward to building my team around important values such as sustainability and equality.
“None of us are perfect and we all have improvements to make, but I am excited to use our platform to highlight the most serious issues facing our planet and the solutions we can all be part of.”
Hamilton is obviously committed to his work in F1 with Mercedes where he is chasing Michael Schumacher’s all time records for wins and championships but his involvement at such a pivotal time for his career speaks volumes about the seriousness of Extreme E in their quest against climate change.
Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate and winner of the latest Grand Prix in Russia, Valtteri Bottas, also took time to sample the ODYSSEY-21 in France.
He shared his more simplified opinion of the experience on Twitter:
Some of the other drivers at the test included F3 racer Sophia Floersch, Rallycross legends Timmy Hansen and Andreas Bakkerud as well as Jerome D’Ambrosio.
They all were in awe of the experience too:
Timmy Hansen, who will partner with Catie Munnings for Andretti United, said: “Despite its size and weight, the car is agile and highly responsive. It drifts nicely and recovers quickly as you pull out of the corners as it sticks well to the track. Its power comes instantly when you need it and nothing when you don’t. The more I drive it, the more I like it.”
Munnings was equally enthusiastic: “The car feels insane and I’m just picturing it on all the different surfaces in these amazing locations and having that sensation of racing, but also being out in nature and having that flow with the car that we are already starting to feel. I feel like the more I get to know the car, the more natural it becomes.”
Billy Monger, who still races in F3 after losing his legs in an F4 crash in Donington in 2017, was also present. For him the car was specially adapted due to his limitations.
“Getting to drive the car was really cool! The whole experience was completely out of my comfort zone but I like a challenge and it was great fun. Having only done single seater stuff in Formula 3, to then drive a car that requires a completely different driving style, and the way you attack, was different for me. So, it was new experiences, and new challenges.
“The adaptions for me came on the throttle, I had a hand throttle on the steering wheel on a big paddle which the guys at Spark created after I visited their factory earlier this year.
“It’s a great opportunity to be involved in something like this. I think electromobility is definitely needed, there’s enough evidence out there to tell people electric is probably going to be the future, we’ve seen that in Formula E and how that’s grown and I think Extreme E in off-road is going to be another step in that direction.
“Extreme E stands for a lot of the things I do so it’s definitely something I’m looking to explore. Anyone who knows Lewis Hamilton will be involved knows he’ll want to win and set up a pretty damn good team, so I think any driver interested in doing the series is definitely going to be interested in having that seat. Of course, I would love that to be me but we will just have to wait and see.”
Founder and CEO of the series, Alejandro Agag, waxed lyrical about the whole event: “This week has been crucial for Extreme E. Every mile on the test track provides critical learning opportunities and in this case we decided to go all out and invite some of the biggest and most respected names in the sport to come and put the ODYSSEY 21 through its paces and give us their honest feedback.
“The fact they have all had such positive reactions has provided a huge confidence boost to the series. My congratulations and gratitude to the Spark Racing Technology team for their hard work in the face of our most intensive testing yet. I can safely say it’s been a huge success.”
Now the test is over comes the the biggest challenge, the build of all 8 vehicles for Spark Technology in time for December when the fleet sets sail for Senegal.
The series has been gathering more and more traction and looks to be on target for its opening event in Dakar.
Here comes a whole new era of motorsport.