Cristina Gutiérrez and Sebastien Loeb brought the X44 team on top of the Extreme E timing sheets for the fifth consecutive time in qualifying, as they led both the Jurassic X Prix Quali sessions.
After a series of highly-spectacular season endings in the past weeks, Extreme E will be the last high-profile championship to round out its season tomorrow, as it will assign its inaugural title at the end of the Jurassic X Prix. The first all-electric off-road series comes to an end after 5 rounds held on some of the most scenic and remote venues in the world: from the desert of Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, to Senegal; from Greenland to Sardinia. The final rounds were initially scheduled to take place in South America, with the Glacier X Prix set to round out the season in Ushuaia, Argentina. The pandemic-related challenges forced the promoters to cancel the race, replacing it with a title showdown in Dorset, UK. A very tricky – and extremely muddy - 3.8 km course allowed for experimentation on the format: no more two laps, one each driver – teams will have to complete three laps around the course, with the starting driver handing over to her/his teammate at the end of the second lap. For the first time, Extreme E will dictate the order for the first time, with the male drivers going out first in Q1 and the female drivers in Q2. By alternating the starters, the female racers are thus set to take the start in the final and will complete 2 laps. At the eve of the grand finale, Molly Taylor and Johan Kristoffersson (RXR) lead the standings by 16 points on the X44 duo, with Cristina Gutiérrez and rally legend Sebastien Loeb still in title contention. Gutiérrez became the first woman to win the FIA World RallyCross T3 championship and was awarded with the trophy at the annual FIA Gala in Paris a few days ago. Fighting for the third place in the championship are Andretti United (Catie Munnings / Timmy Hansen), JBXE (Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky / Kevin Hansen) and the Abt Cupra team (Jutta Kleinschmidt / Mattias Ekström), all separated by less than 10 points. For her home race, Jamie Chadwick will also return behind the wheel of the Veloce Racing's Odyssey21 SUV, after last making an appearance in the series at the Ocean X Prix in Senegal. Chadwick has in fact completed her title-winning campaign in W Series and will now race alongside South African Lance Woolridge.
On Thursday, Acciona Sainz XE Team set the pace in the free practice session, with a combined time of 10:10:006. Abt Cupra and X44 followed in second and third place. “Many things can happen in every race, but we need to be confident." – commented Laia Sanz. "We have been a bit unlucky this season so I am hoping for more good luck this weekend."
“The season has been great, but challenging – I came from two-wheel racing and everyone else has plenty of experience on four wheels. I think I am improving, though, and definitely feel like I have the best teacher in Carlos [Sainz Snr.]. Q1 went underway on Friday on another cold, muddy and overcast day – typical of the British weather in mid-December. Abt Cupra led the times early on, with strong performances from Ekström and Kleinschmidt, then followed by Veloce Racing's Woolridge and Chadwick, who were approximately 6 seconds adrift. Throughout the session, times were impressively close and all the drivers managed to run solid laps without technical troubles. At the end of the tightly-fought runs, X44's Sebastien Loeb and Cristina Gutiérrez were fastest, edging title rivals RXR by less than two seconds despite a moment over the jump for Loeb and a small excursion for Gutierrez. Acciona Sainz were further 2.7 seconds behind, as Sainz had to shut the vehicle's door during the lap. Veloce Racing's duo was a strong fifth, ahead of Andretti United and SEGI TV Chip Ganassi Racing – the latter having for the first time a clean run. With the top-7 separated by only 15 seconds after the almost 10-minute laps, the JBXE and XITE Energy Racing outfits ended up at the bottom of the timing sheets after receiving penalties: Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky and was in for a fast lap but took a wrong path and hit an advertising board as she rejoined the course. They would receive a 7-second time penalty for speeding in the switch.
Christine GZ showed arguably one of her best performances all year and was consistently faster than her teammate Oliver Bennett, who was unlucky enough to get two time penalties; for speeding in the switch zone and 10 seconds for dropping a flag.
The course's conditions continued to change as the electric SUVs completed their runs and drivers found different conditions on Saturday morning, when they hit the track for Q2. It was another incredibly tight session, with four teams within 10 seconds: Lewis Hamilton's X44 team set the pace once again, reaching the impressive record of leading all 5 qualifying's combined times.
The female drivers started each pairing's runs, with Catie Munnings and Timmy Hansen being topped by Veloce's Jamie Chadwick and Lance Woolridge in the early stages. Chadwick continued to show improvements despite her limited time in the Odyssey21 car – and in offroad rallying as well.
Dakar legend Jutta Kleinschmidt was just 8 seconds behind despite taking a wrong road and ending up with a 5-second time penalty.
“It has been a qualifying with ups and downs for us." – explained Jutta. "We have been the first car out on track in both sessions which is always a challenge. In the first part I was probably a little bit too careful while I felt spot on in the session on Saturday. Unfortunately I missed one of the waypoints and we received a penalty. All possible on race day - that’s the beauty of Extreme E.”
With another stellar performance, Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky and Timmy Hansen set the fastest laps and led the sessions for most of the remaining attempts, in the team's best qualifying to date.
"It is the best qualifying position we’ve had so we’re feeling good about that", said Mikaela. "It takes us into the Semi-Finals and we’re confident with the speed we have in us and the car, but it will be crucial tomorrow to make a good start in order to reach the Final."
Both the Acciona Sainz and RXR teams followed closely but couldn't top Jenson Button's duo, before Cristina Gutierrez and Sebastien Loeb once again fired to the top with near perfect runs from both drivers.
There was trouble for Timmy Hansen (Andretti United), who went deep and hit a tree but could continue. They would finish Q2 in eighth place, having lost approximately 20 seconds in the incident.
Christine GZ was again the fastest of the XITE Energy duo and offered some of the most spectacular action with her high jumps over the crest but, after a very strong first lap, they couldn't finish higher than seventh in Q2. The first and only technical issue of the day was for the unluckiest team on the grid – SEGI TV Chip Ganassi Racing. Sara Price had a great first stint and was set to bring the American squad inside the top-6, but a power steering issue after a few corners during Kyle LeDuc's lap meant that he had to wrestle his car across the finish line, ending 36 seconds adrift the pace setters.
Gutiérrez-Loeb therefore led the combined classification on Saturday, gaining four points on Rosberg X Racing's Molly Taylor and Johan Kristoffersson. X44 also won the GridPlay public vote, which gives the teams the chance to choose their starting position.
“It’s amazing to think we have been number one in qualifying in every race of Extreme E", commented Gutiérrez.
"We have had some bad luck in the finals that have cost us points so hopefully we have better luck tomorrow, but it’s great to be able to show how fast we can go. I’m happy that we were able to choose our grid position for the Semi Final as that will be so important to give us a head start, and then we will just have to focus and do everything we can to achieve a podium finish.”
X44 will go up against JBXE and Veloce Racing in the first Semi-Final, while RXR, Acciona Sainz and Abt Cupra will fight each other in Semi-Final 2.
Andretti United, Chip Ganassi Racing and XITE Energy Racing will battle for a place in the final through the Crazy Race.
The Semi Finals will be televised on Sunday at 10:00 local time, while the Final is set to crown the Extreme E first ever champions at 12:00 local.