Extreme E: Cristina Gutiérrez tops Ocean X prix qualifying for X44
X44's Cristina Gutiérrez completed Saturday's action at Lac Rose on top of the timesheets, as the Spaniard preceded Molly Taylor and star of the day Jutta Kleinschmidt in the combined qualify. Heartbreak for Munnings and Price, who won't get into the Semi Finals for technical issues.
Saturday at Lac Rose, Senegal, surely reserved some interesting talking points on the eve of the second ever Extreme E final.
On Friday, the practice shakedown had pretty much confirmed what we had seen in AlUla: the leading protagonists were Catie Munnings & Timmy Hansen for Andretti United, with Rosberg X Racing's Molly Taylor and Johan Kristoffersson - the winners of the inaugural event - slotting in second place a little over 1 second behind. Lewis Hamilton's X44 drivers Cristina Gutierrez and multiple rally champion Sebastien Loeb were third in the combined practice times, seven tenths off - making it a seen-before 1-2-3.
Among the most interesting duos to show remarkable improvements were certainly Ganassi's Sara Price and Kyle Leduc - who, on the other hand, had endured a really unfortunate debut last time out, including two heavy shunts. Jamie Chadwick (Veloce Racing) finally had the chance to get more accustomed with the Odyssey21 electric SUV, after a rollover crash by co-driver Stephane Sarrazin had ruled them out entirely from the first weekend.
“I feel positive, I think the main focus for us is now just getting laps under our belts and track time." - said Jamie. "Obviously, we need to make amends for Saudi but also not biting off more than we can chew and taking each step as it comes. I don’t think we can underestimate how much we need to prepare for a weekend like this. We’ve done the best we can but there’s so much we can’t anticipate so we just have to soak it all in while we can and enjoy it."
ABT Cupra - another team that surely could not fully prove their potential in Saudi Arabia - had a mixed day on Friday: while Mattias Ekström recorded the single fastest lap overall, experienced GT racer Claudia Hürtgen was forced to pull out of the event after falling ill from a stomach bug.
And it was a legendary name for women in motorsport to step in: 58-year old Jutta Kleinschmidt, first ever - and so far only - woman to win the legendary Dakar rally, got back behind the wheel of a race car exactly 20 years after her breakthrough victory in Senegal.
Kleinschmidt, the series reserve driver and course design advisor, had to quickly adapt to the car but happily accepted the invitation to step in.
“I am really excited to be going back to Senegal." - Kleinschmidt said before embarking to Senegal. "To be honest I have not had a chance to go back since 2007, when the last Dakar was held in this region and actually my last Dakar too, so it’s going to be great to be back there and see how it’s changed. It will feel in a way like coming home as it was a big moment for me winning there and changed many things for me."
"I still remember so clearly when I passed the finish line in 2001 especially - I am sure a lot of positive emotions will come up again."
Commenting about the new race course, the German off-road legend - who is also part of the FIA Women In Motorsport Commission - described it as a more technical layout compared to the AlUla one. “As far as how it will compare with the Desert X Prix in AlUla, I think Lac Rose will be more technical for the drivers but much less dusty than Saudi Arabia."
“This course is challenging. It’s more technical than what we saw in Saudi Arabia, I think for most of us it’s more like what we imagined Extreme E was going to be – different line choices, bumpier and rougher terrain." - echoed Friday's pace setter Catie Munnings. "It is definitely going to be more of a challenge for us as drivers but also that brings more excitement and we all thrive off of that. I think we just have to keep in mind that it’s a long weekend, we need to know where to push and where to back off slightly."
This was later confirmed by a series of tighter corners and very technical sections running along the coast of the Atlantic ocean: a feature that could potentially reduce the gap between the rally-raid specialists and the drivers with different backgrounds.
Among them, former F1 champion Jenson Button opted to focus on his managerial role and left the driving seat to Kevin Hansen. He would continue to share the JBXE car with Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky.
Despite a few format tweaks, the qualifying single-lap format was confirmed, with Q1 getting underway in the morning and a second qualifying in the afternoon - with lap times combined to shape the two semi-finals on Sunday.
After the first runs, it was X44's duo of Cristina Gutierrez and Sebastien Loeb to top the timesheets, with a 10:47.289 effort. Merely 4.2 seconds behind, though, were the all-American duo of Sara Price and Kyle Leduc for Ganassi, who really had a great run despite the changing track conditions. Price went in first and completed a very solid lap, before handing over to her co-driver Leduc - who impressed especially in the final sector with a very aggressive driving style.
Rosberg X Racing's Molly Taylor was once again very consistent and brought home a third place, edging the ABT Cupra of Mattias Ekström and Jutta Kleinschmidt.
The German was arguably the star of the session: with very limited running time, she was straight on pace and had actually put the #125 SUV in third, before receiving a 25-second penalty for a driver change infraction that dropped them to fourth.
Kevin Hansen and Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky were very close on performance and finished fifth, just ahead of the Veloce duo of Jamie Chadwick and Stephane Sarrazin. Chadwick was the very first driver on track and had a cautious run, but still showed good potential.
XITE Energy Racing - formerly known as Hispano Suiza - were a bit more off the pace in seventh, but both Christine Giampaoli Zonca and Oliver Bennett crucially avoided mistakes and were safely across the line.
The two major surprises though, were the ill-fated runs by the Andretti United duo of Catie Munnings and Timmy Hansen and the Acciona/Sainz crew of Carlos Sainz and Laia Sanz. Both the cars stopped on track with technical issues, heavily hampering both the team's weekends.
While Munnings did make it back across the finish line, the Spanish team was forced to abandon their Q1 effort.
With lap times being added to the previous runs, Q2 saw Gutierrez-Loeb again topping the session with another lap below the 11-minute mark. Cristina Gutierrez smashed the previous benchmark and the team was never challenged again, with ABT Cupra's Kleinschmidt and Ekström setting the second fastest lap - that gained them third place in the combined classify.
“I’m very happy with today’s result and our performance as a team." - said Gutierrez after ending Saturday as the leader.
"We came into the weekend in a good position so I was confident we could do well but of course finishing top in qualifying is better than I could have hoped for!"
"The type of track for me was much harder than the Desert X Prix, and the sand shifted a lot between the two rounds of qualifying so it was a challenge, but I managed to get a good time and Seb was amazing. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow but I’m feeling confident and I can’t wait to get back in the car.”
Molly Taylor had a big moment when she landed sideways after a jump, almost rolling her RXR SUV. Nevertheless, the very fast Australian was third fastest, and could retain second overall.
"Today has been a challenging day here in Senegal but one we have lots to learn from and many positives to take onboard." - commented the first ever winner of an Extreme E race.
"I felt we didn’t quite get the balance of the car right in both sessions, and it’s so difficult to tweak the car set-up for a course layout that keeps changing with new ruts and driving lines appearing all of the time! But overall our pace is good and we’re pleased to be through to the semi-finals. We have a lot of data to go through tonight but we’ll be prepared to go racing tomorrow.”
Most of the female drivers went out first, with Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky not being an exception. With another great lap - less than 2 seconds adrift the Rosberg's duo - the Swede gained one place and was up to fourth.
Just behind her, it was Veloce Racing's and Williams F1 hopeful Jamie Chadwick. The Brit continued her learning progress in off-road racing and helped Sarrazin to fifth - crucially gaining a place in tomorrow's Semi Final.
The final team to qualify in the top six were XITE Energy Racing, with Spanish-Italian racer Christine Giampaoli Zonca - also known as 'GZ' - and Oliver Bennett advancing to the Semi Final 2 with Veloce and JBXE.
Despite a 11:23.131 run that would have brought them to sixth place, the ACCIONA/Sainz duo were bottom of the timing screen due to their Q1 stop.
There was heartbreak for the Segi TV Chip Ganassi Racing crew: after showing amazing speed all weekend, Kyle Leduc's run was cut short by a technical issue and the car was stranded on the course for over 3 minutes, before the American could reset the system and hand over to Sara Price. Price's lap would have gained her P7, but the lost time ultimately compromised their chances.
Similar fate awaited the Andretti United duo: the Q1 misfortune couldn't simply be overturned and Catie Munnings and Timmy Hansen will have to go against Ganassi and Acciona/Sainz in tomorrow's shootout race - still valid for points, but not enough to make it into the final of the Ocean X Prix.
Tomorrow's action will resume on the shores of Lac Rose at 10:00 local time (11:00 BST, 12:00 CEST) for the Semi Finals.