Extreme E: Gutierrez-Loeb top day 1 of Desert X-Prix
Updated: Apr 4, 2021
After an action-packed and drama-filled Saturday in AlUla, Cristina Gutierrez and Sebastien Loeb finished on top of the timesheets in the very inaugural Extreme E qualifying, edging Laia Sanz-Carlos Sainz and the penalized Rosberg duo of Molly Taylor-Johan Kristoffersson.
In a historic day for motorsport, the all-new electric offroad series Extreme E kicked off its inaugural season with qualifying day on the dunes of AlUla, Saudi Arabia.
The 9 teams gave it their all in the two qualifying runs – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – and, after four intense hours of action, it was the X44 lineup to come up on top of the timesheets: Cristina Gutierrez and Sebastien Loeb were the fastest in the combined sessions' results, in a ramarkably consistent performance for the Spaniard and the rally legend.
The electric SUVs went around the 8.8 km course in a single-car time trial – contrary to the initial format that was supposed to see qualifying races after a last minute change due to visibility concerns.
The new qualifying, though, provided plenty of drama as early as the first morning runs.
Similarly to a ski slalom competition, the first teams to go out on track found themselves in a slightly better track condition. The starting order was decided by a lottery draw, and saw Lewis Hamilton's X44 team leading the field.
With all the teams bar Hispano Suiza electing to send out their male driver out first before switching to their female racer, 9-time WRC champion Sebastien Loeb handed over to Cristina Gutierrez – the first ever female driver to win an overall Dakar stage. Despite a small mistake by Loeb towards the end of the over 10-minute lap, the pair remained unbeaten until Nico Rosberg's team sent out Rally Cross star Johan Kristoffersson and Australian rally champion Molly Taylor.
Taylor's commitment through the jumps and dunes gave the German team the edge and the strong duo remained on top throughout the session.
Carlos Sainz Sr. and Laia Sanz – making her debut in race cars from motorcycles – were third and a very clean run, while the rest of the pack had more troubled sessions: Andretti Autosport's Catie Munnings completed a heroic drive to fourth place on three wheels after a puncture had ripped off her tyre mid-way through her lap, while Jenson Button and Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky were fifth, as the Swedish lady came to a stop on track and lost over 30 seconds to reset her car.
Oliver Bennett and Christine Giampaoli Zonca picked up an unfortunate time penalty for speeding in the driver-change area, after the Spanish-Italian racer had completed a solid first run; nevertheless, they still finished in sixth place and ahead of the Chip Ganassi duo of Kyle LeDuc and Sara Price.
The American squad was protagonist of a really challenging weekend so far: LeDuc crashed heavily the Odyssey21 SUV in the Friday shakedown, ripping off the right hand side of the vehicle and forcing his team to extra-work overnight. While the #99 SEGI TV Ganassi Racing car did make it to the starting gate, a power steering issue forced both drivers to physically wrestle their machine across the finish line.
The session was temporarily stopped when ABT Cupra XE's Claudia Hürtgen had a monumental crash in the final stages of her lap, which sent her SUV rolling over and into the air several times before coming to a halt. Hürtgen was luckily unhurt, but the damage prevented the team to enter the second Qualifying session.
It was an even tougher day for Veloce Racing: inaugural W Series champion and Williams F1 team's Development Driver didn't even get to run a single lap after Stephane Sarrazin's roll-over crash in the morning session. Sarrazin also escaped uninjured, but the British outfit later confirmed that they will be retiring from the event following unrepairable chassis damages:
"Following a review by the team and the officials, it has been deemed that it is unsafe to continue due to irreparable damage to the ODYSSEY 21 chassis" – reads a team's statement. It surely was a frustrating debut for Jamie Chadwick, but the 23-year old racer will be back in the Odyssey21 vehicle in the Ocean X Prix.
"Gutted to have to withdraw from this weekend due to unrepairable damage, but really glad Stephane Sarrazin is ok after a nasty accident. So much confidence in this team to bounce back stronger in Senegal" – she wrote on Saturday afternoon.
Qualifying 2 turned out to be just as exciting and action-filled: while the teams starting order remained unchanged, the drivers reversed their stints order – meaning that Cristina Gutierrez went out to set the first benchmark, followed by Sebastien Loeb. The X44 line-up proved once again to be on top of their game and completed a clean yet lightning fast run.
The battle was clearly again between former F1 teammates and now rival team bosses Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg: Johan Kristoffersson and Molly Taylor were again the fastest on track – with the Australian again completing a stunning run albeit not picked up by the cameras – but were later penalized by a 60-second penalty for exceeding the speed limit by 30 km/h in the switch zone. An issue that cost Rosberg XE Team the lead in the combined time sheets and handed Gutierrez-Loeb their first points of the season.
“We’ve had an incredible day, but it was also very challenging!" – commented Dakar-specialist Cristina Gutierrez.
"We haven’t been able to spend any time in the car for the last few months so it was difficult to get used to it again, but we managed to fight and achieve a good time."
"To have finished first in Qualifying and have our car still in great condition is amazing; we’re really happy, and we can’t wait to go again tomorrow. We know the other teams are not going to be easy to race against, but we are confident and ready to go."
The penalty relegated Taylor and Kristoffersson to third place overall, also behind the Acciona-Sainz XE Team of Carlos Sainz and Laia Sanz, who were again incredibly solid and ran mistake-free throughout the day, likely thanks to their massive rally-raid experience.
“Today was a positive day." – said Sanz. "There were many unknowns before Qualifying, but we were further ahead than I had expected and I am happy. It was a busy day, but we made it through quite well."
"Maybe I played it a bit safe in the first Qualifying, but we improved the car for the second session and the times were faster. Extreme E is particularly tricky because you have to be competitive from the very beginning and it is difficult to adapt that fast, but my feeling in the car has improved and we are heading in the right direction. The goal for Sunday is to do a good Semi-Final to finish in the top two, because that would put us into the Final, which would be a great result for this first weekend of racing.”
“It’s been a strong start to the weekend for RXR, and I’m happy with our performance." – explained an equally satisfied Molly Taylor, probably one of the most impressive drivers today. "The course is changing a lot during the sessions because of the ruts and new tyre tracks that are appearing, so every lap feels different to the last and is a new challenge. We had some wild moments in Qualifying 1, but we managed to keep it pinned to go fastest and have a strong run in Qualifying 2 to make it through to the Semi-Finals tomorrow.”
Advancing to Semi-Final 2 will be also the Andretti United team of Catie Munnings and Timmy Hansen and the JBXE duo of driver-owner Jenson Button and Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky. The two cars finished five hundredths of a second apart across the finish line, but a massive 3-minute penalty for a malfunctioning pit-limiter and Button leaving the driver swap area too soon denied the white and yellow Brawn GP-style SUV of a fifth place after a stunning lap by Kottulinsky. Nevertheless, their rivals' issues still allowed the young Swede and her F1 champion teammate to qualify for the second Semi-Final race tomorrow.
Fifth place went to the surprising pair of Christine Giampaoli Zonca & Oliver Bennett, that put the Hispano Suiza SUV right in the midfield despite the Q1 penalty. Probably the least experienced driver line-up, Giampaoli Zonca – or "GZ", as she's known on social media – drove with increasing confidence and took home a promising result.
"Long day, just learning and getting used to our new baby!" – wrote the always cheerful racer. "Very gnarly stage, some bad accidents but I’m really happy everyone is ok. Working now with my team to fix our little issues with XISPA and ready for tomorrow!"
In the bottom three, were SEGI TV Chip Ganassi Racing, ABT Cupra and Veloce Racing, that didn't manage to set a single lap in Q2.
Price and LeDuc were again halted by technical gremlins on their Odyssey21, while the ABT Cupra crew will face a time battle to repair the crashed vehicle of Hürtgen and Ekström in time for tomorrow's Shoot Out.
Sunday's action will finally crown the first ever X-Prix winners, with the format now switching to a multiple-car race.
Racing resumes at 09:00 local time (GMT+3), while the Final race will get underway at 13:00 local, 12:00 CEST.