IF THERE’S one driver who has enjoyed more success behind the wheel than Lewis Hamilton, arguably it’s Sébastien Loeb, the nine-times World Rally Champion. Now the Frenchman has been announced as one half of the driver pairing in Hamilton’s X44 Extreme E electric off-road racing team, alongside Spaniard Cristina Gutiérrez, further elevating the fledgling series into the big time of international motor sport.
Loeb’s nine consecutive world rally titles puts Hamilton’s record-equalling seven Formula One championships in the shade – statistically-speaking. As part of the mixed-gender driver pairings required under the Extreme E rules, he will share driving duties with Gutiérrez, who made history in the gruelling 2017 Dakar Rally by becoming the first Spanish female driver to finish the event in the car category, crossing the line in fifth place among the debutantes.
The formidable duo will go up against teams from other motor sport luminaries including 2016 Formula One World Champion Nico Rosberg and two-times World Rally Championship winner Carlos Sainz, and Seat spin-off brand Cupra will also field its own team. Coverage will be live on BBC iPlayer in the UK.
The crews will be battling it out in five remote locations across the globe, each facing a distinct threat from climate change – which Extreme E hopes to highlight and help reverse through the attention the series attracts. Climate scientists have been appointed by the series to identify locations under threat as well as to verify Extreme E’s positive impact on the environment.
The first round is now scheduled to take place on March 20-21 in Alula, Saudi Arabia, where the focus will be on drought and the threat faced by 2.4bn people in areas of desertification.
From there the championship will move on to Lac Rose, Senegal, where oceans are the focus, then Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (the Arctic); Santarem, Para, Brazil (the Amazon); and Tierra del Fuego, Argentina (glaciers).
“Joining team X44 is an opportunity for me to continue to do what I love, which is race,” said Loeb, “and I’m looking forward to competing in an electric vehicle – I had the chance to drive the car recently and it is incredible.”
“Cristina is a fantastic driver and I can’t wait to partner with her and see what we can achieve together.”
Gutiérrez, 29, is a seasoned rally raid pro driver who began racing at the age of four and has now finished the Dakar Rally four times and secured second overall in the mixed-gender All-Terrain Spanish Rally Championships, finishing top of the female category between 2011 and 2016.
“I am really excited to join X44,” she said. “Not only will we get the opportunity to raise awareness of the climate crisis, which is very important to me, but I get to work with two heroes of mine.
“Sébastien Loeb is the most incredible rally driver of all time so I’m really happy that I get to partner with him and I hope to learn a lot.
“I’m a huge Formula 1 fan and have been watching Lewis race for years, so being asked to join his team is a dream come true. I drove in the car for the first time recently and it was such a great experience, I can’t wait to see what it can do at each race.”
All Extreme E competitors will use the same car: the purpose-built pure-electric Odyssey 21, a 536bhp four-wheel drive off-road vehicle that can accelerate from zero to 62mph in 4.5sec and drive up gradients up to 130%. It was put through its paces by rally driver and YouTube sensation Ken Block on the final stage of the 2020 Dakar Rally — it was the American driver’s first taste of electric motor sport.
Both X44 drivers recently tested the Odyssey 21 for the first time themselves, at Donington Park Circuit’s off-road stages.
Commenting on his new appointments, Hamilton said: “I’m delighted to welcome Sébastien and Cristina to X44. They are both incredible drivers and I’m looking forward to seeing what they’re going to do out there at each race.
“Cristina is an upcoming talent with a great future ahead of her, and Sébastien is a driver I have admired for so many years so I’m so proud and excited to have them on board.”
Q&A with X44 Extreme E drivers Sébastien Loeb and Cristina Gutiérrez
Driving.co.uk caught up with the X44 driver pairing ahead of their debut Extreme E season together to find out what they think about electric road cars, and whether they thing plug-in power is the future of motor sport.
Q. Do either of you own or drive electric cars on the road? What do you think about them?
CG: “I don’t but I hope that there is an opportunity for me to have my own electric car in the future.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to race properly in an electric car before, either, so racing for X44 will be my first time. Obviously I have tested the car already and it was a great experience.”
SL: “I think we are now getting to a place where electric vehicles are becoming more and more available for everyday people and so it’s something I will definitely consider, though right now I drive a Hyundai i20N.
“I have driven electric vehicles before and I am always impressed by how they perform, so I would never say no to having my own.
Q. What’s more important for you: the environmental message or winning?
CG: “For me, one reason I am so excited to race with Extreme E is that there is a balance between both my love of racing and my concern about climate change.
“Motor sport is something I love and I have been racing since I was four years old so I can say it is my life’s passion. But I also am aware of the climate crisis and how important it is that we address this and find a way to help the environment.
“I watched the documentaries of David Attenborough some time ago and it really opened my eyes to the damage we are doing to the planet. With Extreme E we have the chance to visit some places like those shown in the documentary, and we can raise awareness of what is going on as well as leaving a positive legacy behind.”
SL: “I am very competitive so if being totally honest I always want to prioritise winning. I’m really happy to join X44 because I believe we’re going to be the best team in the competition, and I’m looking forward to racing with Cristina. However, I also think that the environmental message is a very important one.
“I know there are many people like me who want to continue doing what they love, whether it is driving or something else, and so we need to find ways that we can do so in a way that is better for the planet.
“With Extreme E, we are going to be driving electric cars and testing new technology so not only do we get to race and fulfil our passions, but we are going to have a positive impact while we do so.”
Q. Would you be happy if all motor sport eventually became pure-electric? Can you see that happening ever?
CG: “I think that there is more to environmental impact in motor sport than just the cars we drive. There is also the issue of spectators and how they are travelling to races, for example, as well as the emissions from the logistical side of things like race set up and transporting cars.
“Extreme E is looking at all of these things to see how we can lessen that impact and try to do it in a more positive way. The hope is that the rest of the industry will be able to learn from what we are doing and will follow in our footsteps.”
SL: “Electric cars for me are very interesting to drive but I think that drivers and fans will always want to have that choice of vehicle.
“I don’t think that we necessarily need all of motor sport to be electric in the future, but if we can move more towards that way and look at other things we can do to help the environment at the same time, I think it will be a very good step in the right direction.”
If you enjoyed reading about Sébastien Loeb and Cristina Gutiérrez joining Lewis Hamilton’s electric off-road race team, you may be interested in our interview with Extreme E series founder Alejandro Agag.