If you told someone who doesn’t know who Lewis Hamilton is, that the most successful Formula 1 driver of all time was launching a new racing team, you might expect them to assume it was something pretty petrolheaded. At least track-based. Probably not a gin-conceived idea of a digital-led, environmentally focussed, socially conscious off-road electric vehicle offering.
Nevertheless, that’s what X44 is, or is currently building into, at Extreme E’s collective testing in Spain this weekend. I spoke to co-founder of the team Marc Hynes (Hamilton’s manager and a former BTCC racer himself) about how the team formed and what made them want to get involved in a series that’s plan is “madness.”
Hynes said that the idea started with wanting to explore the world beyond Formula 1 and specifically look at emerging electric vehicle technology.
“We’ve both been involved in motor racing since we were small so we live and breathe this,” he said. “But with the day job you do get really focussed on single projects and I think we were keen to discover more and go on a learning journey around EVs.
“Obviously, electric vehicles are the future of energy and energy storage – we were talking about it quite a bit and we needed to understand more and get into that conversation.
Confirming Formula E had been a gateway for learning about that, he added, “We’re really interested in Formula E and its development, which has come on so much over the years so far. I’ve visited a couple of the races and been fascinated by just how the tech develops.
“Alejandro [Agag] is an authority on the subject, on all things EV, and so we got chatting to him and the concept of Extreme E came up and really captured our imagination.”
Actually getting involved, Hynes said, was the sort of plan that seemed too stupid to be true, “You start to have ideas and write down all these things and it looks like a brilliant idea until you get off the plane and wonder how much gin you’ve been drinking and throw all the ideas out.”
However, the plan survived the hangover, “But this got to a point where every part of it was covered and it got us talking about so many subjects that are interesting. I think the credibility of the conversations is the bit I’m most interested in, around a race team.
“Because we’re surrounded by so many echo chambers on the internet, about all sorts of subjects and going on this journey and educating ourselves, working on developing tech, EV, the planet, the challenges that us humans are placing on the resources here with our consumerism and I think, most importantly, doing something about it suddenly just made this compelling and too good to miss.”
Extreme E, with its completely untested format, remote locations, and new technologies, is wildly different from what Hynes and Hamilton are used to, within the racing world.
“It’s something that, quite frankly, is madness what they’re trying to do,” he said. “I think the plan that they have in place – and clearly, we’ll be working to that plan, along with the series together – to be involved from the outset with something like this and to develop future tech.
“The one thing we learned from other racing series is that competition does fuel development and I think that’s a really exciting area here. Particularly around not just the EVs themselves but the new fuel cell technology is really interesting stuff to get into and this can really have an impact on the future of the world we live in.”
Extreme E cars will be battery-powered from generators powered by hydrogen fuel cells, a solution for providing the electricity to run a race series in locations a long way off the grid in any sense.
Not that Extreme E is only about its technology or the competitive action, “Five races a year, compared with what we’re used to is very manageable but the racing side will still be focussed, as other series are but obviously we have this whole, other part of the narrative which really interests all of us,” said Hynes.
“It’s important, we need to understand this [the new technology] and as a platform to communicate these issues that are developing around the world and around the planet.”
Hynes said the competition would drive technology but the opportunity to find new ways to send a message was just as important as pushing forward the car, “I think the sporting element is going to drive the tech as we’ve seen elsewhere and it’ll help keep that constant, changing landscape and relevant stories.
“It’s a platform like nothing else out there, I suppose; no fans on track and digital-first platform is very relevant today in this strange year that we’re going through but I think this whole concept was conceived before lockdown and COVID travel restrictions so it’s very current for today.
“I think even before coronavirus it was a concept that worked. We need to keep pushing the boundaries in digital entertainment and in the tech that we’re using.”
Extreme E’s sparse calendar and “floating paddock” (cars and equipment will be transported to races on a specially refitted boat) means that putting a team together has its own challenges, especially as X44 want to create new opportunities within that.
“We have a plan of how we’re going to get going – obviously, the team’s almost a virtual team because we only have five events a year and we only have the car in the UK until January so we have a fairly intense programme through until then and then all the kit sets off on its voyage around the world to the races and we don’t see it again,” said Hynes.
“It’s really made us have to rethink a race team and what it is and how it operates and we are very motivated to help offer opportunity to young people to come through and because we’ve got so few people on the ground it’s a challenge to make that work.
“So that’s kind of how we’re progressing at the minute, is to work out how we operate, how we offer opportunities to young people and develop our team for the future and it’s a learning process.”
Despite F1 domination, X44 come into Extreme E as a brand-new operation and potentially an underdog, compared to long-established teams like ABT.
“We have a lot of experience in racing, over the years so we have operation plans to get the car moving and what targets we need to hit but to try and move that concept forward and do something different and challenge the current situation is something we’re working on,” Hynes said.
“When we started this project we didn’t have a single spanner, let alone anyone to hold the spanner so we are starting from scratch but we have a lot of contacts in the industry and plans forming that will come together.
“It’s a really exciting time, to be in the team from scratch and hopefully we can make our mark on the series because we are in a competition and we aim to do the very best we can and winning is in every team’s plan, going into this and we’re no different.”
X44 definitely could not be accused of not taking their driver line-up seriously, after signing nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb and first female Dakar finisher in cars Cristina Guttierez to share their car. So don’t expect them to ignore the competitive element for the series’ overall message, even if Hamilton might have demurred the idea of reigniting his rivalry with Rosberg over it.
Extreme E’s mission sees it going to climate change-affected areas to showcase the issues there, racing around them and using scientific and documentary teams to both describe the problems faced and to work on addressing them, with projects staying active after the cars have left.
The idea of going racing to make a meaningful difference to the locations was a huge part of the appeal, for X44.
“The climate crisis we’re facing is a major issue for all of us and I think this series gives us a platform to communicate around that and the legacy programme is important for us to understand more about the issues and, most importantly, how to do something about it,” said Hynes.
“So for us, that is a real hook to the series and separates it from pretty much most sporting events going on around the world or in other series. I think that we, in this series, have the potential to move the dial on that and we’re hugely excited to get into the conversation and leave the world in a better place than we found it. This ‘race without a trace’ concept is a real hook for us and we’re looking forward to getting stuck into that.”