“Putting the ‘E’ in the need for speed’’
‘I didn’t set out to be a racing driver, I wanted to be a vet’. So says the 23 year old Kent, England born Catie Munnings, driver of the Team Andretti United racing hydrogen fuel cell powered SUV that is taking part in the inaugural FIA Extreme E racing series.
‘My dad was in motorsports, and I went along as a kid and just got involved with the local club. I was never pushed, promised or cajoled into it from an early age. Not like some of the kids who start Karting at 4 years old - with the plan to be a future F1 world champion. I just liked larking about in cars. I never had anything proper, we literally saved a wreck from the scrapyard, it barely ran, but I used to drive it about in the fields and enter auto-tests and that sort of thing.’
Catie Progressed to rally, in the UK it’s a true grass roots motorsport, full of genuine talent and camaraderie. I got a lot of help, people in rallying are really nice and very generous. Clearly imbued with natural talent for car control like her childhood hero Frenchwoman Michele Mouton - Group B rally queen, and tamer of the awesome Audi Quattro. Catie further honed her skill for car control by teaching driving skills on frozen Swedish lakes for two winters. Rally success has been steadily building and then came the call…
‘Would you like to take a seat at Team Andretti United?’ The new team, one of nine formed to compete in the new FIA Extreme E series. ‘It took about half a second to say yes.’ Catie says with a disarming white toothed smile.
The Andretti family are motor racing royalty and have raced virtually every form of motorsport. Andretti United told 2fifty9, ‘For the Andretti family to be part of Extreme E was a no-brainer for us, aside from the amazing new technology, together with our partner United Airlines, we’re four-square behind the global ecological message and work the Extreme E series is achieving.’ More on that in a moment.
The new Extreme E off road racing series is designed to showcase the power of hydrogen fuel cell powered electric motors. Each 1650kg Extreme E car has two Williams Engineering made motors (one front, one rear) producing 400kW (550bhp). That’s enough spark power to propel the ‘car’ from 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds – on dirt sand or snow… Climbing grades of up to 130%
Technically Extreme E calls the cars used in the series ‘SUV’s’. Though they’re nothing like any SUV you might see on the street though. Built by Spark Racing Technologies, using a Niobium alloy space frame, and shod with specially designed and constructed tyres, by series partner and co-founder Continental Tyres, they’re totally bespoke to the series.
The SUV’s are called ‘Odyssey 21’ by the teams. Which is apt, as everything about Extreme E is something of an odyssey - a journey into the unknown. Nobody has ever raced the locations where they’re going, the race format is all new, the power systems are all new. Pivotally, the way the series is raising awareness and starting genuine programs for ecological education and change is certainly new, especially for motorsport, traditionally blinkered and deaf to the need of the planet – yeah, Odyssey 21 might just be the perfect name.
‘The hydrogen electric power from the motors is immense, the delivery to the wheels instant, whatever the terrain, the Odyssey 21 is literally flying, you’re part pilot, part driver’
The first race of the five round 2021 Extreme E series took place in the searingly hot desert landscape of Saudi Arabia. A harsher, more arid and tough place to do anything is hard to imagine, let alone produce a global sporting spectacle with so many untried elements. With the following rounds taking in the equally rugged wilderness and beauty of the landscapes of Senegal, Nepal, Greenland and Brazil, Extreme E is heading to the epicentres of global climate emergency, as it uses hydrogen electric powered Odyssey 21’s to bring attention to the ecological plight of the planet.
Here’s how the racing works; Set over a weekend, the Saturday sees each team doing two, two-lap time trials, with a mandatory driver switch on each lap. The start order is decided by lottery – remember the tracks are dirt, sand, gravel or snow and therefore are dynamic - and liable to change significantly during the day – the lottery evens out the advantage or disadvantage of a fixed start order. The finishing positions (and points awarded dictate the Sunday race orders.
Four races are held on Sunday: The Shoot Out, the Crazy Race, the Semi Final and the Final. Three cars will battle it out in each race. First and second place teams from the Semi-Final and the winner of the Crazy Race will progress to the Final. Starting position for Final will be decided by fans through the on-line interactive ‘GridPlay’ voting system. At the end, barring any disqualifications, each of the nine teams with score points. 25 for first, down to 4 points for ninth.
For Team Andretti United, round one of the series in the dunes of the Saudi Arabian Desert was a success for Catie and her Swedish team mate Rallycross ace, Timmy Hansen (each Extreme E SUV has two drivers, one woman and one man). The rapid Andretti United duo finished Round one in third place, and almost certainly would have been nearer the win, had it not been for a puncture of Catie’s right rear tyre halfway round her final lap caused by a lump of bedrock hidden in the dune sands.
Using every ounce of her strength, rally experience and Swedish ice-lake car balancing skill, Catie kept the Odyssey21 going flat-out, all while fighting the vehicle, as it tried to crab in the deep Saudi sand. It was an incredible feat of car control as she hit the loose deep sandy turns and jumps at over a hundred miles an hour.
Unfazed, Catie summed it up and likened it to the wider goals and challenges of Extreme E, ‘With the deep sand moving the car about anyway, it wasn’t easy even when all four tyres were inflated, the flat was big challenge to overcome, but that’s what were here for at Team Andretti United – Big Challenges -, in both the racing we do and the delivering the overall Extreme E climate message. We’re not giving up and staying focused is our goal, on both fronts’. We can’t argue with that.
So, the Extreme E racing format, technology and spectacle is shaping up nicely. Great ground breaking electric drive hydrogen fuel cell technology, where the only by product is pure water. But what of the ecological story which is the underpinning of the series?
It’s a three-stage program with education at the forefront. As a baseline, everyone involved in Extreme E from a commercial standpoint is fully on board and committed to the wider issues, without that transparent undertaking no corporate message to public message would resonate.
Everyone receives lectures from global experts in the fields relating to climate change and the issues which create those problems as well as the ways in which we, as individuals and organisations can actively do something to make positive changes that will have a net positive effect on making the Earth a cleaner, greener and leaner planet.
Then there is the legacy program. This is the real, hands on, on-the-ground effect that Extreme E delivers.
Certainly, the timing is perfect and for motorsport, through Extreme E to use racing to deliver and drive home that message is as likely to resonate with the public as any we’ve yet seen. Time of course will tell.
In the meantime, head to www.extreme-e.com and www.andrettiunitedexe.com and follow Catie on Instagram @projectkrallye