By Jem Wilcox
With Formula One taking a short hiatus following the first 2021 Grand Prix in Bahrain last week, the long-anticipated arrival of the Extreme E championship was welcomed as an alternative to keep motorsport fans entertained.
The new off-road race series debuted with the Desert X Prix in Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia. With each of the five-race locations across the globe representing a different environmental issue, the first highlights the issues posed by desertification, particularly water scarcity, whereas the next race at the coastal Lac Rose in Senegal will aim to demonstrate the number of threats to the ocean, from global warming to unnecessary waste.
As well as bringing awareness to these issues, Extreme E will partner with local organisations to combat them, for example with NGO Oceanium to plant a million mangrove trees in Senegal, which studies have shown can be more carbon-efficient than the Amazon rainforests.
Further efforts to reduce the impact on the environment include prohibiting fans from attending the races, pledging to make the activity entirely carbon-neutral by the end of the season, and showcasing the potential of electric vehicles, something Formula One driver and Extreme E team owner Lewis Hamilton has been striving to promote with his platform.
As well as its major environmental focus, Extreme E is committed to promoting gender equality. Unlike Formula One, whose driver line-up consists of twenty men each year with no woman being selected to take part in the championship since 1992, each of the nine Extreme E teams are represented by one male and one female driver who must share a car.
Both drivers complete one lap of the race, with an official ‘Switch’ occurring after the first lap. This equality of opportunity between genders is rarely seen within motorsport, with Formula One, the most prestigious race series, comprising wholly of men.
Although the recent introduction of the W Series has aimed to exclusively promote female drivers, Extreme E has succeeded in levelling the playing field between genders, a feat Formula One has been unable to conquer, despite their #WeRaceAsOne campaign.
Even at the commentating level, Extreme E features the noticeable presence of female lead commentator Jennie Gow, whereas Sky Sports F1’s commentary is led primarily by men, with female reporters typically only featuring off-camera in post-race interviews.
However, before a viewer can even venture into the inequality within Formula One, whether it’s regarding socio-economic backgrounds, racism, or sexism, they must first have access to the sport. In the UK, the only way to watch an entire race is to pay a subscription fee to Sky, making the sport inaccessible to those on a budget, whereas the Extreme E races are available to watch on a live stream or the BBC and ITV channels.
Although some viewers took to Twitter to complain that some highlights weren’t shown live, the easy access to the race means it is much easier for fans to stay involved. With this being the first-ever Extreme E championship, no prior knowledge is required, so this is the perfect time for fans of motorsport to tune in.
Despite this, it’s worthwhile to compare the actual excitement of the two sports. Even though the fundamental purpose of the off-road series is to raise awareness of threats to the environment, arguably a more noble cause to simply fascinate viewers with, the first Extreme E race it proves that entertainment value should be as much of a priority as aiding the environment.
A Grand Prix guarantees a degree of excitement due to its unpredictable nature, with sloppy pit stops, numerous overtakes, and the occasional collision contributing to the tense anticipation of the final lap.
Unfortunately, the desert landscape of the first X Prix meant that visibility was easily obstructed by a huge amount of sand and causing obscenely large distances between three teams. The leading car having the advantage of sight for the entirety of the 12-minute race (a short amount of time compared to the usual 2-hour Formula One race) therefore eradicating any sense of competitiveness.
While extreme conditions like this are an inherent feature of the series, a balance must be struck in order to fulfil both of its goals: to raise awareness and to entertain. Given its infant nature, it’s too early to give up on Extreme E, and viewers should remain optimistic that its technical broadcasting issues and its relatively low entertainment factor will be solved over time.
With Formula One still bringing in new fans with its documentary series Drive to Survive, which delves deeper into the behind-the-scenes drama of each team and its drivers, Extreme E will have to up its game to attain the same level of viewership.
That said, the electric race series currently has more long-term potential due to its environmental sustainability, as opposed to Formula One, which could see itself endangered if it doesn’t start making big changes. Despite some efforts to tackle inequality with their End Racism campaign and a pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2030, Formula One is currently being trumped in terms of ethical implications by Extreme E.
Promoting gender equality, the use of electric vehicles, and the necessity of aiding the environment as demonstrated through their undertaking of so-called Legacy Projects, all point to years of success to come for the electric race series.
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