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Here’s Why McLaren Thinks Extreme E Is a Key to Motorsport’s Survival

The future of racing has its uncertainties, but Tanner Foust thinks Extreme E provides a solid model going forward.

McLaren’s Extreme E team launched late last week, alongside the bigger headline of its rising-again F1 team. Having all the cars together is a statement; the outfit isn’t just trying to get its F1 fans to care about its new endeavors. This is how McLaren is thinking about its future. 

Extreme E is a series unlike any other. Using huge, off-road, all-electric SUVs, it takes on environments that other series can’t go to. Think remote racing on the edge of a Greenland iceberg in Kangerlussuaq, hitting the sands of vulnerable coastal environments in Senegal, and… a military base in Dorset, in the U.K. 

Ok, we’ve all made compromises because of COVID. But the principle of Extreme E is to operate unlike any other racing series. Teams’ gear is packed into a boat to be transported around the world for the duration of the series and only six team personnel are allowed at each event to save on CO2, with no or very few spectators. There’s some (rightful) cynicism about whether that entirely worked out in its first year but the extremity of it is more in the way it goes about events than almost anything else. It’s working, too—Extreme E’s gaining fans and audience at a time when my much-beloved Formula E is, well, not.


Race-it-all driver and former Top Gear host Tanner Foust was the first signing to the McLaren team, which will also be his first foray into electric racing when they run their first event in just a few weeks. So it’s all pretty new for everyone. But Foust says he can see exactly where it fits into a long-term landscape. “I’ve been lucky to race for 20, 25 years now,” he said at the team’s launch. “And if it’s going to continue, if motorsport in general is going to continue, there’s going to have to be more series like Extreme E.”

Foust’s teammate, New Zealand rally driver Emma Gilmour, said that “when it was first announced, I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t actually believe that this could be real’ in terms of how out there it was with the concept and the idea of it. So to see it actually get to the start line, the events it had last year, especially through the complications of COVID, it was amazing to see.”

Gilmour actually raced in XE last year, standing in for Jamie Chadwick at Veloce on W Series clashes, so along with being McLaren’s first female driver in a factory team, she’s the most experienced member of its new XE setup. Reflecting on the first year, she said, “I think what was really encouraging about the series was that they adapted as they went and learned on the go for improving the series for the future. So I think it’s it’s a great time to be coming in with McLaren into the second season and we can learn a lot from what’s already happened in the first season.”

It wasn’t just Gilmour who couldn’t quite believe the thing was real. Foust said he had some famous friends and team owners to encourage him, though. “Yeah, I was amazed that it ended up moving forward also, as it was such an aggressive concept, but I’ve been interested in electric racing for a while. I looked into it and I actually spoke with Jenson Button quite a bit, who educated me on a lot of the science that was going on on the ship and the potential of the series.”

“From the outside, I was pretty amazed at how big the crashes were from the driver standpoint,” Foust admitted. “But it sounded like the potential for the series on a sustainability level and on this kind of a global, not just a marketing, but an impact level is pretty impressive. So it was great to get a call from [McLaren Racing CEO] Zak [Brown] to participate with McLaren.”

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