(Editor’s note: Second in a series highlighting drivers such as Laia Sanz in Extreme E, which will begin its inaugural season this weekend in Saudi Arabia)
As a 10-time starter in the Dakar Rally and the highest-finishing woman in its vaunted motorcycle division, Laia Sanz would seem at home in the sands of Saudi Arabia.
But as Extreme E begins its inaugural season this weekend on the Arabian Peninsula, it’s not so much the terrain as the traction that will make this a monumental challenge for Sanz, who will be teamed with three-time Dakar champion Carlos Sainz on the Acciona/Sainz XE team.
Sanz has won more than 20 championships in outdoor motorcycling enduro-style events, but she hardly has raced on four wheels during her career.
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“Everything! I’m a beginner,” Sanz told NBC Sports when asked about the most difficult part of the transition she will make in Extreme E. “Of course the riders switching to cars, we have the feeling and are used to the speed, and all these things are good. But everything is new. We have two more wheels! You need to understand how it’s working with a car and suspensions, and I need to get experience.
“And in this championship, there will be contact (between vehicles). We’ll start together. It’s even worse for me because I’m not used to having contact with opponents. In enduro, you fight against chrono — against time. You’re never in a direct fight with your opponents.”
Sanz also will be racing in an Odyssey 21 electric SUV against opponents with vast and versatile experience from Formula One, rally and sports cars. But she will have the tutelage of Sainz, a two-time World Rally Championship winner and considered a national motorsports hero in their home country of Spain. At 58, he remains highly competitive in his fifth decade of racing, finishing third at Dakar this year after a victory in 2020.
“Carlos called me, and as you can imagine, I was in shock because I’ve been following him since I was really young,” Sanz said. “I’ve been always a big fan of rallies. For sure it’s super nice to be with him on the team.
“His career is so long, and he won different kind of races with different cars. He’s really respected in Spain because he’s still there competing at his age and still motivated and pushing. For sure, I’ll try to learn fast because I know he’s super competitive and always wants to win. This time it’s also really important with what the girls are trying to do. So I’ll try to learn fast.”
Sanz, 35, has been competing on bikes since she was 6, finishing a career-best ninth in the 2015 Dakar Rally, but will be new to the concept of team competition, as well as Extreme E’s gender equitable format in which the female and male driver count equally toward the results.
“This will be really interesting,” she said. “For sure in motorsports for us, it’s not easy. I feel lucky that I’ve been in factory teams in Dakar, but I have to work so hard to prove a lot of things. And this time it’s nice, we have a nice chance to prove we are competitive, and for sure, in my case, our performance will be important as Carlos’ performance. This is nice but for sure also a bit of pressure.”
She has prepared by making her first start in an off-road race this year in Dubai, racing a Side by Side (a buggy that she describes as halfway between bike and car). Sanz is hopeful that Extreme E could be a springboard to moving eventually into the car class at Dakar.
“Of course, I think I need time to learn,” she said. “I know I can learn a lot because if you tell me 15 years ago, that I could be here now, for sure I don’t believe it. I also switched from three wheels to rally bikes and got good results in Dakar.
“I think with hard work, I can learn a lot, but I need time, and this series it’s for sure an amazing chance to be close to Carlos and learn a lot. For sure I’ll fight to be in a car in Dakar in the future.”
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