For Jean-Eric Vergne, Extreme E is about more than racing

Formula E Championship - Test
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Ultimately racing is about winning, but co-founder of Veloce Racing’s Extreme E No. 5, Jean-Eric Vergne has come to realize it is about much more.

After a less than glamorous stint in Formula 1 from 2012 through 2014 that produced a best finish of sixth twice with the beleaguered Toro Rosso team, Vergne found Formula E.

His career was revived. And he found a connection with something deeper.

In his first Formula E attempt with Andretti Autosport, Vergne sat on the pole on a street course in Punte del Este, Uruguay – not exactly the epicenter of racing – and led laps before a broken suspension sent him home early with two laps remaining on the 1.7-mile track. A second pole two races later was also met with disappointment. Vergne came close to winning his first Formula E race on the streets of Long Beach in his fourth start, finishing second to Nelson Piquet, Jr.

Over the course of the next several years, he steadily moved up the ladder.

Highlighted by the 2017 and 2018 championships, Vergne was well established in the sport of e-racing when Extreme E founder Alejandro Agag went looking for star power to kick off his new series, which would be the world’s most unique take on off-road, rally-style racing.

He found it.

Vergne is one four former F1 drivers with teams in the series. Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button also field Extreme E teams – as do marquee American owners Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing.

The global series is highlighted by five races in regions most at risk by climate change. Two races are in the books: the Desert X Prix in Saudi Arabia and last week’s Ocean X Prix in Senegal.

MORE: Sara Price says Extreme E brings ‘whole new light’ on climate change

Vergne had a decision to make about whether to drive his own electric Odyssey 21 SUV, but decided there was simply too much difficulty in bouncing between Formula E and Extreme E, so he put Stephane Sarrazin behind the wheel and paired him with female co-pilot Jamie Chadwick.

Stephane Sarrazin and Jamie Chadwick finished second in the Ocean X Prix. Veloce Racing

“(The races are) two laps; it’s quite short, but it’s very nice show,” Vergne told NBC Sports before the Ocean X Prix. “A lot of jumps; potentially a car flipping so it’s a nice show to watch.”

And Vergne knew what he was talking about.

Race 1 did not go according to plan. The Veloce car rolled in qualification in the desert of Saudi Arabia, but with Vergne on hand in Senegal to provide inspiration, they kept all four wheels on the ground landed much further up the grid.

Sarrazin and Chadwick finished second in the semi-finals and backed that up with a runner-up finish to Rosberg X Racing’s Johan Kristoffersson and Molly Taylor in the finals.

“We don’t have enough knowledge to know when is the best time to go out (in qualification), if it’s at the beginning of the end,” Vergne said. “Obviously at the end, the track is rougher as the cars go through the sand. Maybe in some different terrain it’s going to be better. In some it’s going to be worse to go last.”

But once the racing starts, it’s driver versus driver. The conditions are the same for everyone on course.

“This weekend the plan was to really not make any mistakes,” Sarrazin said after the race in a release. “We’ve improved the set-up of the car run-by-run and we need mileage, we need to learn the car, and the team do also. We are happy, it’s just amazing.

“To improve during the weekend we had to look at the various lines and improve the car and in the end we found a really good line. This stage was really good as we found a different line to overtake.”

The electric SUVS used by the series are designed to lower racing’s carbon footprint. Veloce Racing

In most forms of rally racing, cars have some space between them. That is not the case in Extreme E, where drivers have to navigate tight gates, some of which are designed to squeeze the cars no more than two wide. Semi-Finals are comprised of three cars in two heats. The Final showcases four cars and there is not much room for error.

“The car is amazing to drive. I got a chance to drive it (before this race) in South France once,” Vergne said. “It is completely different than anything I’ve driven. It’s a lot of fun. It jumps quite high. It’s a very heavy car with a lot of power.”

But the value of Extreme E is about more than competition. With climate change imperiling the globe, Extreme E races to heighten awareness of how to be more environmentally conscious. At the Desert X Prix, they coordinated a massive beach cleanup. The same thing happened in Senegal.

In addition, the Ocean X Prix was dedicated to heightening awareness of the importance of mangrove reserves. The series helped plant trees as a way to replenish the vanishing copses and fight erosion.

“Extreme E is highlighting the mangroves that are important for the ecosystem for the country – especially the fishermen,” Vergne said. “Mangroves also being a fantastic way to capture the carbon. And to protect the coast from thunderstorms.”

Since the 1970s, 25 percent of Senegal’s mangrove forests have been lost to climate change and deforestation.

Next on the schedule will be the Arctic X Prix on August 28-29, 2021 in Greenland. The race will highlight the melting ice cap and the issues associated with that.

It is also where Veloce Racing will continue to try and work their way up the championship grid.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”