When Extreme E kicks off at the end of this week with its first-ever round, the 2021 season opener in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ula, it will have as many as three teams on the grid owned by Formula 1 champions.
One of those champions will be among those driving. Another is still driving in F1, having just won the season opener in Bahrain. For both of them, those roles will naturally dictate how much day-to-day involvement they have in overseeing the respective projects.
But for the third driver, who has retired from racing, there is a wider range of approaches available. He could, for instance, just lend his world-famous name to the venture while focusing on other projects, or he could get properly hands-on in setting up and overseeing the team that will represent him in the novelty all-electric series.
By all accounts, 2016 Formula 1 champion Nico Rosberg has gone for the latter approach.
“Obviously, I know Nico probably 25 years or something like that, from karting days already,” Rosberg Xtreme Racing team principal Kimmo Liimatainen tells The Race.
“When he was racing with us, Formula BMW, in 2002, I was still racing Formula 3 myself, so myself and some of the mechanics actually who are involved in this project are actually from those days, already in the house.”
“Us” in this context is the renowned Team Rosberg, which had been founded by Keke Rosberg nearly three decades ago. Rather than its single-seater exploits, it is best known for having long been a part of first Mercedes’ and then Audi’s DTM set-up.
The continuity Liimatainen refers to means its new Extreme E venture, Rosberg Xtreme Racing, is very much a proper family team – “the way it should be”, he says.
Liimatainen, who has been with the team virtually ever since he’d bowed out from racing, has had a particularly challenging 2020. He’d just taken over as team principal when COVID-19 put the world on hold, and had spent just a couple of months in the role when Audi announced it was leaving the DTM.
Though Team Rosberg scored its third drivers’ title in four years in 2020 through the masterful Rene Rast (pictured above), the loss of that level of Audi support and the DTM’s transformation into a privateer GT3 series – which Team Rosberg will remain part of – has led to cuts.
And while whether Extreme E has played a part in mitigating those or not is not fully clear, Liimatainen does say there is “synergy” through “people involved in both projects”.
Asked about the inception of the XE team, Liimatainen says: “Well, obviously the discussions started quite early last year.
“And I mean obviously the idea came from Nico anyhow, I don’t know how long he had it in his mind already.”
Since walking away from his Mercedes deal – and from a racing driver career altogether – after winning the 2016 world title, Rosberg has instead established himself as an F1 pundit and an ecologically-minded entrepreneur.
And with Extreme E, which has placed such an onus on climate change action and messaging, existing at a crossover point between his racing background and his current endeavours, a Nico Rosberg-badged entry is something of a no-brainer.
And should Liimatainen’s claim that the Extreme E entry was Rosberg’s idea not be sufficient to prove the 2016 F1 champion’s enthusiasm and involvement, the fact that he played a key role in recruiting Extreme E’s driver line-up – Johan Kristoffersson and Molly Taylor – should do the trick.
“Obviously it was a small circle I would say within the house, with Nico obviously on the top,” Liimatainen said when asked about the driver selection process.
“And then we discussed all the options, all the pros and cons as always, we went on and on and this is what we thought is the best line-up we can have.
“Nico’s been very active, pushing on things and taking things in his hand personally, and I think with the driver line-up there’s nothing to complain [about].
“With Molly, we have a great Australian rally champion, and Johan obviously a three-time World Rallycross champion, not much to say to that.
“We’ve been testing already, I think we saw already that they match well, the pace is there and the way they work together is just perfect.”
We can’t yet know how successful Kristoffersson and Taylor will be because we don’t yet know how Extreme E races will play out – Liimatainen described it as a rally/rallycross mixture that’s “not really” either.
But the team certainly got both of those boxes ticked, drafting in rally specialist Taylor from Extreme E’s drivers’ programme and rallycross star Kristoffersson as an outside signing.
“I got an email from Nico through my website, it was a very short email, I didn’t think it was Nico, I thought someone was just having a bit of a laugh, thought it would be funny,” Taylor tells The Race.
“So I replied but I wanted to play it cool as well because I thought, if I am too excited, they’ll laugh at me, they’re going to think ‘how gullible is she?’
“Then he sort of came through, said ‘can we organise a call’ and it was pretty instant, and then it’s Facetiming, we’ve had quite a few calls over that weekend.
“And yeah, we just chatted about everything, about the series, the plans for his team, why he’s doing it, what he wants to achieve from it.
“And I think it’s pretty cool to be able to work with someone with his expertise and knowledge and capability and also the passion that he has for the sport and for the broader purpose behind what we’re doing.”
Taylor, who has been a star on the Australian rally scene but has also had a very brief foray into circuit racing, said she had her racing plans go “out the window” when COVID-19 broke out and has described the Extreme E opportunity as “surreal”.
Her enthusiasm for the project is clear, not only from the sporting side but also through a recognition of the importance of the series’ stated mission.
“It’s quite close to home,” said the Australian. “We’ve had bushfires in our street, being able to see flames from the back of our house, being in those situations where you’re making a decision whether you need to evacuate, grab the photo albums and run, or whether you stay and defend the property, and those sort of questions and things that obviously aren’t great thoughts to have.
“Seeing that devastation and the loss of the habitat as well at such a large scale… It’s not something that’s in the distant future that we have to prepare for, it’s right here, now, so that’s definitely a motivating factor to take immediate action.”
As for the Rosberg link-up in particular, Taylor says the F1 champion’s “very hands-on” approach was something that drew her to the team.
“It’s not, sort of, [being] remotely interested in the team, he’s directly there, hands on, and wants to be involved in the process of the team.
“I think that’s so important, particularly something with his skillset to be that hands on, is really beneficial for all of us.”
It was also very much a factor for Kristoffersson, whose signing it’s probably safe to call a monumental coup for RXR.
A remarkably versatile competitor, the Swede is pretty obviously the best driver World Rallycross has had so far, has had some success in rallying and has a trophy cabinet absolutely stacked with accolades from touring car racing.
Though he’s achieved plenty since, his 2012 is perhaps the best illustration – as he hopped between all sorts of different machinery in Scandinavian Touring Cars, the Italian Superstars series and Porsche Carrera Cup Sweden, and won the title in all three.
Asked about his deal with Rosberg, Kristoffersson said: “I got a direct message actually from Nico himself on Instagram – then I got in contact with Nico, he was super passionate about the programme and other stuff, and not only his team but also Extreme E itself.
“So, yeah, from the first time I talked to him I was pretty hooked myself on being a part of it. It was quite straightforward from there.
“He’s very passionate about the team itself, he really tries to give the team the best possible tools to be able to bring the results that he also wants us to achieve.
“And when you know what Nico has done in the past in Formula 1, he knows exactly what it takes to put a team together which has the tools to win, and if you are a competitive person as a driver for sure that’s the place you want to be.”
Though Kristoffersson describes Rosberg as “quite relaxed” and having a good sense of humour, and Taylor says he’s “lovely”, both expect him to be a demanding team owner – and it’s clear that the outfit has not been put together to be also-rans.
But it’s not as if the rest of the grid isn’t formidable, and there may be particular interest in how Rosberg’s team compares with X44 – which has been founded by friend-turned-rival Lewis Hamilton, and likewise employs an eye-catching line-up in WRC legend Sebastien Loeb and Dakar stage winner (the first since 2005) Cristina Gutierrez.
But suggestions the Hamilton-Rosberg driver rivalry will translate into a rivalry between teams aren’t taken too seriously by Rosberg’s duo of drivers.
“I really enjoyed the fight between Nico and Lewis when they were racing on track, maybe Nico was the one that gave Lewis the best possible challenge so far in his career, so I really enjoyed to sit on the Sundays and watch those two battle out, but… yeah, I think that fight, if the media like to play that fight between Nico and Lewis, I think it’s Nico that has to answer those questions,” Kristoffersson says.
“I think the expectation externally of the public and fans, there’s so much passion behind both those drivers, so that’s a natural rivalry that’s going to be created,” acknowledges Taylor, before adding: “But for us there’s a huge calibre of all the teams that are there, so I don’t think it’s a case of one particular team.”
And Liimatainen is even more dismissive of the prospect, instead jokingly flagging up his own ‘grudge’ from finishing third in the 1995 Formula A karting world championship as being more significant.
“I’m perfectly aware that you guys might want to do that [stoke up an RXR/X44 rivalry], but for me, it’s just one competitor with the others.
“And let’s not forget, we also have one Jenson Button in the field, also a Formula 1 world champion, and my personal favourite because he’s one of my competitors in my karting days.
“The world championship in 1995, back in the old days, he sort of passed me in the last lap or the second-to-last lap. So if somebody’s got a beef, I’ve got a beef, maybe, with him.”