Nine-time World Rally champion Sebastien Loeb and Dakar driver Cristina Gutierrez will race for Mercedes Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton’s Extreme E team in 2021.
Hamilton – who is returning to race in this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after missing the Sakhir GP due to contracting COVID-19 – is making his first foray into motorsport team ownership with his X44 squad’s entry to the new electric off-road series.
The championship is visiting a number of remote locations in a bid to raise awareness of climate change – an issue Hamilton has also campaigned over in recent years.
Loeb is the second World Rally champion to join the series after 1990/92 title winner Carlos Sainz Sr, who will race for his own team.
Extreme E rules require each squad to field one male and one female driver. Loeb’s 26-year-old team-mate Gutierrez has finished four Dakar rallies and is regular on the Spanish rallying scene.
“I’m delighted to welcome Sebastien and Cristina to X44,” said Hamilton.
“They are both incredible drivers and I’m looking forward to seeing what they’re going to do out there at each race.
“Cristina is an upcoming talent with a great future ahead of her, and Sebastien is a driver I have admired for so many years so I’m so proud and excited to have them on board.”
Having focused on the World Touring Car Championship, World Rallycross and Dakar rallying since the end of his full-time WRC career, Loeb returned to the WRC for partial programmes with first Citroen then Hyundai across 2018-20.
The 46-year-old will do the 2021 Dakar Rally with Prodrive but Extreme E will form a major part of his programme next year, as a WRC return isn’t expected.
“I am really impressed by what Lewis is doing in Formula 1 too, so to be able to work with him on this is an honour” :: Sebastien Loeb
“Joining Team X44 is an opportunity for me to continue to do what I love, which is race, and I’m looking forward to competing in an electric vehicle,” Loeb said.
“I had the chance to drive the car recently and it is incredible.
“Cristina is a fantastic driver and I can’t wait to partner with her and see what we can achieve together.
“I am really impressed by what Lewis is doing in Formula 1 too, so to be able to work with him on this is an honour.”
The championship will visit Saudi Arabia in 2021, before heading to Senegal, Greenland, Brazil and Argentina in a bid to show the damage climate change has done to these areas.
The agenda is something that attracted Gutierrez to take part in the series, and she joined Loeb for the recent test of the car which took place at Donington Park in the UK.
“I am really excited to join X44,” Gutierrez said.
“Not only will we get the opportunity to raise awareness of the climate crisis, which is very important to me, but I get to work with two heroes of mine.
“Sebastien Loeb is the most incredible rally driver of all time so I’m really happy that I get to partner with him and I hope to learn a lot.
“I’m a huge Formula 1 fan and have been watching Lewis race for years, so being asked to join his team is a dream come true.
“I drove in the car for the first time recently and it was such a great experience, I can’t wait to see what it can do at each race.”
In the Extreme E format, each of the team-mates spends one lap of the course as driver and one as co-driver, with a mid-distance driver change.
Hamilton has already confirmed he won’t drive in the series, as has his long-time Mercedes F1 rival Nico Rosberg who has also entered a team.
Rosberg announced three-time World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson and 2016 Australian Rally champion Molly Taylor as his line-up earlier this week.
Extreme E line-ups so far
Abt Cupra XE: Mattias Ekstrom, Claudia Hurtgen
Acciona Sainz XE Team: Carlos Sainz Sr, Laia Sanz
Andretti United Extreme E: Timmy Hansen, Catie Munnings
Chip Ganassi Racing: Sara Price, Kyle LeDuc
HWA Team: TBA, TBA
Rosberg Xtreme Racing: Johan Kristoffersson, Molly Taylor
Team X44: Cristina Gutierrez, Sebastien Loeb
Techeetah: TBA, TBA
Veloce Racing: Jamie Chadwick, TBA
The Race says
With the addition of Sebastien Loeb to compete against Carlos Sainz Sr in Extreme E, the entry next year now boasts 11 World Rally titles and eight Dakar podiums.
But that rallying pedigree isn’t going to be enough to guarantee glory for either Loeb or Sainz. The opposition is looking strong even at this relatively early stage.
Now aged 58 and 46 respectively, Sainz and Loeb are up against younger talent such as three-time World RX champion and sometime World Touring Car racer and rally driver Kristoffersson.
He and 2016 Australian Rally champion Taylor (pictured above) create an extremely strong duo indeed for Hamilton’s former arch-rival Rosberg’s team.
Andretti is fielding a similar line-up with another World Rallycross champion Timmy Hansen alongside rally driver Catie Munnings. The Red Bull backed pairing will certainly entertain on and off the roads. McLaren F1 boss Zak Brown’s United Autosport team has paired with Michael Andretti’s outfit for this project.
Both Loeb and Sainz have team-mates with strong loose-surface pedigrees. Sainz’s partner Laia Sanz is a 13-time world chamion in motorcycle trials and now a star of the Dakar’s motorbike class. She and the confusingly similarly named Sainz might be the toughest combination to beat.
Amid all the off-road experience elsewhere in the line-up, Veloce’s sole signing so far Jamie Chadwick has a conspicuously different background.
But the W Series champion – whose team boasts F1 design legend Adrian Newey among its management – has a more varied CV than her current place on the F1 ladder suggests, having made her name as a champion in GT racing.
The variety of styles of driver pairing in Extreme E so far is certainly intriguing, and the pedigree and profile of drivers (and team owners!) involved is extremely impressive.
Predicting champions with so many unknowns in this series is impossible. But no one can deny what a splash it’s making before it’s even begun.