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Extreme E: Racing electric with Lance Woolridge

Maverick Life

MOTORING

Extreme E: Racing electric with Lance Woolridge

Jamie Chadwick (GBR)/Lance Woolridge (ZAF), Veloce Racing during the Jurassic X-Prix on December 18, 2021. (Photo by Charly Lopez / LAT Images)

With the second Extreme E season about to kick off, Maverick Life spoke to South African Lance Woolridge as he looks towards 2022 as one of Veloce Racing’s two drivers in the X Prix championship.

Extreme E is one of the newest championships in motorsport today, but it has already situated itself as an event synonymous with a pioneering attitude towards using electric vehicles as an alternative to racing without compromising on the intensity of the race. 

The championship is made up of five weekends throughout the year, with round one kicking off in the desert landscape of Neom, Saudi Arabia on 19 February before moving on to locations such as Sardinia, Chile and Uruguay. The race-weekend format is not dissimilar from other motorsport events, with two days of competition and a few twists: two-time trial qualifiers, one for each of the team drivers on the Saturday, and a “Crazy Race”, two Semi-Finals, and a Final race on the Sunday.

The race weekends take drivers through a variety of landscapes, through mud and fog, scorching desert and sharp, rocky terrain, pushing them to the limit as they overcome dunes, jumps and water.

The difference? It’s all-electric, with offroad e-SUVs powered through 400kW outputs that can reach top speeds of 200 kilometres per hour.

Only in its second year, Extreme E already has big names in motorsport behind it. In 2021 we saw a flashback to one of Formula 1’s most exciting battles – the title fights between Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, both of whom have teams competing in the electric off-road championship. Last year, reminiscent of 2016, it was Rosberg who came out on top, with Rosberg Xtreme Racing winning the title and Hamilton’s X44 team coming in second.

Other names also included Sébastien Loeb, who became the oldest winner of an FIA World Rally Championship round earlier this month, Carlos Sainz Sr, a previous title winner of the World Rally Championship, Formula 1 champion Jenson Button and more.

And among these names, South Africans can look forward to seeing our own national flag up on the timesheets as Lance Woolridge carves out a space for himself in this exciting new expansion of motorsport as part of the Veloce Racing team.

While Woolridge is a relatively new face in 2022’s Extreme E line-up, he is far from inexperienced. Coming from a racing family meant he grew up around bikes and cars, and his father Neil is a multiple cross-country champion on two and four wheels, competing in the Dakar Rally in 1998 and 1999. The family business, Neil Woolridge Motors, where Lance is a manager, has also built cars that have gone on to race across the world.

Both Woolridge and his brother, Gareth, started off on motorbikes, riding around their grandfather’s farm before making their way to bigger vehicles as they got older – first with buggies at 16 years old, then in cars with a learner’s licence and a pro-licensed driver in the passenger seat. 

“I grew up with motorsport; it was never thrust upon me and it was never something myself or my brother were expected to do, but we had the opportunity there,” Woolridge explains.

“My dad always told us that we had to earn it; he didn’t ever want anyone to think that we were racing because he provided it or because of him and his name. We had to go through all the different levels and really climb the ladder to get where we are. It’s certainly been a long road. When I look back, I’ve been driving for 14 years already, and fortunately I have a lot of experience.”

Experience and talent, however, are not enough to win trophies or even a seat in a team. It takes time, tenacity and grit, and as it is for any athlete, race day is a small part of a much bigger picture.

“The hard times and the training are all behind the scenes – no one sees. The racing and the glory there is the small part of it – it’s a lot of sacrifice. Time away, missed birthdays, missed evenings and weekends with friends, training when you don’t want to, there’s a lot that you have to go through.

“And then again, on the mental side, it’s so easy to want to give up. You’re constantly trying to convince yourself of a way to do it, to make it, when what you could do is just give up. So there’s a constant fight within yourself to keep pushing yourself and keep going.”

And for South African racers, the pressure is intensified. Motorsport is expensive, and breaking into the international circuit is difficult.

“There are so many other problems in South Africa, motorsport is not really high on the priority list. In Europe, for instance, track racing specifically is really big and it’s a much easier path to get into motorsport that way. With our exchange rate at 15 or 20 to one as well, it’s hard to self-fund yourself or get to a higher level,” he explains, adding: “There’s so much talent in South Africa, we’ve seen that with the few stars that have made it out thus far – it makes people see that it is possible to get out and we do have what it takes to be at the best. It’s nice to be a part of that.”

Lance Woolridge (ZAF), Veloce Racing during the Jurassic X-Prix on December 17, 2021. (Photo by Sam Bloxham / LAT Images)

Nothing happens overnight, and Woolridge’s journey to Extreme E has taken years. 

He explains that he heard about the new championship in the making about four years ago, when Ian Davies, who Woolridge has worked with in the past, and who is now Veloce Racing’s Extreme E team manager, told him to prepare for a possible opportunity.

“He said to me, ‘this extreme thing is going to happen, you need to have yourself fit and ready. And you need to be aware of what’s happening’,” Woolridge remembers.

And when the world locked down in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Woolridge was still hustling to be able to race when the time was right again.

“During lockdown, I started sending out my CV to almost every single team that I knew was going to be in the championship” – having Zoom meetings with the different managers and fighting for a spot.

While 2022 will be his first full season with a seat in Extreme E, he managed to get his foot in the door early and was employed as a Reserve and Development Driver for Veloce Racing in 2021.

“I was fortunate to go to two of the five races last year, and I’ve done a whole lot of testing for the team, giving my feedback on the set-up of the car and the development of the car,” Woolridge says.

Lance Woolridge (ZAF), Veloce Racing during the Jurassic X-Prix on December 18, 2021. (Photo by Colin McMaster / LAT Images)

Thus, at the end of the year 2021, at the Jurassic X Prix in Dorset in the UK, he was ready to replace driver Stéphane Sarrazin for the season finale, partnering with two-time W Series champion Jamie Chadwick.

“I was able to go into that last race having driven the car, knowing the team and their set-up, and knowing all the team members. That prepared me quite well because everyone there was asking, ‘Who’s Lance? Who’s this South African?’ I hadn’t done any [Extreme E] races so no one knew who I was, and then the moment the times came up after the first practice, heads started turning. Straight away, the results do the talking.

“In 2022, even though [Veloce] is a team that I’ve been with last year and am familiar with, I’m looking at it from a different angle now as the driver, and I’m very excited to work with them.”

Woolridge’s knowledge of long-distance cross-country racing has given him the kilometres under his belt, but he says racing Extreme E is completely different from other racing he has done.

“With Extreme E there’s just no room for error at all. It’s extremely, extremely intense. All the drivers there are at the pinnacle of motorsport, and you have to be on your game.”

The electrical element, Woolridge says, makes it all the more challenging and exciting to drive.

“It’s completely different. It’s still got a steering wheel, a pedal and a brake, but that’s where it ends. Being electronic, there are so many different things that you can adjust and play with. And it’s hard to get it to behave like a normal car.

“There’s no gearbox, so your sensation of speed is very, very hard to gauge because you’ve got your accelerator and that’s it; you’ve got no engine revs to gauge your pace and you’ve got no gear changes. So you put your foot down and then suddenly, bloody hell, you’re doing 120km/h. It’s something you get used to in time, you get more in tune with it; it’s not like a normal car where it needs to rev up and get on to the power curve. It’s immediate all the time. So it’s very, very fun to drive.”

The electrical element is more than just an innovative way to drive and race, and the races highlight the advances – although there’s still a long way to go – that can be made in both sustainable transport and motorsport today. 

“The electrification process is not going to be something that’s won overnight and introduced to the world en masse, it’s going to be little by little, friend by friend, family by family. That communication, and us just starting those talks and being examples, is hopefully the beginning of that.”

Jamie Chadwick (GBR)/Lance Woolridge (ZAF), Veloce Racing during the Jurassic X-Prix on December 18, 2021. (Photo by Sam Bloxham / LAT Images)

Another major difference in Extreme E is the team structure, which works towards creating equal opportunity in a sport that has been dominated by men for so long.

Each team is made up of a male and female driving partnership, who switch at designated points in the race.

“There have been many times this last season where some of the women are faster than the guys, and there’s no reason that women can’t do it. I think it’s great that motorsport and Extreme E is giving ladies this chance, because it’s not just about them now, they are the heroes that the girls of today are looking up to and are growing up into. It’s starting to breed a whole new era of motorsport competitor,” Woolridge says.

“It’s also nice to be able to work with a woman on the team, it brings a whole different element from just guys being at a race.”

And not only do these switches promote gender equality, but they showcase various drivers’ talents and how team strategy needs to come together when deciding which driver will race when, and brings a new element to motorsport that has not been seen before.

Woolridge’s new teammate, Italian Christine Giampaoli Zonca (GZ), is also stepping into a permanent Veloce seat for the first time, having previously partnered Britain’s Oliver Bennett in the Hispano Suiza Xite Energy Team in 2021.

“We’re gonna have to do a lot of work with the two of us just to get to know each other, get our driver changes down to the split-second so that we don’t lose any time there. Christine was very fast last year so I am looking forward to that. As long as there are no mistakes from us, the potential for us to do well is very, very high,” Woolridge says.

For those who want to get in on the action in 2022, you can find more information on how to watch on the Extreme E website.

“I’m very, very excited,” Woolridge says.

“It’s a good opportunity for myself and for South African motorsports in general, raising awareness of the talent that we have.” DM/ML

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