EXCLUSIVE: On Saturday, the frequencies of Fox Sports, Discovery, the BBC, ITV, and many other broadcasters will be tuned to the Empty Quarter in the Saudi Arabian desert. It’s a landscape that could be mistaken for Tatooine in the Star Wars universe, but come the weekend, it will be home to the most extreme motorsport event ever created, featuring a dazzling collection of drivers from racing worlds including Formula 1 and rallying.
Welcome to Extreme E, the brainchild of Formula E founder Alejandro Agag. The Spaniard wanted to double down on his electric motor racing fixture (now in its seventh season) with a new event that really revs the engines of his environmental message. Like a traveling circus, Extreme E will journey via a refitted cargo ship to four extreme locations around the globe over the course of 2021, staging races in geographies that highlight the increasingly brutal impact of climate change. The Saudi Arabian dust bowl brings with it warnings about desertification, while a trip to an icefield in Greenland over the summer will highlight rising sea levels.
Extreme E is also about equality. For the first time, women will drive bespoke electric SUVs alongside men in the competition. All of the nine teams are made up of a male and female driver, and they each complete one circuit of the track before swapping for the final lap. Among the pairings are rally legend Carlos Sainz and Trial World Champion Laia Sanz, as well as former F1 champion Jenson Button and Scirocco R-Cup competitor Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky. Formula 1 superstar Lewis Hamilton also has an interest in the sport through his X44 team, which is made up of nine-time FIA World Rally champion Sébastien Loeb and Cristina Gutiérrez, the first Spanish woman to finish the Dakar Rally.
The producers responsible for bringing this all to television are the two All3Media-backed companies behind Formula E’s coverage: Aurora Media and North One. The companies’ respective leaders, Lawrence Duffy and Neil Duncanson, have helped design Extreme E from the wheels up through their co-venture Extreme E Studios. “Normally, we are parachuted into an existing sport to, in the immortal words of broadcasters around the world, reimagine it — normally, for less money,” North One CEO Duncanson jokes. “This occasion is quite unique, because it has enabled us to create something extraordinary, but that also speaks to something that is so important to this current generation and future generations, without being seen to be worthy.”
The initial thinking was to record the event, but Duffy says he convinced Extreme E to broadcast the races live and in doing so “created a rod for our own backs” because of the complexity involved in shooting the spectacle in such remote locations. Indeed, Duncanson says it is more challenging than anything he has previously produced. “The degree of difficulty involved in pulling this off is off the chain,” he adds. “I’m not sure all of it will work first time out of the box, if I’m honest.”
The Empty Quarter is a rocky sandpit located a couple of hundred miles from the Red Sea. It’s not the kind of environment that lends itself to the remote radio frequency cameras Aurora and North One are using around a nine-kilometer race track. A total of 40 cameras are being used to film the race, including three drones and onboard cameras, while Duncanson says the small, multi-tasking crew features DC and Marvel camera operators, who will give the coverage cinematic scale. The location team will send footage over to a production facility in London, where graphics (powered by Unreal Engine from Fortnite makers Epic Games) and commentary are layered on top of 30 hours of race coverage before it is beamed to more than 40 broadcasters around the world.
“It’s the most sophisticated, progressive, modern way of making this type of TV,” says Aurora’s Duffy. There are no dress rehearsals either. “Normally, we’d want to have what we call an event simulation. We’d have at least one, sometimes we’ve had two. Here, we’ve had zero. And it’s entirely down to the pandemic,” Duffy explains. “We’re practicing on the Friday (today) and then Saturday, boom, it’s the race. It’s out of the box, guerrilla TV.”
And it’s not just the race itself they’re shooting. Extreme E Studios is creating a 20-part supporting series, as well as 300 social media films, which all aim to tell the environmental story around the race, without patronizing the audience. Duncanson elaborates: “It’s about creating noise and building an audience that would otherwise perhaps not watch a program about climate change and its impact. At the same time we’re interviewing Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, or Jenson Button, there’s also a scientist explaining in very lay terms what desertification means to a guy sat in a flat in London.”
Despite the complexity and the pandemic, Duffy and Duncanson are optimistic about the new sport they have helped create and its potential to become an annual fixture. “I’ve been involved in a lot of motorsports over the years and it is quite niche and siloed, but this has actually got quite a broad base to it. We’re hopeful that rather than alienating some of those niche fans, we will actually throw a net around a larger number of viewers,” Duncanson says.
That theory will be tested tomorrow, when the drivers hit the desert.
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