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

Formula E Championship - Test

VERGNE Jean-Eric (FRA), DS Techeetah, DS E-Tense FE20, portrait during the ABB Formula E Championship official pre-season test at Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia on November 28, 29 and December 1 in Spain. (Photo by Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

NurPhoto via Getty Images

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.

Veloce Racing 3

Andrew Ferraro

"(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.”

Veloce Racing 2

Sam Bloxham

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.