Extreme E in Scotland: Battling the elements at Hydro X Prix

Racing underway during the Hydro X-Prix. Photo: Colin McMaster/LAT Images

It’s a foggy morning in the hills above Kirkconnel, and there’s nothing moving in the vast mist-filled chasm below the Extreme E paddock. There’s minimum visibility, the emergency medical helicopter has been grounded, the electric Odyssey 21 vehicles and their drivers sit idle, camera operators await direction, and there’s a mild sense of tension in the air. In the broadcast gallery, the production team from host broadcaster Aurora Media Worldwide, were prepared to produce the race cut of an early morning qualifying round; instead, they’re relying on roving crews to fill the gap with supplementary content. Welcome to day one of Hydro X Prix.

Racing to the extreme

The second leg of season 3 of the off-road electric car, gender-equal championship takes place at the former Glenmuckloch opencast coal mine site in Dumfries and Galloway. When not obscured by clouds, this resembles a meteor impact crater on a good day. Southwest Scotland is perhaps not the first location you’d associate with a globetrotting tournament which chooses to race in ecologically ravaged landscapes around the world, but this great big hole in the ground is a prime example of the damaging impact of human industrial processes.

The location is also in keeping with the focus on new technologies and renewable energy solutions, as the site is to be transformed into a pumped storage hydropower (PSH) plant and wind farm after this weekend.

The championship has seen its 2023 calendar double from five to ten rounds, with all race weekends serving as double-headers – showcasing twice the action for minimal additional carbon output. And, according to Extreme E, the 10 pairs of male and female drivers face the most challenging course of the championship to date.

After ‘free practice’ runs the day before, driver Tamara Molinaro described it as “one of the most extreme courses we have ever had” adding, “there are changes in the levels of grip, because there is grass, slimy gravel and more rocky sections, forcing the drivers to change style at short notice. In some places it is quite narrow, so it is hard to overtake, and the drivers have to use their creativity to get those overtaking opportunities”.

Piped music

But for the moment, all that creativity is lying fallow as the drivers wait. Some distract themselves by playing table tennis, while others have a go at playing the bagpipes. But the Aurora crew, faced with the prospect of dead air, keeps busy. In the paddock, Megan Alldridge, producer of the Electric Odyssey magazine show, was discussing a behind the scenes shot with colleagues.

“We are really busy as usual. It’s always non-stop,” says Alldridge.  “You’re always having to fight different variables that you didn’t plan for – today is a really good example. The fog has meant that we’ve got a live broadcast and yet we’re having to do replays of the last race in Saudi because there’s literally nothing going on.

“But you’ve got to be agile and adapt what you’re doing. So today we’ve seen a really good opportunity to tap into behind the scenes. We’re showing the drama that’s happening, and the stewards and drivers’ reactions to having qualifying cancelled.”

Megan Alldridge, producer, Electric Odyssey. Photo: Michael Burns

“They’re doing a great job back in the TV compound,” she continues. “The presenter Laura Winters is great and really good at being able to fill time. Obviously, she’s dealing with a lot of drivers who have been very adrenaline-pumped, ready to go, and they’ve just been told it has been cancelled. So you have to read the characters and know who to approach.”

Extreme E produces Electric Odyssey episodes between the five race weekends a year. Taken by over 30 broadcasters around the world, it covers everything around the racing, including the sustainability, technology and legacy storytelling elements. Last season it had a cumulative audience of over 22 million.

“The calendar isn’t full, it literally can’t be with how the championship gets around and if we want to keep our footprint down,” says Alldridge. “We had to find a way to keep audiences engaged in-between the racing. So, effectively, the show is meant to plug that hole, keep audiences engaged, keep them hearing about Extreme E.”

“The show does what a live broadcast can’t do, because it’s not long enough,” she continues. “It goes into all the incredible work that the championship does, behind the scenes and off the track. So it’s not just about the racing. We do stories on climate. We do stories on equality. We do stories on technology and innovation. I get to tell stories and meet people that you don’t always see in the live broadcasts, and that you don’t necessarily associate with motorsport.

“This week, we’ve interviewed a bird expert about Peregrine falcons because we have to change the way we race to protect its habitat. We do stories with all kinds of technology partners, such as Vodafone, who is putting a sensor in the water at a legacy project here. We’re looking at how technology is going to help all these climate issues that we’re facing and how we can find solutions. So, effectively, it’s just a deeper dive into the championship, showcasing all the things it does off-track and giving a voice to those people that you don’t always hear from in a championship setting.”

Green thinking

Sustainability permeates almost everything here, from the ‘bring your own bowl’ policy at mealtimes to the custom-built equipment in the broadcast gallery. The garages, tech and media areas are inflatable tents, team personnel numbers are capped, the Continental tires on the cars are made from recycled PET bottles, and a combination of battery power and green hydrogen powers the paddock. The whole enterprise – from RF transmission infrastructure to Odyssey 21 cars – is packed up into 70 cargo containers and stored aboard the transport/command ship St Helena for transporting between race locations.

Nor is there any need for an IBC. To keep the overall carbon footprint as low as possible, none of the rights holding broadcasters stream any content or presentations live from the site. Instead it’s all produced and distributed by Extreme E and its partners, and offered as a fully packaged feed to rights holders such as Warner Bros’ Discovery+ and Eurosport.

The race took place in the former Glenmuckloch opencast coal mine site

There is, however, a small group of broadcast media filming here in and around Glenmuckloch, either bringing their own camera op or being assigned a camera operator or ‘preditor’ (producer/editor) from the Aurora crew pool. Up in the paddock, Scottish comedian and presenter Des Clarke was to be found filming interviews with Extreme E execs and drivers as the fog slowly cleared. A team from ITV were also here, filming documentary links among the stationary cars, and the BBC had a presence on site.

Another key filming position is down at the Command Centre, the championship’s pop-up studio where key team players, drivers and team principals join together to watch the race unfold and make key decisions. Here we found Sky Sports presenter David Garrido doing a piece to camera. This was the last segment in a feature programme to be broadcast later, and Garrido was catching the action of The Switch, when the team drivers replace each other mid-way through the race.

Also on site is a two-person team from social media publisher Joe.ie, who were taking a slightly more ‘run and fun’ approach. Producer/presenter Oisín Deignan and videographer Killian Ginnity were getting a lot of exclusive and very informal access to the drivers and race site on behalf of their Instagram, Facebook and YouTube viewers.

“It’s not just a little bit in remote production, all of it is remote. We’ve pushed the boundaries and now we’re thinking about the next stage of remote production”

According to head of broadcast and technology Dave Adey, Extreme E is “sport for purpose”. “The environment as well as equality are on our agenda,” he adds. “So we don’t want to have a huge carbon footprint, we don’t want so many people here on site. Therefore, our TV broadcast utilises remote production. That’s not so new, but the extent to which we do it is. It’s not just a couple of edits suites that are off site, we have four remote sites involved: here in Scotland, Barcelona, London and the Netherlands.

“We have all the camera operators, camera racking and a director here on site and we do a race cut – using a mix of the cameras to produce the race footage. That gets satellited back to a remote gallery in London, along with all the other camera feeds. In London they have access to everything we’re doing here, in addition to all the pre-recorded content. They have a separate director there who will put together the programme in a live environment. So they’ll be using the race cut that we’re producing, and at the end of that, they will want to go to a results page. So they’ll pick one of our beauty shots from a drone, then they’ll overlay the data that we send back from site, both via the internet and via the satellite.

“All the graphics is done via our colleagues from Al Kamel in Barcelona using that data, and the graphics package goes into London. All of the AR and VR that we use within the main programme is added via Hilversum in the Netherlands. The commentary is added in London as well. Once we have that final world feed, which again is all being done in a live environment, that will be then sent to Red Bee Media, who do the streaming for our digital platforms.”

“Red Bee Media does our global distribution in association with Globecast,” he continues. “As well as distributing it to our global audience around the world, we also get the feed pinged back to us here. We can show our hospitality guests and journalists what the viewers at home are seeing, which will be with all the bells and whistles, the commentary, the data and the AR and the VR.

The drivers try their hand at the bagpipes

“That means we’re not having to ship all of those people and all of that equipment here. We’re not linking to the rest of the world from here, we’re just linking back to London.”

“So it’s not just a little bit in remote production, all of it is remote,” he adds. “We’ve pushed the boundaries and now we’re thinking about the next stage of remote production. Maybe we can remotely operate the cameras, maybe we need to bring fewer people, maybe only have riggers on site in the future. It’s all an evolution of the technology and the workflow.”

Four seasons in one day

By mid-morning the fog has lifted, and in true Scottish fashion the weather up here on the hillside switched quickly to baking hot sunshine. The qualifying gets rejigged, and the drivers get a chance to battle it out on the hectic slopes of Glenmuckloch. After some thrills, bashes and a couple of spills, the X44 Vida Carbon Racing team wins the day. The podium celebration takes place under blue skies and sunshine, and everyone starts thinking about the races tomorrow. Rain is forecast.

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