DUBAI: Few drivers speak as eloquently and passionately about rally driving as Catie Munnings does. And few drivers have achieved so much in such a short career.
As an 18-year-old, the daughter of former rally driver Chris Munnings won the 2016 FIA European Rally Championship Ladies Trophy and now competes in the European Rally Championship for the Saintéloc Junior Team.
Up next, another first in the world of motorsports.
On Friday, Munnings and her Andretti United Extreme E co-driver Timmy Hansen will take part in the Desert X Prix across the AlUla desert, the first ever race in the new electric vehicle-only series by Extreme E.
“It’s the first time Timmy and I are racing with an electric vehicle,” she said. “It’s designed like a race car and handles like one. Both of us jumped in and absolutely loved it. It’s drivability is so great, it performs and it’s predictable in its handling, which is important when we’re not getting much seat time before the races.”
Saturday, April 3 will see the qualification rounds between the nine teams, while the final race takes place the following day. For Munnings, brought up on combustion engine cars, one of the big positives is the constant power the electric SUV provides.
“It’s got instant torque all the time, it’s not like gears where you have different measure of torque coming out of the corners based on the speed you’re travelling,” she said.
“It’s just instant wherever you are, as soon as you put your foot on the throttle you get that power. It’s pleasure to drive really, I always say that you can be quite lazy when you’re driving it, you haven’t got gears to worry about. It’s very forgiving from that sense.”
While the pandemic restrictions have somewhat disrupted their off-season preparations, Munnings and her Swedish team-mate felt that dwelling on recent obstacles serves little purpose and only promotes negative energy.
“We’ve been trying to control what we can, Timmy and I have been working very hard together in preparation for the race,” she said.
“I managed to get to Sweden to work with him for a while and we did some ice driving. It’s so much easier when you’re trying to discuss a race and go through the course maps when you’re with your team-mate in person.”
Racing in AlUla will be a first for Munnings and Hansen, though they have been doing their homework on the stunning landscape.
“I’ve never even been to Saudi, neither has Timmy, but I’ve had some conversation with Extreme E and people who have done the recces and they say it’s just mindblowingly beautiful,” she said.
“We were watching some drone footage and the proportions are so extreme. It hasn’t got anything you can compare to in normal life, there’s no buildings around there, there’s no traffic lights. It’s quite strange to see this desert with rocks and we’re going to create a race track out of that.
“It’s hard to get your spatial awareness from looking at photos. I’m sure it’s going to be a bit of shock when we go there, I’m sure it’ll be a lot steeper, with gradients that don’t come out in the pictures necessarily. I’m massively excited to see it.”
Extreme E’s five destinations will each highlight a different environmental issue, starting with Saudi Arabia and desertification, and moving on to the terrains of Senegal (rising sea levels), Greenland (melting ice cap), Amazon (deforestation) and Patagonia (glacial recession)
Munnings says that desert race is the ideal one to ease into before more trying environments later on.
“I’m really excited about going to Brazil and the Amazon rainforest, I think that’s going to be beautiful,” she said.
“Just ticking that off my bucket list. And Patagonia, the glacier sounds amazing, with the red rock that we’re racing on. There’re so many different surfaces throughout the year that require different driver skillsets. That’s the challenge for me.”
Almost inevitably, the proliferation of women drivers in motorsports is something that Munnings has to constantly address.
And while she looks forward to the day that female participation is no major longer news, she believes highlighting it at this stage is still necessary to attract aspiring female drivers.
“I remember when I was working with Susie Wolff and her ‘Dare to be Different’ campaign, and she said we need to get to the point where we’re not talking about it and it’s just happening and it’s natural,” said Munnings.
“But she said in order to get there we have to shine a light on it a lot more too. It’s more to just encourage women into the sport, to say there’s an opportunity here.”
In that regard, she describes the steps taken in Extreme E as “absolutely amazing.”
“It’s not just about putting women in championships and saying there’ll be a ladie’s trophy,” Munnings said.
“I’ve been in teams where its happened you know, I’ll be at the front doing media interviews and my [male counterpart] will be doing all the testing behind, because it’s a bit of phenomenon to have a female in the team. Now, for us to be counting as one result, the male’s time is just as important as the female’s. The female’s speed has to be there. So teams are picking girls with that in mind, it’s not just a PR stunt. It raises the credibility of females as racers.”
“Hopefully towards the end of the season it is just driver ‘A’ racing driver ‘B’ and we’re not talking about the women and how they’re racing against the men,” she added.
“It will just merge into one and be very inclusive which I think will be very cool to see.”
Munnings is in little doubt that electric racing, across different categories, will continue to grow in the coming years.
“The reason we have motorsports is that manufacturers sell road cars and this is sort of advertising for that in many senses,” she said.
“And the fact is that all manufacturers are going in the electric direction, they’ve put bans in the UK for having combustion engines. There is cut off points, it is going that way.
“There won’t be combustion championships in the future, which is sad,” Munnings concedes.
“I’m the first to admit that I’m a petrol head. I love standing in the forest and hearing a car go past me and feeling the ground rumble. The next generation will be just as excited by the electric racing. It’s a transition for us, and yes, the noise is going, but in so many senses we’ve got so much potential with the electric cars. We can be faster, we’re already seeing it with these Extreme E cars, what they’re capable of. And driving them as well, I can definitely say that they’re not going to disappoint.”
Having tried out the Extreme E’s electric SUVs, she is confident they will not disappoint. And with the restrictive pandemic lockdowns having had the unintended positive consequences of a drop in pollution levels, Munnings believes it is the is the ideal time to embrace the age of electric motorsports and sustainable racing.
“Timmy summed it up nicely, he was talking about rallycross the other day, and he said we might be going electric but don’t forget we’re still going to have the world class racing, there will still be contact, everything that you love about the sport will still be there,” she said.
“It is nice to be involved in the electric movement from the beginning in season one of Extreme E. It is inevitably the way the world will move forward and it seems like the right time to be thinking about our impact and where we’re going.”