Driven by passion: A conversation with Jutta Kleinschmidt

Cross country legend Jutta Kleinschmidt once again brought her experience and talent behind the wheel in the Jurassic X Prix last month.  After first speaking with Jutta in the run up to the Arctic X Prix this summer, Volta met her again in the paddock of the Jurassic X Prix.  She shares her insights about Extreme E, her career, and even space travel.

Undertaking an electric odyssey with Extreme E

Firstly, we discussed Jutta’s surprise entry into the Ocean X Prix in Senegal.  As the only woman to have ever won the Paris Dakar Rally, and having last raced there in 2007, the place and people are clearly very special to her.  Last year, however, although undertaking her role as Championship Driver and Advisor, she did not expect to race.  When Claudia Hürtgen fell ill, Jutta stepped up and took the wheel in the e-CUPRA ABT XE1.  Jutta showed her determination and resolve when faced with such an unexpected challenge.  “I said okay, I have to go for it.”

From the beginning, I thought we have to change motorsport to environmentally friendly technologies if we want to survive.

In Senegal, the ABT Cupra team – Jutta Kleinschmidt alongside Mattias Ekström – qualified in third place before taking the lead in Semi-Final 1.  However, problems with their radio led to a mishap during the driver change, costing valuable seconds.  Jutta was nonetheless pleased with their performance and the opportunity to show they were on the pace, after two serious accidents in the Desert X Prix in Saudi Arabia.  Although she particularly enjoys the technicality of the Senegalese terrain, Jutta shared her excitement for the new challenges posed by each round of the Extreme E championship. Unfortunately for the ABT Cupra XE team, despite a very strong start in Greenland for the Arctic X Prix, they broke a driveshaft at the start of Semi-Final 2 and were unable to challenge in the battle for the win.  Abt Cupra subsequently placed 2nd in the Enel X Island X Prix and 7th in the Jurassic X Prix, earning them 100 championship points and 5th place overall in the series standings

The Extreme E Legacy Programme endeavours to implement lasting changes in each race location.  At the Jurassic X Prix the drivers learned about biodiversity loss in Dorset and built shelters for the reintroduction of beavers into the landscape.  In Greenland they helped the Scientific Committee take samples from the ice cap, while they supported Red Sea turtle conservation projects, planted mangroves and visited community and environmental projects in Saudi Arabia and Senegal.  Since Jutta has joined the ABT Cupra team, she has been able to be fully involved in these projects. 

The activities at each race don’t just support the local community and raise awareness, but they also allow the drivers to build a unique rapport with one another, which Kleinschmidt particularly appreciates: “it is a day with all the drivers doing something together – it’s a very nice thing to do, because you grow closer together through this project.”

From development engineer to motorsports career

Long before the concept of Extreme E took shape, Jutta has supported electric mobility: “From the beginning, I thought we have to change motorsport [and use] environmentally friendly technologies if we want to survive.”  No matter how it is powered, what Jutta finds most important is pushing her – and her vehicle’s – limits to get the best performance.  The Odyssey 21 can accelerate from 0-60mph in under 5 seconds, while the Williams Advanced Engineering battery stores enough energy to charge 2,600 mobile phones for a week.  “We cannot go as far as we do in the Dakar rally, but it’s a sprint race compared to a marathon race, and for this it is perfect.”

…I can only say to everybody out there, if you have a dream, go for it, what can you lose?

Extreme E collects and utilises a wide range of technical data to enhance performance, therefore Jutta’s background in physics engineering and time as a development engineer have been invaluable.  While it is one thing to have driving talent, fitness and other personal attributes, Jutta has found understanding the technology behind her racing to be paramount.  Notably, technical knowledge was often essential just to stay in the race throughout her cross country career.  With long waits for ‘fast assistance’, the race could be over by the time repairs were made.  Therefore understanding the physics behind her vehicle allowed Jutta to persevere through technical challenges, to constantly refine her driving style and to adapt her approach to the car, course and driving conditions.



Giving a new lease of life to cross country rallying

Outside of Extreme E, Jutta has been involved in a range of projects and initiatives, such as the FIA’s Smart Driving Challenge and Women in Motorsport Commission.  She is particularly proud of her work as President of the Cross Country Rally Commission for over two years.  “There was a need to make a change in this sport.”  Participation rates were falling, particularly among young people.  The implementation of a range of changes will begin in 2022, “which is very good, because most of my job is done now!  I can look for new challenges.”  Planned developments include a cross country World Championship, a category for incoming young drivers, and regulations establishing the inclusion of new technologies.

Although these projects lead to a busy schedule, Jutta finds she doesn’t need to unwind: “I love adventure, [so] I really don’t need to have something to relax because I love what I do.”  Highlights include bike tours in America’s national parks and Europe, which double up as useful training, as well as spending time with her nieces and nephews.  At the start of her career, still employed full-time as an engineer, all of Jutta’s free time was used for racing.  Now racing is her job, it does not feel like work for her, but passion. The covid pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone, but Jutta recognised that her position was comparatively secure, despite the financial blow when all her planned motivational keynote speeches were cancelled. 

From March 2020 that work was completely put on pause, but she still found that this time in lockdown taught her a lot.  Referencing her own time at university, Jutta sympathised with current students like myself who are missing out on significant experiences due to the pandemic.  Even so, she pointed out that for many people, much of the day was already spent working on a computer: online meetings themselves therefore aren’t so much of a change from the status quo as reduction in commuting time and emissions have been.

Going beyond gender

Jutta speaks fondly of the other female drivers in Extreme E, underscoring how important it is to give women the opportunity to prove their talent on a gender-equal and level playing-field.  “I really want to see much more women in competitive high-level motorsport.”

Whether looking for a career behind the wheel or in another aspect of motorsports, Jutta believes it is essential to look for your weak points.  It is human nature to find developing our strengths easier and more enjoyable than addressing our weaknesses, even though this offers the most potential benefits.  Therefore, you have to face your weak points if you want to get good.”

Jutta referenced the sad and frustrating fact that female drivers are likely to be underestimated, merely perceived as “good for PR” but expected to lack technical understanding.  Therefore, having worked as a development engineer at BMW, Jutta could dispel this myth and ensure her input was taken seriously by her teammates.  Extreme E looks to counteract this misconception by giving its female drivers an equal opportunity to their male peers.

Jutta finds it amazing that Extreme E is the first series to directly stipulate a 50/50 male and female driver balance, an idea she has supported from the outset.  Despite Jutta’s successes, the motorsports ecosystem has not yet equipped other female drivers to follow her lead – no female driver has since replicated Jutta’s 2001 victory in the Dakar rally.  “The question is always, ‘why?’”  A difficult career path for anyone, female drivers face considerable obstacles to attain both financial sponsorship and the crucial opportunity to show their potential.  Extreme E is representative of growing efforts to give female drivers a platform. For many of the upcoming driving talents, Jutta is an inspiration, so it seemed only natural to ask her who she looks up to.  Among others, Jutta cites Bertha Benz as an inspiration.  “I think this kind of story motivates me to do things and also to say, look, try it.  I can only say to everybody out there, if you have a dream, go for it, what can you lose?”

Future positive

Looking to future seasons of Extreme E, Jutta has several thoughts about locations where she would like to race, if given the choice.  Despite her enthusiasm to take Extreme E to the moon, she doesn’t think the floating paddock St Helena will be replaced by a spaceship just yet!  Jutta acknowledged how special it was for the Arctic X Prix to be the first international motorsport event ever held in Greenland.  She would love to race in the incredible landscapes of New Zealand, while the United States would provide many possible race locations and a great opportunity to raise environmental awareness.

Just as each race location can facilitate awareness of climate solutions unique to the threats impacting each ecosystem, motorsport itself has widespread implications for our everyday life.  Jutta believes that motorsport must expand its role as a testing field for new technologies, which can then be used by everyday consumers.  Jutta believes that battery powered electric cars will constitute just one facet of such innovations, describing how their practicality for smaller travel distances makes them particularly useful in cities.  Meanwhile, large industrial vehicles like tankers and planes could become carbon neutral through the use of synthetically produced E-fuels.  “I think we will see much more of these kinds of technologies.” 

Innovative hydrogen fuel cell cars, which generate the energy needed to power their electric motors, will soon be used in cross country racing, alongside range extenders currently being developed.  These will power a high-performance hybrid car which is petrol consumption efficient.  Jutta is optimistic about motorsport’s ability to adapt to the 21st century implications of its role in innovation, but she also acknowledges that “we have to use new technologies, otherwise motorsport will not survive.”

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