This month, in anticipation of Ocean X Prix, we continue with our Extreme E female drivers series. During the Desert X Prix, Hispano Suiza Xite Energy team entered Crazy Race with a combined qualifying classification of 5th. They were beaten by Andretti United, thus unable to compete in the Final. However, the team was able to leave Saudi Arabia with a 5th overall ranking and 20 points. We caught up with Christine Giampaoli-Zonca after Desert X Prix. Let’s hear her story with Hispano Suiza Xite Energy.
All photos © Extreme E
Born in India to Italian parents, raised in The Canary Islands, Spain since the age of 8, cars have always been Christine’s passion even though she couldn’t quite put her finger on where it came from. Then one day when she saw a Toyota Corolla racing down the street in front of her house, the dream of becoming a race driver herself was seeded. “My passion has always been cars, but we never really know in the family why it is the way it is. My family just joked about it a little bit. They would give me barbies and I would break the neck and be like ‘I want tractors!’ Then one day I saw a Toyota Corolla racing down my house. I was like ‘what was that!’ I fell in love and it kind of started from there.”
But Christine’s racing didn’t start from the race track directly. She pursued racing as a mechanic and engineer first. She spent a lot of time in the garage putting together her own racing car, and eventually, she studied Motorsport Technology at the university. “I knew I wanted to become a race car driver, but I didn’t really have an actual racing background or a lot of money. It’s very hard to start a career. I spent all my life trying to build my own car. In the beginning, my Mom didn’t know I was studying motorsport. I went to the university to study economics. After two weeks, I changed to motorsport, but I only told her two months later. The degree obviously helps a lot. I studied the basics, the physics, these are all things that will help me when I’m on the track. At the same time, what I did as a mechanic in my own garage is also very useful. The set-up of the car is very important in each race, it can change your whole result.”
I always enjoy the mechanics of it. For me, it’s very important that the driver and the car are merging together and having a connection. If you know why the car is doing certain things, then I think it’s easier.
Being able to build and fix her own car led to an unexpected career in North America when Christine was in a very desperate stage of her career. When she was reaching out to all possible connections she could think of to pull a Hail Mary, her old boss gave her a call-back. “I was in this very lost moment of my life here in Europe. I was racing with a Spanish team, but I didn’t have the budget to race. I was living in Barcelona with no money. I had a really bad time and it was so much stress. I wanted to be a race driver but it was so hard. I was thinking I should just go back to my islands, go back to my workshop and that’s it. I took a decision, I would send 40 emails every day to anyone, for one month. I would also spend all the little money I had left in my account. If in this month, nothing happens, then I’m gonna go back to my workshop. One of these 40 emails per day was to my old boss Paul Kraus who is an amazing guy. They were building a team and they were missing the driver. They saw my CV, they saw that I’m a mechanic and an engineer. The races in Mexico are basically ’work on the car yourself’. When they called me, I was destroyed, it was like 2am. He said they saw my profile and they were interested. I was so used to people saying yes yes and then nothing happens. So I did expect anything. But then he invited me to a test and selection, and it was in LA. He said they raced buggies, UTVs. I only knew about rally, but I was like ‘I’m coming I’m coming, for sure!’ And I got there, and saw those huge monsters, I was like ‘I’m gonna race this? OK.’ I just loved it. From the moment I arrived, I fell in love with off-road. Everything is about adaptation, you are not sure what will happen.”
There was a low point that led to a new beginning of her career, there was also a highlight for herself and all women in motorsport. In 2016, Christine joined the first-ever all-female WRC crew. The team consisted of female drivers, engineers, mechanics, coordinators. More than just being a career highlight for all the women involved, it was also an inspiring moment for all the women interested in motorsport. “My team wanted to have the first-ever fully female team, from coordinators, to mechanics, to engineers. I thought the project was awesome, but again we didn’t have the budget for it. So I did this crowdfunding thing with a YouTube video. We raced in WRC Catalunya with the car with all the signatures from people who funded us. Each person who helped us would sign the car. We went to the universities and schools asking if any girls studying mechanics would like to participate in the project. There were queues everywhere for people to come and see us. It gave opportunities to these girls to start somewhere. If you study mechanics, it’s not that easy to get into an actual racing team.”
As someone with six years of racing experience under her belt, particularly interested in rally and off-road, Extreme E easily got under Christine’s radar. Eventually, she was able to embark on this journey with the iconic brand of Hispano Suiza. “All the best of the best signed up for Extreme E, for me, it was like a dream to be among them. ”
I’m Italian, but I’ve lived in Spain since always. I knew about the brand, it’s a historical, iconic, luxury brand here in Spain. Representing a brand that I feel attached to is really cool.
As one of the teams with a later entry into the series, Hispano Suiza Xite Energy team did not have much time to prepare before the official test in Aragon in December 2020. But by the time of Desert X Prix, even though Christine is still nervous, she felt more comfortable in the car and out on track. “Our team entered last, we didn’t have much time before the test. There was a little bit of pressure because we needed to do everything quickly. I then went to Saudi a bit nervous, because I felt like I didn’t test enough, not totally in the game. But when we arrived, from the first shakedown I felt super comfortable. Yes the terrain is harder, with that downhill slope. So many accidents happened. It was so easy to have an accident because of the terrain and the handling of the car. I actually felt calm. It felt a bit like the American terrain.”
As the new racing series was taking shape, the racing format was also changed along the way. Going into the first X Prix, everyone had something to adapt to, and everyone was going in a little bit blind. The Hispano Suiza team had a clear strategy – focus on your own race, don’t think too much of who’s around. It paid off in the end in Crazy Race. “One of the surprises from the race probably just come from the change of format. I had my head in the game thinking that we will all race together, then that changed. So it’s a bit surprising. But in the end, I think it was a good decision. Our main thing was to focus, get the car back in one piece to the end. Do your own thing. Since day one we went with this idea. We know we are not Sebastian Loeb. We knew we were doing our best, we worked hard for this, we trained and prepared to be there. We did the right thing. We should learn about everything, feel the terrain, feel the car, try to adjust as much as possible, set up everything perfectly as much as we can. We won’t see the car after the race so we needed to use the time wisely while having it. It was our strategy from the beginning, and also seeing the accidents it got even more important to follow it. The result was also a little bit surprising. I wasn’t expecting to be behind Carlos Sainz and in front of Jensen Button, it sounds pretty good.”
I of course expected it to be amazing and it turned out to be amazing. Just look at the people there, the top drivers. The TV coverage was great, all my friends, my family saw it. My grandmother was like, this is cool! So for sure it definitely met expectations, really incredible.
Extreme E will keep on evolving after the first race, just like Formula E did in the past six seasons. Teams and drivers gave their input during the Desert X Prix for potential changes, and Christine also shared her input with Alejandro Agag. “I gave him my idea that I thought the dust was not that bad. I heard a lot of people were against it, I thought it was cool. I told him if there were more lines, where you could pass, it would be cool. Because now as soon as the first one goes, the whole race is kinda done. It could bring more competition.”
At the end of this month, St. Helena will unload the cars on the coast of Senegal and Ocean X Prix will begin a new chapter of this electric odyssey. Before that, Christine continues her rigorous training for this next battle. “Right now I’m training physically. But training mentally is even more important. I’m training with a neuro trainer on brain endurance training. It’s hard. He’s working to keep me focused. I think it’s working a lot for my attention level. It’s great for the focus on race day, You are in the car, you feel everything is in place. It would be cool to train with the car, but we don’t have it now. I have other races coming now, so I will train for Extreme E with seat time in other series.”
After Ocean X Prix, the terrain Christine is most excited about awaits – Arctic. “I’m super excited about Greenland. We are gonna be on ice, it will be so cool. Greenland and Patagonia are the ones I’m most excited about. But in the end, they are all such dream locations I probably wouldn’t have gone to if it weren’t for this.”
In the end, as always, we asked Christine to sell Extreme E in three words to new fans. “Exciting. Adrenalin. Fun. It’s very challenging, people who watch will also feel like they are part of it. I think it’s cool.”
On May 29-30th, Extreme E continues its electric odyssey in Senegal for Ocean X Prix. Right afterwards on June 5th, we continue with our Extreme E series.