On March 17, Extreme E announced that the Dakar legend Jutta Kleinschmidt would join the series as Championship Driver. During Ocean X Prix, Jutta stepped in for the first time to replace Claudia Hürtgen, then on June 24, the ABT-Cupra team announced Jutta will join the team as their female driver. Jutta’s outing in Greenland started with the fasted time during Shakedown, and ranked P2 in Qualifying, getting a great start to the weekend. However, in the Semi-Final, as Extreme E is a sprint and unlike Dakar where you have two weeks to tolerate some minor mistakes, a broken drive shaft ended the team’s campaign ealier. Even though Jutta and teammate Mattias Ekström were able to bring the car back bravely, the birthday girl didn’t make it into the Final. We caught up with Jutta before Arctic X Prix, let’s see what she had to say about her legendary career at Dakar and her new challenge with Extreme E.
All photos © Extreme E
Jutta Kleinschmidt is the legend that needs almost no introduction. She is still the only female driver to have won the Dakar. In addition to the overall victory, Jutta also has 10 stage wins in the 13 years she competed in the Dakar.
In 1987, Jutta accompanied the Dakar race on a motorcycle, which kicked off her legendary career with the iconic off-road series. In 1995, Jutta switched from the motorcycle category to the car category. Contrary to what people might think about the switch, being an ex-biker actually helps Jutta in the car. “If you switch from bike to car, it’s a quite big step. When it comes to cross-country like the Dakar Rally, you actually have a huge advantage because you read the road differently. You now have a co-driver who does the navigation and you actually can help the co-driver much more because you’ve navigated it before yourself. In my opinion, it helps you a lot.”
You can see a lot of ex-bikers who switch to cars and have won the Dakar – Stéphane Peterhansel, Hubert Auriol, Nani Roma, myself.
Changing to cars is also a decision one almost has to make as they grow older and wiser, Jutta has also advised this to fellow Dakar rider and Extreme E rival Laia Sanz. “If you do motorcycle first and then come into a car, you have the feeling that you never could hurt yourself. I know this is not true, but this is what you’re feeling. That’s why I think it’s good to change at a certain age. When you are turning 30 or in your 30s, you’re wiser and you start to think about what can happen to you. I actually asked Laia already several years ago to change to cars, because I could see a big potential in her. ”
At least for me, up to that age, I was never really afraid. But then you have some accidents on the bike and then you see can get hurt. I think it’s a good school to go first to bikes and then come to cars.
In 2007, after 13 Dakar outing, making history for herself and all female drivers, bringing victory to Mitsubishi, and pushing Volkswagen to the podium, Jutta drove onto her last Dakar adventure. Leaving Dakar was actually for a very simple reason, the same reason that stopped many drivers from realizing their dreams – MONEY. “I couldn’t find the sponsors. The Dakar changed from professional, paid drivers to drivers who bring money. In the last few years, it was just not possible to find this amount of money. It became super expensive to do the Dakar, especially when you wanted to race in other events in order to train for the Dakar.”
It was just not possible to find the sponsorship for a good car and I don’t want to go in a bad car. Because after all you did, you don’t want to not have a chance to fight for the win.
In May 2021, Jutta came back to where she won Dakar in 2001, this time with Extreme E as the Championship Driver. Having the off-road legend as an adviser on the series was significant, and it was also a fascinating engagement for Jutta. “When I heard about Extreme E, I was immediately fascinated and that’s why I also offered to help them as a Championship Driver and an advisor. I wanted to be involved and see how it works because I was super interested in this new technology as well as in cross-country. We worked on regulations for new technologies to include them for next year. It was very exciting to me, I was happy that I joined Extreme E.”
Then on the eve of Ocean X Prix qualifying, Jutta was asked to jump in the ABT Cupra car, replacing Claudia Hürtgen who became ill, which was part of the Championship Driver’s job description. Shortly after Ocean X Prix, it was announced Jutta would join the team as their female driver. The advisor became another legend on the grid of Extreme E. “On Friday evening, they told me that I have to race the next day. For sure I was a little bit sad for Claudia, but I was happy for myself because it was a dream come true. It also worked out fantastically, if I would choose any one of the teams, I would choose the ABT team, the German team. I was very excited but also a bit afraid because I had to jump in directly for the qualifying. I didn’t have any clue where we would end up. After so many years of not really racing competitively, you never really know where you are. But it turned out well. I’m very, very happy to be able to continue with the team.”
Jumping into the car at last minute notice or stepping in permanently are just like the challenges Jutta faced when she switched from bikes to cars or when she moved between manufacturers – you just have to face them right on. “The challenge is coming to you. You have to either take it or leave it. You would actually feel amazing because you don’t really know what is coming up or whether you’re good enough. This is all part of the challenge. You would also think ‘I might fail, what happens then?’ ‘everybody is laughing at you’ and things like that. You would just think about the worst case that can happen to you, but most of the time it’s not as bad. You might be afraid that you would blame yourself or ruin something for the team. But life goes on. I took it and I’m very happy that I did because it’s sometimes not so easy.”
I think in your life, if you want to have a very special life and have really good things happen, you have to come over these fears that you have and try it.
Having been away from competitive racing for a while, physical training is important for Jutta to pick up now that she is officially part of the competition. Getting back in the car and in racing is also important for getting the feelings back. “I increased completely my physical training. I actually lost four kilos in the last two months, which is very good. I always did a little bit of training, but if you’re not racing anymore, you’re a little bit lazy on that. So you have to come back to the level. We also had an opportunity to race in Baja Aragon, which the ABT team organized for me and Mattias. That was super helpful because in the last years, I haven’t been racing in big cars, and not enough times in any races. It was at least 500 kilometers of each stage with which I had the opportunity to train my skills. What we face in Dakar was something I’m always familiar with in cross-country, but I think in Greenland we will face what’s more rally style. It was good to have a Baja which is actually a more rally-style event. It was very flat with a lot of corners and less poor off-road ones.”
Going from an observer and advisor to a driver, Jutta was surprised by the rich data she can work with. The engineer inside of her feels right at home in Extreme E. “The biggest surprise was the professionalism behind the racing. Because in the cross-country events I was used to, like Dakar, yes we work with data, but not as much as they do here. The Extreme E race is a sprint and Dakar is a marathon. Here you have to bring everything on point and each second count. It is a very fast race and you have to be very concentrated on the lap. It was new to me using all the data and trying to find something here and something there because the little things make a difference. That was very interesting. Throughout my career before, I tried to improve as much as I can, and I was using what I had. But this is on another level. It’s exciting to work with this and try to improve yourself with the data.”
As a legend in the sport, outside of her racing, Jutta is an inspirational speaker, motivating more and more people to realize their dreams. For young girls withing to be part of motorsport, Jutta encourages them to work hard for it. “If you dream about it, work hard for it. Start with everything you can drive just to get better and take your opportunities on the way. For example, I know that Extreme E is doing a test event after the Sardinia event. Drivers can apply for it and if they are lucky, the teams would choose them. They get at least the test and can show their potential. This is not something available in all championships, teams mostly would do a private test to choose a driver. It would still be difficult to get in and you have to show that you’re good. There are also a lot of good jobs in motorsport. It’s not only driving. We always forget that. There are engineers, team managers like Susie Wolff. There are a lot of good positions for women in motorsport in general. I am super happy with Extreme E because here we have 50% of women as drivers, and this gives a chance to a lot of women to show their potential, make a great career in motorsport. Motorsport is expensive and you always need the support. It’s really great and you can see the result already of it.”
For people who have missed Jutta’s history-making in Dakar, there might be a chance for them to catch up with it on the big screen. A biopic on Jutta’s Dakar challenge is in development in Hollywood. In the meantime, picking up Jutta’s book My victory at the Dakar is also a good idea to know more about the legend. “About 2-3 years ago they contacted me that a director and film producer from LA would like to make a movie based on my story. I didn’t really believe in this project, because I thought this would be a super expensive movie. I gave them the rights to go for it anyway. They came back with three offers, one of them was with Spielberg. Now they are writing the script for it based on my book. Then when we are all happy with the script hopefully they start making the movie. I actually haven’t thought about who would play me yet. But because I am co-producer on the movie, I told them I want to do all the stunts myself. I already did the stunts for Taxi and Taxi 2. I was one of the drivers who drove very fast through the cities. It was good fun because they blocked the city partly for us and we raced through the city in Marseille and Paris.”
As always, we wrapped up the conversation with why people should follow Extreme E. Here is Jutta’s take. “It’s exciting, it’s very nice scenery, and it’s a very close race. What is for me the outstanding thing is also that you are more or less inside the car with us. We have on-board cameras, you see how we drive, you see our faces, you see everything. You can follow things on social media. You can even vote for the drivers and help the teams to choose a better grid place if they make it to the Final. So you’re involved in the race. It’s fantastic.”
Extreme E returns to action in Sardinia on October 23-24 for Island X Prix.