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Desert X-Prix: Hamilton's X44 squad tops qualifying heats

Lewis Hamilton’s X44 team continued its unbeaten Extreme E qualifying run by topping the qualifying heats at the Desert X Prix, as the second season got underway in Saudi Arabia.

Cristina Gutierrez, Sebastien Loeb, Team X44

Nine-time World Rally Championship-winner Sebastian Loeb and Cristina Gutierrez took a comfortable victory in the faster of the two heats on the new Neom layout, with Timmy Hansen and Catie Munnings triumphing in the other heat for Andretti United after a time penalty for defending champions Rosberg X Racing.

In a late format change, the starting order for the heats was determined by single-car sprints earlier in the day. New Veloce Racing signing Christine Giampaoli Zonca suffered a suspected fractured ankle during a heavy crash during the sprints, with damage to the car ruling Veloce out of the heats.

The early runners in the sprints benefitted from heavy overnight rain, as the more compact sand made conditions faster. X44, the 2021 championship runners-up, knocked over half a minute of its benchmark time from Friday’s practice running as Loeb explored the limits through the downhill section. 

But X44 was pipped to the fastest time by arch-rival RXR, with new signing Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky maintaining the six-second advantage built by team-mate and 2021 champion Johan Kristoffersson.

Veloce had looked on course to beat RXR’s time during a committed run from its new pairing of Lance Wooldridge and Giampaoli Zonca, but the latter flipped the car on the downhill section, landing heavily and coming to rest upside down. 

With Veloce missing, only four cars took part in heat one in the second round of qualifying.

Jutta Kleinschmidt,  Nasser Al-Attiyah, Abt Cupra XE

Jutta Kleinschmidt, Nasser Al-Attiyah, Abt Cupra XE

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Loeb made the best start to lead for X44, and built a commanding advantage after a collision between the Acciona Sainz and Abt Cupra XE machines. Four-time Dakar Rally winner Nasser Al-Attiyah on his XE debut made a move up the inside of Carlos Sainz Sr for second, but then ran wide and missed a gate before collecting the Spanish rally legend. 

Sainz, himself a three-time Dakar winner, limped back to the switch zone before retiring the car, while car damage and a time penalty consigned Al-Attiyah and team-mate Jutta Kleinschmidt to a distant third.

Gutierrez cruised to the heat win after taking over from Loeb for X44, 19.68s clear of Chip Ganassi Racing pair Sara Price and Kyle LeDuc

Hansen held off Tanner Foust (McLaren) to lead heat two for Andretti United, with the latter losing ground after getting airborne. But Foust managed to close back in on the leader in McLaren's first XE appearance, with the top two nose-to-tail as they entered the switch-zone.

PLUS: Why McLaren has taken its unprecedented off-road left turn

But a problem for Foust's co-driver Emma Gilmore during the changeover cost McLaren dearly, consigning the team to a distant fifth, as Munnings rejoined with a 13s lead for Andretti over RXR.

After taking over from Ahlin-Kottulinsky, Kristoffersson eradicated the deficit to Munnings with a brilliant charge, and moved ahead within yards of the finish. But a 17s penalty for speeding in the switch zone demoted RXR to fourth.

That meant Andretti took victory by 13.703s from Xite pairing Oliver Bennett and Tamara Molinaro.

JBXE's new signing 2021 champion Molly Taylor and Kevin Hansen were less than two seconds behind, having recovered from a damaged suspension in the earlier heats.

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