Lewis Hamilton vs Nico Rosberg at the top of the time sheets? It’s like we’ve time-warped back to 2016 when the Mercedes team-mates (or more accurately team-enemies) slugged it out for the Formula 1 world title. But no. This time the pair are team owners in Extreme E and it’s their drivers who are vying for the top, ahead of the series’ first races on Sunday.

It’s a shame Hamilton isn’t actually in Al’Ula, Saudia Arabia to witness his X44 team’s debut in the hands of rally legend Sébastien Loeb and off-road champion (and dentist) Cristina Gutiérrez. But Rosberg is present and lapping up the experience in Extreme E’s novel ‘command station’, watching with pride as Swedish rallycross hero Johan Kristoffersson and Australian rally champion Molly Taylor keep it planted through the sand.

“Yeah, how funny is that,” Rosberg laughs when RACER catches up with him. “It was Hamilton vs Rosberg out there all day. We haven’t had the opportunity to talk yet and it’s early days, but if our team has a rivalry with Jenson Button or Lewis all the better it will be. That’s what we’re here for. I mean, we want to beat everybody, but the more intense it is the more impact we’ll have.”

The 2016 world champion is evangelical about his commitment to Extreme E.

“When Alejandro Agag first launched, it didn’t really catch my attention much because rallying is not really my thing, although the electric side was great,” Rosberg says. “But it was really once I understood the foundation was this social cause – climate activism, equality, all these things that are packaged into it – that convinced me that I would love to do this. In combines my passion for racing with my passion for sustainability because as an entrepreneur I’m 100% focused on that in anything I do. It fits perfectly for me.”

He goes further: this, it appears, is a vocation.

“It’s more about a life of service, for the greater good, for many people to benefit from,” he says. “I studied psychology for 10 years, to become a better F1 driver, but actually it was for my second life. I’m dedicated to helping others now.”

There’s almost a religious zeal in the eyes above his face mask.

“My F1 life is the past, this hardcore, selfish approach,” he says. “And it’s very refreshing and fulfilling to go down this new direction. It was awesome, my first life – amazing. But this new direction is also very nice. For the long-term future it’s the right direction for me.”

At this point, we’re interrupted by one of motorsport’s most charismatic heroes blowing the sand from his shoes with a high-pressure air jet. Carlos Sainz spots us and raises a hand in apology – then goes back to his task!

“Isn’t that so cool?” chuckles Rosberg. And it is. The Extreme E paddock is packed with legends – and they’re all milling about with time to stop and chat. It’s a throwback, even if the cars are anything but.

Were you not tempted to race like Button, we ask Rosberg? But this is one retired racing driver who will surely never make a comeback.

“I was a little bit, I thought about it,” he says without any conviction. “But after watching today, I’m pretty convinced I’m in the right place. I’m not that kind of risk seeker anymore. It’s not for me, I’m all good.”

So what kind of team principal is he, now that he’s moved to the other side of the fence?

“Primarily, I’m putting things together, choosing the drivers, doing the deals myself,” he says. “On site, I can be a bit of a challenger because I have a lot of experience. I’m trying to get as involved as much as possible without being a pain.”

Earlier in a press conference, we’d asked him a similar question and he’d recounted an experience at Williams when technical director Patrick Head had opened his visor during a qualifying session and bellowed into his face: ‘You are going to put us out of business if you continue driving like that!’ It’s safe to say he won’t be speaking to Kristoffersson or Taylor in the same manner.

“I have so many experiences from managers’ work with me as a driver,” he says. “I remember exactly what I liked and didn’t like.”

His expansion on that gives some insight into what made Rosberg such an intriguing racing driver – because compared to the utter self-belief Hamilton always carried, Nico’s confidence was delicate. It makes his achievement in 2016 all the more remarkable.

“I don’t like it when a team manager puts the blame on you internally, making it clear to the whole team that it’s your fault,” he says. “Because I’m very sensitive and most race drivers would be to that. You have to be so careful because driver confidence is so essential. You want to do everything you can at all times to try and keep that high. It’s the most important thing. Look at Sebastian Vettel, one of the greatest drivers in our sport. The only way to possibly explain something like what he is going through is that he has a mental negative spiral which he needs to find his way out of.”

A week after Vettel’s disastrous Aston Martin debut in the Bahrain Grand Prix, Rosberg has doubts his old rival can save his career.

“Before the season I would have said yes, but then watching Bahrain… it’s strange. I don’t understand it. Anyway, the most important thing for drivers is to keep that mental confidence up. I’m trying to pick out the best of what I’ve seen and not do a Patrick Head! That was painful.”

Speaking of which, what does his old man think of Extreme E? Keke Rosberg blended perfectly at Williams, with whom he won the 1982 world championship, because he was as ‘unreconstructed’ as Head – and no surprise, is isn’t much different at the age of 72.

Does he care about sustainability, we ask with a glint in the eye?

“No, that’s not him,” smiles Nico. But surely he wants his grandchildren to grow up in a better world? “No, I don’t think so either! He says, ‘electric cars, what the f*** is that?’ But the funny thing is we’re transforming him now, we’re getting there – and if we get him the sky is the limit.

“He was the one that when I invested in Extreme E said ‘what the hell are you doing?’ And now he’s setting the alarm to watch the TV – and loving it.”