Thought leadership series
Extreme E: Alejandro Agag says the world is now ready to listen
Alejandro Agag is celebrated as a pioneer of sustainable motorsport having created not one, but two electric racing series from scratch. Earlier this month he staged the inaugural Extreme E event, while Formula E is thriving in its seventh season. For the latest #ThinkingForward interview with motorsport’s leaders, we ask Agag how he sees Extreme E evolving and whether he believes that motorsport has successfully taken the opportunity of the coronavirus crisis to reshape itself for the future?
Alejandro Agag took some big risks with Extreme E and there was a degree of scepticism about the idea of racing electric buggies in remote locations that have been ravaged by climate change. Despite a few teething problems with dust, accidents, and race formats, the first event in Saudi Arabia went well and an impressive list of drivers and team owners has evolved, including many top names and champions from across the motorsport spectrum. The series now looks ahead to its second round in May in Dakar, Senegal with confidence.
“I feel relieved, because there were many challenges and many risks, and many things could have gone wrong. And we managed to, to overcome most of them,” Agag said. “There was a lot of expectation but the reaction has been fantastic. I think we exceeded our expectations.
“We want to improve it, there are lessons to be learned from the first race; the dust, the racing format, there are many elements we will be tweaking, but I think the core is fantastic.
Photo by: Alastair Staley / Motorsport Images
“The key was also that we have all these great stars participating, great drivers, female and male. For me, the great satisfaction was seeing the smile on their faces when they left Saudi Arabia. Such great names, world champions of many different disciplines. They were the real test and they were so happy where they left because they now feel that Extreme E - where they are involved, where they took the risk, same as Lewis Hamilton, same as Nico Rosberg - is going to be something very big.”
One of the ground-breaking initiatives in Extreme E is to have a strict 50-50 male-female balance on each team’s driver line-up, taking advantage of motorsport’s rare ability to pit men and women in competition against each other on equal terms. And that seems to have contributed to a different kind of atmosphere in the paddock and the competition.
“It was a great vibe and I have to say, the male stars we knew but the female stars are less well known so this gives a great platform for them to shine next to those big male stars and become even bigger stars themselves,“ he said. “It was great to see all of them perform fantastically well. Molly Taylor winning the race; so the winner crossing the line was a woman - that was really exciting.
“All the female drivers contribute a great vibe to the whole racing weekend. It's an atmosphere I had never experienced in motor racing, of course, because this format never existed before. So I think we really nailed it with the format and the male/female side, now we’ve got to make it better because we have to mix them more. It was very exciting to have races with men and women against each other. It doesn't matter the speed because you race as a team. What matters is the dynamic of the whole race.”
Photo by: Charly Lopez / Motorsport Images
Agag has always been a pioneer and made a point of tackling scepticism, with Formula E and now with Extreme E. The world has changed a lot in the decade since FIA President Jean Todt announced the creation of an electric race series and Agag won the tender to be Formula E promoter. The world is more ready now to embrace a concept like Extreme E, given the way that the climate change debate has evolved and also the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Definitely Extreme E is coming to a world that is a lot more open to initiatives like ours. And the pandemic has only accelerated that,” Agag said. “The world has experienced a major shake, a major trauma with this pandemic. But I would say this is small compared to what we will experience with the serious effects of climate change. We're already feeling some, but the effects will come a bit later and they will be much bigger.
“Extreme E has this philosophy of inclusive climate action, we don't want to leave anybody outside. We believe no one has a right to say who can and who cannot do climate action. If an oil company wants to participate, wants to help and has a project, wants to go carbon neutral, or wants to push technology like carbon capture - they are most welcome. Everybody's welcome to climate action and no one should stay out. Extreme E wants to be an inclusive platform and also a platform to give voice to scientists.
“All the scientists we are working with say to us, 'When we write an article, maybe 1,000 people read it. Now we’ve come to Extreme E and we have never given more interviews, we've been quoted in newspapers all over the world, Extreme E has given a voice to the science in climate action'."
“I think the world is listening, the world is ready to listen now. But it's also ready to watch sports. They say 24 of the 25 most watch TV programs ever were about sports. So if we use sports to give a platform to climate science and action, more people will want to listen to the message. We get a message through to people that are not waiting for the message. That's the beauty of it. You're not preaching to the converted, you are going to new publics to tell this message about climate action. And this is why we want to include everybody.”
The first race in Saudi Arabia wasn’t perfect, with dust a particular problem making the cars following the leader hard for viewers - and other competitors - to see. Agag admits that they should have anticipated that but was blindsided by testing when the conditions were different from the race weekend.
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
“Dust is never under control, because it's off-road, so you always have that," he said. “We will not have as much dust in Dakar as in Saudi. Actually, when we were testing the track in Saudi in January there was a lot less dust. We should have thought of it; in January, the sand was more humid. Now it was drier, and the dust was a lot worse. But you know, drivers have to adapt.
"I really enjoyed the beginning of those races with the dash and the drivers fighting. After that, of course, they had to slow down. We are thinking to introduce an attack sector at the end of the lap, a Chrono sector. So if you have to slow down, you will but then you can attack at the end of the lap. So you can still make some points against the clock. We will work around it, we will tweak the format. It was the first time, we missed some of the actions sometimes with the camera angles, we're going to improve that.
“I think (over the longer term) Extreme E is going to evolve in different directions. I think the impact we can have in the locations is important and different locations around the world, or to come back maybe not every year, but every two years because we want to see the impact that Extreme E has on that specific location. It will evolve in the number of teams and drivers, we will get more.
"The interest is really great after the first event from car manufacturers, from other teams, from drivers. So I think it will evolve in that direction. Eventually, we'll evolve it on the technology side, although we're going to limit for budget reasons the technology development like we do in Formula E."
Finally, when we last spoke Agag for this series a year ago at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he said that it would be criminal for motorsport not to take advantage of the crisis to reshape itself, to slash budgets, and make itself more relevant. Formula 1 made some dramatic changes with a strict cost cap and many other measures and looks to be well set for the future. Does he feel that the wider motorsport world took that opportunity?
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
“I think so. You can see more evolution in motorsport over the last months than in years,” he said. “And I think definitely Formula 1 has done a good job. And you can see actually, that Formula 1, I think, is in pretty good shape. I think the new CEO is great, Stefano (Domenicali), I think Chase (Carey) also did a great job.
"So Formula 1 is in is in a good place, but also, in general, motorsport has used the opportunity well to trim down budgets to get more reasonable and to go greener. I think motorsport is greener, the kind of wave we brought to the sport that started with Formula E seven years ago, has invaded motorsport from every angle. I mean, I was talking to Gerhard Berger (the boss of DTM), who's a good friend but you should have heard the things he used to tell me when I started Formula E. And now he's going electric! So imagine how much fun I’m having! Soon, I think the wave is really going through the whole of motorsport, and that's a good thing.”