Female Element Will Be Decisive For The Championship
Exclusive Interview with Alejandro Agag, CEO of Extreme E
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At Cammel Laird shipyard in Birkenhead, Liverpool, the 30-year-old Royal Mail Ship St. Helena is undergoing extensive refurbishment. In a month, she will be ready to take a mix of professional drivers, engineers, mechanics, scientists, 8 electrical SUVs, racing equipment and infrastructure, and an on-board laboratory to head off to Senegal in early 2021 for her new voyage, her most ambitious journey – Extreme E, the electrical Odyssey.
As St. Helena, the floating base and paddock for Extreme E, is getting ready, and the 8 teams are busy looking for their one female and one male driver as well as getting partners on board, we talked to Mr. Alejandro Agag, the brain behind the first-ever gender-equal motorsport championship. It has always been a great inspiration talking to Mr. Agag, and this time, let’s see how the idea of electrical Odyssey gradually takes shape into an FIA International Series in Extreme E.
Extreme E started with the most basic idea – electrical racing in most remote locations. Then five terrains of ocean, desert, glacier, arctic, and rain forest were announced. Step by step, with the tireless work of the Extreme E organizer’s team, details such as race format, team format, and logistics are decided. “We have a top-down approach. It’s of course challenging, but also fun. We decided we want to do races in the most remote corners of the planet. That’s the top idea. Then we figure out how. We started breaking down the problem and looking for locations, how to broadcast, the race format, the logistics. Then you decide ‘I need a ship’, the race will be like rallycross, it will take place in Greenland and Amazon. We make the big decisions and then build everything else from there.”
Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky testing Odyssey 21 at Chateau De Lastours © Shivraj-Gohil
It is an innovative idea to go racing electrical SUVs in territories where few have tread before. In executing the idea, among all the big decisions and details broken down, one of motorsport’s biggest innovation was born, and it was inspired by another sport where female players fought for decades for gender equality. “Initially we were hoping that there would be women competing against men in our championship. But from past experience of other championships, we’ve seen that this formula doesn’t work. What you want is that the women have the chance to be on the top of the podium, you want fans of your championship to feel that the women are truly competing for victory. We came up with this team concept, which came from tennis. In tennis you have the mixed doubles, the woman and the man are equally important for the victory of the team. This is what we wanted.”
The biggest innovation brings about the highest demand for top-level female drivers, as well as the biggest unknown. “Some of the drivers told me the female drivers have never felt more wanted. Here, they really are the key to the performance of the team. The men have been racing together for a long time, they are all in a close gap of time. The women rarely race together, and we may be surprised in their performance.”
Catie Munnings testing Odyssey 21 at Chateau De Lastours
With top-level, experienced female drivers under high demand at Extreme E, hopefully, the hype will also trickle down to lower-level competitions, even all the way down to grass-root level – karting. “The problem starts with the grass-root level with little kids karting. There is perhaps one girl per ninety-nine boys. That proportion has to be changed in the beginning. Now you build on top championship like Extreme E, demanding and giving opportunities to women to make real money driving. What you do at the top level will help with the action at the grass-root level. It will facilitate funding of the careers at the younger level.”
Sophia Floersch testing Odyssey 21 at Chateau De Lastours
In Mr. Agag’s previous adventure, Formula E, he has taken us to fascinating cities such as Beijing, Rome, Zurich, New York City, Marrakesh, and Buenos Aires, to see electrical single-seaters charging through city streets. Now with Extreme E, he will put the Himalayas’ glacier, Greenland’s ice cap, and the Amazon rain forest onto the motorsport map. Putting together a racing calendar of city street circuits was challenging, and putting together a racing calendar of remote reserves presents new challenges. “In a city, you talk to the mayor and you arrange everything with them. For Extreme E, you don’t really know who you talk to in some instances. Sometimes it’s the governor of the area, sometimes it’s the private owner of the land. Sometimes it’s the municipality government, sometimes it’s the federal government or the national government. What you have to make sure is you don’t do any damage to the area. It’s also a lot of fun, you have to go to the Arctic ice cap, the rain forest and jungle, and the desert. These are really fantastic places to explore, to learn, and to look for new locations for racing.”
Amazon rain forest
One crucial element of motorsport is the paddock and the hospitality within, for team and media staff to work, and for guests to enjoy the race weekend. When racing is at remote locations few have tread before, paddock can be on the big ship St. Helena, but hospitality will sure be missing. Not for Extreme E. Guests attending the live race will be limited to 100-200, but the experience will be brought to fans around the world through virtual hospitality. “We will have specialized content and experiences tailored to each race. We might have an electrical car taking you for a drive in your city, from one of the brands participating in the championship. We might bring food, drinks, music from the location of the race to your home. We prepare and send it in advance so you can experience it. We try to make the experience as real as possible, but being in your own home.” In addition to virtual hospitality, fans can also participate in the race through Grid Play, which is recently announced by Extreme E.
So many innovative ideas, but no ideas can be realized and no championship can survive without support from partners and sponsors. Riding on the success of Formula E, Mr. Agag and Extreme E gained amazing momentum despite the biggest obstacle motorsport (and mankind) is currently facing – COVID-19. “We have the credibility and the track record, so people know we can deliver. We also have all our existing suppliers and partners. It’s a lot easier for us too to execute (than Formula E). Of course, COVID-19 has been a hiccup. But we’ve been able to keep the momentum going through COVID-19. Lewis Hamilton will be an ambassador and team owner of the championship. We have teams from around the world. If you want a solid racing series that lasts long, it needs to be financially profitable. Extreme E has a very strong business model.”
FIA President Jean Todt visiting Extreme E office in London
Motorsport has always been the R&D and marketing platform for car manufacturers. Currently, nine manufacturers are competing in Formula E. For Extreme E, CUPRA is already on board, with more potentially joining soon. “Extreme E is single make but manufacturers can come and change the bodywork. We already have a few manufacturers, for example, CUPRA (partner of Abt), and there is another manufacturer currently considering coming in for season 1. I think for season 2 we will want to still keep the battery and motor spec. But in season 3 we will open some part of the technology. More manufacturers will probably come in season 3 onwards.”
In this era where what happens on social media can be more important than what happens on track, and short videos on TikTok have more views than live broadcast, Drive to Survive ramped up the popularity of Formula 1 in the US. Mr. Agag knows this best through his experience building Formula E. Now Extreme E can be even more suitable for content creation. “There will be a lot of content for documentaries. The Extreme E documentary will be full of content linked to sustainability, the environment, the action in the race, and the life on the ship. Life on the ship will almost be a reality show with all these big personalities living together.”
Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky in Goodwood hillclimb with Odyssey 21 © Shivraj-Gohil
After discussing the exciting upcoming journey of Extreme E, we also followed up with Mr. Agag about Formula E, which he handed off to Jamie Reigle, and E1 Series, the water championship he announced a month ago.
In season 7, Formula E will become an FIA World Championship. After successfully launching the groundbreaking electrical single-seater and nurturing it through its first four seasons, Mr. Agag announced he will become Chairman of the company and step off as CEO. His replacement Jamie Reigle taking over the championship from season 6 comes from a background of football and American football, with rich experience in sports management. “Formula E’s existing management team, for example, Alberto Longo (Deputy CEO and Chief Championship Officer of Formula E), has a lot of motorsport experience. So we have the motorsport knowledge in-house, what we needed was more the general sports management experience and know-how, to complement the team and make it better balanced. That’s what Jamie brought. I’ve been very much hands-off. I’m still there if they need help. But you need to give space to the new management to take action and to execute their own strategy. I think they are doing a great job.”
Handing off Formula E, launching Extreme E, Mr. Agag’s electrical adventure does not stop on solid dry land. St. Helena, Extreme E’s logistic ship is not electrical yet, but it might be soon one day. E1 Series will make mobility on water electrical, and bring about a new exciting form of racing in cities. “E1 is a combination of two ideas. We were approached by a company called SeaBird Technologies with this really cool design. I saw the design and it stayed in my mind. During lockdown, I was talking to Rodi Basso who was looking for a new project after leaving McLaren. We started talking about the possibility of an electric water championship. He knew people from UIM (Union Internationale Motonautique, the international governing body of powerboating), and I brought the SeaBird design to him. That was how the idea of creating an electric powerboat championship started. The momentum it’s getting is fantastic. There is great potential for the championship. It is easier to do this in cities where you cannot build a street circuit for the car race. Imagine how much easier it would be to do a race in Shanghai, for example. We do it in the river in front of Pudong and the Bund. Currently, we have confirmed Monte Carlo will be on the calendar. Some of the races will take place together with St. Helena, at the same location as Extreme E, the week after or the week before. Then some others will be in cities with water. We could race in Tokyo in the bay, where it’s impossible to race in the city on the streets.”
Extreme E’s official launch is later this month, and St. Helena will embark on her first new journey to Senegal in January. We sure look forward to seeing the electrical Odyssey unfold and hearing more about the exciting journey of sustainability, environmental friendly mobility, as well as innovation in motorsport.