Alejandro Agag – racing towards change

Ahead of the first in a global series of races in electric SUVs to highlight the impact of climate change, Extreme E founder Alejandro Agag says they want to appeal to people’s ‘dreams’ as well as their conscience.

Alejandro Agag might be one of the biggest names in e-motorsports and on the verge of launching a new off-road racing series that aims to showcase the capabilities of all-electric SUVs while shining a light on the impact of climate change in remote corners of the globe, but he doesn’t claim to be your classic environmental activist.

“I don’t think I am a particularly extraordinary climate person. I’m just a normal person. And in my view every normal person should be very worried about the climate. So, I’m not taking any special credit for it,” says the Spanish former politician-turned-entrepreneur.

We are focusing on sports fans and on adventure fans – we want to make people dream

“It’s the normal reaction as soon as you get a bit of data and you look at the science. And then, you have to worry – not burying your head in the sand, crying and saying ‘we’re all gonna die’, but worry in the sense that you probably have to look at everything that you do in that light.”

He’s more comfortable taking credit for being a mobility ‘electrification activist’, says Agag, who founded Formula E and has helped take it from being an object of derision among some, which was on the brink of bankruptcy in its first season in 2014/15, to a category with significant financial backing that’s seen rapid growth and has cultivated an increasingly mainstream vibe.

By 2018 Agag had turned his attention to expanding e-motorsports into a more adventurous sphere with a bigger ‘message’, and the concept of Extreme E was born. The plan? Build a bespoke e-SUV and stage five races in extreme conditions, within specific ecosystems already impacted by climate change. Some plans have changed along the way, but the calendar is now set for it to start in the Saudi Arabian desert in April and end with the glaciers in Argentinian Tierra del Fuego in December, via the Senegalese coast, the Arctic in Greenland and the Brazilian Amazon.

Electric Odyssey : Extreme E race calendar 2021

DESERT: Wadi Rum, Alula, Saudia Arabia – 3+4 April

OCEAN: Lac Rose, Dakar, Senegal – 29+30 May

ARCTIC: Kangerlussuaq, Greenland – 28+29 August

AMAZON: Santarem, Pará, Brazil – 23+24 October

GLACIER: Tierra del Fuego, Argentina – 11+12 December

Although Covid-19 has created unimaginable logistical headaches, the fact that Extreme E never intended to involve spectators has taken one migraine out of the equation; instead the event will be broadcast live all over the world and there will be a heavy focus on social media. With high-profile support from the motor racing world – with teams including Lewis Hamilton’s X44, Nico Rosberg’s Rosberg Xtreme Racing, Jenson Button’s JBXE and the ACCIONA |Sainz XE Team, featuring rally champion Carlos Sainz and trial rider Laia Sanz – there are hopes for a big following.

As the idea came to fruition one of the first things on Agag’s shopping list was an oceangoing passenger and cargo ship that could transport their vehicles and equipment and act as a floating base. And as luck would have it, the Royal Mail Ship St Helena – which served the South Atlantic British overseas territory of St Helena until a new airport rendered it redundant – came on the market. 

“I was reading a BBC article about the new airport on the island … it said the ship that had been servicing it was going to be decommissioned. So I said, ‘that’s my ship’.”

The RMS St Helena, which has undergone a major refit to minimise its emissions, only adds to the storytelling aspect of the series, says Agag.

“We are focusing on sports fans and on adventure fans – we want to make people dream. There’s a ship that goes to these faraway places and it’s kind of a romantic element to it. And on top of that you have all these really well-known drivers who go to these places and they send a message through their social media of what’s going on there,” says Agag, who as a child dreamed of travelling far, albeit as an astronaut.

Dreaming of intergalactic adventures might be a fairly regular childhood fantasy but in describing himself as a ‘normal person’ Agag has, arguably, stretched many people’s definition of the term.

After growing up and studying in Madrid, he entered politics at just 18, going on to become an aide for Spain’s then prime minister, José María Aznar, and at 28 was elected as an MEP and also as head of the centre-right European People’s Party.

When he married Aznar’s daughter Ana in 2002, the Spanish king and queen were among the elite wedding guests and former UK PM Tony Blair and Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi served as witnesses. BBC correspondents were quoted as saying it was the “most elaborate non-royal wedding Spain had experienced” since dictator Francisco Franco’s daughter’s wedding in 1950.

When you think about sport, it has the capacity to reach a much bigger audience than any other manifestation. We want to use sport to send a message and to showcase what’s going on…

At this point he left politics and entered the world of business and sport, eventually going on to found Formula E and secure the tender to promote the electric street-racing series, evolving into what he calls “kind of a sustainability businessman”.

It was a rollercoaster few years of nurturing the fledgling sport but, like for many normal people, when the Covid pandemic struck his life went from “running everywhere” to being at home more and having time to think. From his family’s home on the Thames, in south London, Agag took walks with his neighbour Rodi Basso along the river, but instead of comparing lockdown banana bread recipes they used the time to dream up the idea of adding to his e-repertoire by launching an electric powerboat championship, the E1 Series, of which Basso – former motorsport business director at McLaren – is now CEO.

Agag’s portfolio at 50 is not one he would have envisaged as an 18-year-old breaking into the political arena at a time when “nobody spoke about the climate”, he says – but in which sphere does he think he has more influence?

“Politics is a place where you can really change things on a larger scale. But the problem is that doing politics today has become very, very difficult. Politicians are essential for the solution, but alone they cannot do anything. They need the people that raise the alert, like Greta Thunberg for example. And also they need the private sector, the big and small corporations, and everyone, to work in the same direction.

“When you think about sport, it has the capacity to reach a much bigger audience than any other manifestation. We want to use sport to send a message and to showcase what’s going on… and to motivate big corporations to take action. They’re all welcome in this effort,” he says.

Electric Odyssey : Extreme E race calendar 2021

Extreme E says it’s also endeavouring to:

+ bring more gender equality to motor racing, with each car being driven by one male and one female driver. Agag – who previously tried, and failed, to make a success of an all-female racing team in Formula 3 – took inspiration from watching mixed doubles tennis. The format means “female and male drivers are equally decisive for victory”, he says.

+ have a net-zero carbon footprint by the end of its first season, by offsetting “what it cannot avoid” – including people taking flights to race locations – via ALLCOT-certificated global programmes.

+ help empower the communities around its race locations to build resilience and adapt to climate change – for example with renewable energy solutions – by supporting projects and NGOs via its ‘legacy programme’. Project selection is led by Extreme E’s scientific committee, which is also advising on education and research programmes, event logistics and impact. “We can’t just go there, do a race and leave,” said Agag.

While ultimately he thinks the answer to combating climate change lies in carbon capture technology, Agag believes passionately in the part electrifying transport can play in cutting pollution.

“Of course, there’s a lot of people that hate it in the motorsport world. They’ve always been burning fuel – so have I – and they see it as a threat to what they love. But so many other people are seeing this as a huge opportunity… and they’re embracing it.”

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Photo credit:  Extreme E

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