Alejandro Agag’s Extreme E is the first sport with the climate crisis at its heart | Sports car
ALejandro Agag laughs in his sweet and charming way when I read a quote that suggests that as the founder and president of Formula E and the driving force behind Extreme E, the new environmentally conscious motorsport company, he is more close to Alan. Sugar that Greta Thunberg.
“I appreciate the important message that activists like Greta Thunberg convey and it makes our lives easier because they raise awareness,” Agag says. “But we are a different kind of environmentalist. They are the ones who say change is needed. We are the ones who make the change happen in the real world. You cannot be successful in the idealized world.
I will soon ask Agag why his many laudable ambitions relate to sportswashing in Saudi Arabia, but it seems appropriate to focus on Extreme E as he reaches the climax of his inaugural season in Dorset this weekend. Teams created by Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are fighting to win the championship in an area that includes a team led by a third former Formula 1 world champion at Jenson Button.
“It wasn’t hard to attract them,” Agag says of Hamilton, Rosberg and Button. “When we showed them the project, all three of them liked it very much. As we combine motorsport and climate action, it was appealing to them. They also appreciated our pragmatic approach. We are not activists. We are not activists. are pragmatic people who care about the environment.
Agag has the charisma of attracting leading figures in a form of motorsport which, he says, “is unique because the Extreme E is a race that leaves no mark.” In addition to aiming to showcase Extreme E in places that have been affected by the climate crisis, their electric cars are emission-free. Without a crowd, as the events are televised and the public engagement is online, the carbon footprint of each race is negligible.
But the establishment of a new sport in the midst of a global pandemic has put a strain on the 51-year-old Spaniard. Former politician, who at the age of 25 was the personal assistant to the Spanish Prime Minister, Agag admits: “It has been a bigger challenge than starting Formula E. [in 2014]. I fight every day to survive. It’s incredibly difficult because the sponsors are more careful and the running of the race is so complicated. In some places we need a million tests, a million forms, a million regulations.
“In Greenland, we only got travel permits a day before and we already had millions and millions of euros in spending there. We begged to be allowed in. I didn’t want to go through it again. I said, “Let’s wait for Covid and find some places we are sure we can run.” Most of my day is spent putting out fires.
This final race of the season was set to take place in Patagonia, with the cars shipped rather than stolen across the world, but Covid forced a passage to Dorset. Agag suggests that Extreme E will raise awareness of biodiversity loss in Dorset alongside the sporting drama of whether Hamilton’s team, X44, can catch Rosberg’s pilots.
Extreme E is the first sports entity to place the climate emergency at the heart. This noble mission is reinforced by the fact that each team includes male and female pilots. Jamie Chadwick, the 23-year-old British driver who has just won her second W Series, is racing against men of the caliber of Sébastien Loeb, the nine-time world rally champion who is part of the Hamilton team.
All of this makes it even more disappointing that Agag hosted the first Extreme E race in Saudi Arabia. Subsequent races were held in Senegal and Greenland, but the credibility of his entire business was tarnished by a decision to flout Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in favor of huge financial benefits. What message has he offered to female drivers like Chadwick, and to women in general, in accepting the invitation from Saudi Arabia?
“I am a big supporter of Saudi Arabia, of the current Saudi change, and I always say that no one is perfect,” Agag said. “But in Saudi Arabia, they are making big changes for women. If you ask Saudi women what they think of the changes happening in their country, they are absolutely enthusiastic. The situation is not as we would like in Europe but it is definitely a huge change. Look, for example, at the fact that women can drive now.
I remind Agag how Amnesty International emphasized the case of Loujain al-Hathloul who fought for gender equality and the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia. In May 2018, she was detained without charge and Hathloul has since spoken of the torture and sexual abuse she suffered. Last December, she was sentenced to five years in prison. Hathloul has now been released, but remains on a five-year travel ban, while other activists remain in detention. Amnesty reports that 10 of them made allegations of torture.
“I agree with Amnesty and they make the same point about Guantanamo,” Agag said. “So I don’t travel to the United States anymore?” If we mix sport and politics, we will have very few places we can run. Of course, it is very difficult to separate them, but positive changes are happening in Saudi Arabia. Is it perfect? No. I accept all of your arguments. I’m only making my extra argument – we have to change [Saudi]. And that is changing. “
Extreme E emphasizes the importance of education and speaking out about the climate crisis. Yet in Saudi Arabia, Agag and his colleagues have remained silent on human rights violations.
“But the first time Saudi men and women were able to mingle without being with their families and the first time Saudi men and women were allowed to dance in public was at the first Formula E event. with concerts by Black Eyed Peas, Enrique Iglesias and David Guetta “, he retorts.” Young Saudi Arabians came to see me with tears in their eyes to thank me for helping the country to change. “
How much did Saudi Arabia pay Extreme E to host their event? “You will understand that I do not go into these details. We are not a charity.
How did Agag feel when, before the Jeddah Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton stressed that he was uncomfortable being in Saudi Arabia? “Lewis has a very clear position on gay rights. It is perfectly fair to express your opinions.
There are also public beheadings in Saudi Arabia – where feminism and homosexuality are seen as “extreme” and unacceptable. Does Agag not hesitate to accept Saudi money? “It wasn’t even financial. If I didn’t believe that the current regime is developing for the better, we probably wouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia. For me, those young Saudis who say, “We never thought in our life that we could dance in the streets in Saudi Arabia” is worth it. If we isolate them, we are not going to help them.
“Go to Saudi Arabia and we resume the discussion. I invite you to the race [next month] with Formula E. Go talk to young Saudis in the streets… when I gave my speech in Saudi Arabia, I had 5,000 women cheering for me. I don’t apologize. I am doing exactly what I want to do, which is help change in Saudi Arabia. “
Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels, but Agag reiterates its “pragmatic approach to environmentalism.” We need an organized transition out of the fossil world and that requires a lot of money. Who has the money? The big enterprises. BP, Shell, Aramco. The Saudis. We need a clear decision to move towards this transition – and we need to include everyone. This means that oil companies and oil-polluting states are embracing change. “
Agag admits to being “perplexed” Mercedes’ decision to leave Formula E at the end of next year in a strategy that follows the withdrawal of Audi and BMW. Mercedes remains committed to Formula 1, but they will cut ties with Formula E and focus their resources on developing their electric car for mass production.
“On the other hand,” he says, “we have some big brands coming up that we’ll be announcing soon in Formula E. We still have Porsches, Jaguars and Nissan and other big manufacturers on board. I don’t need to put out the fire in Formula E because it’s very strong.
Agag has ambitious plans to forge a bond with F1 which he knows to be “in a fantastic position” after the gripping battle of the season between Hamilton and Max Verstappen. “I’m the only one to say it so far but for me the future is kind of a convergence with Formula 1 and Formula E. We would still have separate championships but maybe we will race together. – maybe Monaco, Abu Dhabi, Miami? Maybe Saturday Formula E, Sunday Formula 1? Why not? “
Did we discuss the possibility with F1? “We discuss it all the time. “
Maybe F1 thinks they don’t need Formula E? “There are different opinions within Formula 1. Let’s leave it there.
This cunning politician’s answer fits Agag’s personal life. Having married the daughter of his former boss, former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, Agag had Silvio Berlusconi and Tony Blair as witnesses to his wedding. He also partially owned QPR in a consortium that included his old friend Bernie Ecclestone. Agag laughs when I say that his friends, and the Saudis, all need his positive side. “I am also friends with a lot of people who have a very good image.
Extreme E and Formula E were the only sporting bodies at Cop26. But on where Extreme E is today, Agag agrees that “we still have a lot of work to do. Extreme E is still in the baby stage. We had good results and when people see it they like it a lot but they still don’t know when it’s activated. Extreme E has enormous potential and the goal is even greater. Christiana Figueres is the mother of the Paris climate agreement and she came with us to Greenland. If she believes in Extreme E, then everyone should believe in us.
We almost end on that positive note but, just after saying goodbye, Agag shouts a final invitation: “Come to Arabia with me, eh?”