Electric motorsport has been enjoying a meteoric rise for several years, especially as money and manufacturers piled into the FIA-sanctioned Formula E championship to show off their green credentials. The fact that many of the big OEMs entering Formula E were doing so after canning conventional race programmes just added insult to injury to those who still believe that motorsport should mean engines.
So when Audi and BMW announced in quick succession that they were to quit Formula E, the reaction was quick and frequently gleeful – some predicting the pure electric series’ fall would be just as quick. Yet the man in charge definitely isn’t worried, probably because he still holds a near unbeatable hand when it comes to high-level combustion-free racing.
“You have to have championships that welcome OEMs, but which are at the same time not dependent on OEMs,” series founder Alejandro Agag told CarAdvice, “it’s always better to create a platform where you can survive long term with independent teams. Many OEMs want to join, but normally they are temporary guests in any championship – with a few exceptions.”
Pressed on the reason for the departures, Agag blamed both budgetary pressure and COVID. “If you ask them they will tell you something different,” he says, “but both of them had really high budgets, higher than the rest, and when you are doing a cost-cutting exercise that gives you more motivation… We respect their decisions and we wish them the best, but the effect on Formula E is going to be a lot less impactful than it would seem because we have so many other OEMS and a very robust eco-system.”
Above: Nico Rosberg's RXR Extreme E car. Top, image credit: Getty Images
Agag also has an all-new series approaching, Extreme E. The REF-year old Spaniard’s second race series will use off-road electric buggies and will travel the world – the cars travelling on an eco-friendly ship – with a series of races that are explicitly intended to highlight the effects of climate change on different environments.
Teams will run identical chassis and 400kW powertrains for the first couple of seasons, but despite being effectively a one-make series with short sprint races it has already proved to have some serious star power. Lewis Hamilton is going to run one of the teams, with Sebastien Loeb committed to be one of the drivers for the Brit’s X44 outfit. That’s one world champion driving for another, and Hamilton’s former teammate Nico Rosberg will also be running a team.
There are two other WRC champions on the driving roster – Sebastien Ogier and Carlos Sainz, a long-term friend of Agag who went to the same school in Madrid. But there are also drivers from single seaters, rallycross and sportscars.
But Extreme E won’t just be about the blokes. Each car will be shared by one male and one female driver, with the need to switch creating one of the biggest variables in each race. (Australian rally champion Molly Taylor will be driving for the Rosberg XTreme team alongside Swedish rallycross veteran Johan Kristoffersson.)
Above: Formula E Gen2 'Evo' racer.
Agag admits this is likely to produce the situation of a clear difference between the times of some of the women and their elite male counterparts, but insists this won’t matter to an audience intended to come from outside conventional motorsports fandom.
“I’ve never been convinced the right format is to segregate,” he says, “the idea came from tennis – to do a team like in mixed doubles, where both are equally decisive for victory… it doesn’t matter if the female drivers are slower, because each team has one of each. Do they have a communication problem at the 100 metres at the Olympics where the women are three seconds slower than the men?”
Like Formula E there will be interactive features, with the team winning most social media love able to select its starting position for the final of each race, and an additional speed boost awarded to the team that goes furthest on the first jump of each race. These are the sort of ideas that purists tend to regard as gimmicks, but which Agag thinks will play well with what he hopes will become a global audience big enough to make Extreme E one of the most viewed race series on the planet.
It’s certainly well-funded; like Formula E every driver in the new championship is getting paid “and paid very well” according to Agag. Which is more than Formula One or even top-flight endurance racing can say.
Yet although aimed at a different market than existing motorsport, Agag remains confident that the world of mainstream racing is also going to move towards him. He holds exclusive rights to run an FIA-sanctioned single-seat electric series. Given the speed the global car industry is moving away from combustion, that is potentially a hugely valuable trump card.
“Bernie should have taken control of Formula E, created it inside the fence and controlled it so they could decide where to take it,” Agag says, “Formula E is very different in terms of the level of prestige and audience to Formula One, but I still think the future is a merger between them. I don’t know when this will happen, and if the shareholders will want to do it."
"But I think Formula One needs to make transition to electric and if it doesn’t do something with Formula E they can only do that in 19 years, because that’s when our license ends – supposing they get a license – and that’s too late. We got the rights for 25 years, we’ve done six and we have another 19.”
Will all motorsport turn electric? Agag is well aware of the limitations of EV powertrains over longer distances – “people are trying to make Dakar electric and that is impossible, the technology isn’t there. Batteries are for short range rather than long range, you can’t put a square peg in a round hole.”
Instead he predicts that hydrogen will ultimately take over in longer-form racing, and says it might also be used in later seasons of Extreme E alongside pure electric propulsion. But he has no doubts that combustion will soon be relegated to historic motorsport, however much carmakers like Porsche try to talk up a future for carbon-neutral synthetic fuels.
“There is lots of talk about e-fuels, but they are an artificial invention for people who really can’t see beyond combustion,” he says, “there is no way that e-fuels make any kind of sense except if you are determined not to change. I like combustion too, but it is going to be over.”
Agag is also planning an electric powerboat series, and hopes electric air racing will ultimately be possible. As motorsport becomes electric, the Spaniard’s influence over it seems certain to grow further.