ALejandro Agag is charming and a pleasure to be around when I read a quote that suggests that he was the founder and chairman. Formula EHe is the driving force behind Extreme E (the new environmentally conscious motorsport venture), and he is closer to Alan Sugar than Greta Thnberg.
“I appreciate the important message that activists like Greta Thunberg convey and it makes our life easier because they raise awareness,” Agag says. “But we are a different kind of environmentalist. They are the ones who advocate for change. We are the ones who make real change happen in the real-world. You cannot make it in the idealised world.”
Agag’s many admirable ambitions are tied to sportswashing in Saudi Arabia. I will ask him soon, but it seems right to concentrate first on Extreme EAs it reaches its final season in Dorset this Saturday. Teams Lewis Hamilton created it Nico RosbergThey will be competing for the title in a field that includes Jenson Button (another former Formula One world champion) and another outfit.
“It was not difficult to attract them,” Agag says of Hamilton, Rosberg and Button. “When we showed them the project all three liked it a lot. They liked the combination of motorsport and climate action. They liked our pragmatic approach. We are not activists. We are pragmatic people worried about the environment.”
Agag is charismatic enough to attract significant numbers into the city A form of motorsport which, he says, “is unique because Extreme E is a race which leaves no trace”. Extreme E will be showcasing their electric cars in areas that have been affected due to the climate crisis. Each race has a negligible carbon footprint because events are televised and audiences engage online.
The 51-year old Spaniard was challenged by the creation of a new sport in the middle of a global pandemic. A former politician, who at the age of 25 was the personal assistant to the Spanish prime minister, Agag admits: “It’s been a bigger challenge than Formula E: Start Formula [in 2014]. I’m fighting every day to survive. It’s incredibly difficult because sponsors are more cautious and executing the race is so complicated. We need to conduct a million tests and fill out a million forms.
“In Greenland we only got the permits to travel one day before and we already had millions and millions of euros of expenditure over there. We begged to be allowed in. I didn’t want to go through that again. I said: ‘Let’s wait Covid out and find places where we are sure we can race.’ Most of my day is spent putting fires out.”
The final race of the season was to be held in Patagonia. The cars were shipped, not flown, across the globe. Covid made it necessary to move 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 drivers.
Extreme E is the premier sporting entity to place Climate emergency at its heart. This noble cause is made more meaningful by the fact that every team includes male and female drivers. So Jamie Chadwick, The driver of the British car, 23 years old who recently won her second W Series, races against men of the calibre of Sébastien Loeb, the nine-times world rally champion who is part of Hamilton’s team.
It is all this that makes it so disappointing that Agag staged in April the first Extreme E race in Saudi Arabia. The next races were held in Senegal and Greenland but the credibility of his entire venture was tarnished by a decision to gloss over Saudi’s human rights record in favour of huge financial benefits. What message did he offer female drivers such as Chadwick, and women in general, by accepting Saudi’s invitation?
“I’m a big supporter of Saudi, of the current Saudi change, and I always say nobody’s perfect,” Agag says. “But in Saudi they’re making big changes in favour of women. Saudi women are enthusiastic about the changes taking place in their country. The situation is not as we would like it in Europe but it’s definitely a huge change. Look, for example, at the fact women can drive now.”
Agag reminds me of the Amnesty International highlighted Loujain al–Hathloul who fought for gender equality and women’s right to drive in Saudi. She was released on bail in May 2018. Hathloul has spoken out about the abuse and torture she suffered. She was sentenced to five year imprisonment in December 2018. Hathloul is now freeShe was released, but she remains subject to a five year travel ban. Meanwhile, other female activists remain detained. Amnesty reports that 10 have made claims of torture.
“I agree with Amnesty and they make the same point about Guantánamo,” Agag says. “So do I not travel to the United States anymore? If politics and sport are mixed, there will be very few places where you can race. Of course it’s very difficult to keep them separate but positive change is happening in Saudi. Is it perfect? No. I accept all your arguments. I only make my additional argument – we need to change [Saudi]. And it is changing.”
Extreme E emphasizes the importance education and speaking out against climate change. Agag, his colleagues and Saudi Arabia were silent about abuses of human rights.
“But the first time that male and female Saudis were able to mix together without being with their families and the first time male and female Saudis 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 counters. “Young people in Saudi were coming to me with tears in their eyes thanking me for helping the country change.”
What was the cost to Saudi Arabia for Extreme E to host their event. “You will understand I don’t go into those details. We are not a charity.”
What did Agag feel before Lewis Hamilton stressed the Jeddah Grand Prix? He was uncomfortable being in Saudi Arabia.? “Lewis has a very clear position on homosexuality rights. It’s perfectly right to express his views.”
There are also public beheadings in Saudi – where feminism and homosexuality are regarded as “extreme” and unacceptable. Is Agag averse to accepting money from Saudi Arabia? “It wasn’t even financial. If I didn’t believe the current regime is changing positively, probably we would not go to Saudi. For me, those young Saudis saying: ‘We never in our life thought we could dance in the streets in Saudi’ makes it worthwhile. If we isolate them, we’re not going to help them.
“Go to Saudi and then we have the discussion again. I invite to the race [next month] with Formula E. Go talk to young Saudis in the streets … when I had my speech in Saudi I had 5,000 females applauding me. I’m not apologising. I am doing exactly what I want to do, which is to help change in Saudi.”
Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest producer of fossil fuels but Agag reiterates his “pragmatic approach to environmentalism. We need to make an organized transition from the fossil world, and that requires a lot of money. Who has the money to do this? The big corporations. BP, Shell, Aramco. The Saudis. We need a clear decision to go towards that transition – and we need to include everybody. That means the oil companies and the oil-polluting states as long as they commit to the change.”
Agag admits to being “puzzled” by Mercedes’s decision to leave Formula EThe strategy follows the exit of BMW and Audi. Mercedes is still committed to Formula One but will break all ties to Formula E and concentrate their resources on the development of their electric car for mass-production.
“On the other hand,” he says, “we have great brands coming in that we will announce soon in Formula E. We still have Porsche and Jaguar and Nissan and other big manufacturers on board. I don’t need to put out any fires in Formula E because it’s very strong.”
Agag has ambitious plans to forge a bond with F1 which he knows is “in a fantastic position” after the riveting season-long battle Between Hamilton and Max Verstappen. “I’m the only one to say this so far but, for me, the future is some kind of convergence with Formula One and Formula E. We would still have separate championships but maybe we do some races together – maybe Monaco, Abu Dhabi, Miami? Maybe Saturday Formula E, Sunday Formula One? Why not?”
Has F1 been discussed the possibility? “We discuss it all the time.”
Perhaps F1 believes it doesn’t need Formula E. “There are different opinions within Formula One. Let’s leave it at that.”
That wily politician’s answer chimes with Agag’s personal life. Having married the daughter of his old boss, the former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, Agag had Silvio Berlusconi and Tony Blair as witnesses at his wedding. He was also a part-owner of QPR, a consortium that also included his old pal Bernie Ecclestone. Agag laughs when he says that his friends and the Saudis all need some of his positive spin. “I’m also friends with lots of people who have a very good image.”
Formula E and Extreme E were Cop26’s only sporting body. But in terms of Extreme E’s current position, Agag agrees that “we still have lots of work to do. Extreme E remains in the baby stage. We had some good results and when people see it they like it a lot, but still they don’t know when it’s on. Extreme E has a lot of potential, and the purpose is even greater. Christiana Figueres She is the mother and founder of the Paris climate agreement, and she traveled 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 we say goodbye, Agag shouts one last invitation: “Come to Saudi with me, huh?”