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Alejandro Agag’s Extreme E is the first sport with climate crisis at its heart | Motor sport

Alejandro Agag laughs in his clean and charming means once I learn out a quote which means that, as the founder and chairman of Formula E and the driving drive behind Extreme E, the new environmentally acutely aware motor sport enterprise, he is nearer in spirit to Alan Sugar than Greta Thunberg.

“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 say that change is needed. We are the ones who make change happen in the real world. You cannot make it in the idealised world.”

I’ll quickly ask Agag why his many laudable ambitions are linked to sportswashing in Saudi Arabia, nevertheless it appears applicable to focus initially on Extreme E because it reaches the climax of its inaugural season in Dorset this weekend. Teams created by Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are in a battle to win the championship in a discipline which incorporates an outfit run by a 3rd former Formula One world champion in Jenson Button.

Alejandro Agag, founder and chairman of Formula E and the driving force behind Extreme E.Alejandro Agag, founder and chairman of Formula E and the driving drive behind Extreme E. Photograph: Filip Gierlinski

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“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. As we combine motorsport and climate action, it was attractive for them. They also liked our pragmatic approach. We are not activists. We are pragmatic people worried about the environment.”

Agag has the charisma to attract vital figures right into a type of motor sport which, he says, “is unique because Extreme E is a race which leaves no trace”. Apart from aiming to showcase Extreme E in areas which have been harm by the climate crisis, their electrical vehicles make zero emissions. Without any crowds, as occasions are televised and viewers engagement is on-line, the carbon footprint of every race is negligible.

But organising a brand new sport in the midst of a worldwide pandemic has stretched the 51-year-old Spaniard. A former politician, who at the age of 25 was the private assistant to the Spanish prime minister, Agag admits: “It’s been a bigger challenge than starting Formula E [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. In some places we need a million tests, a million forms, a million regulations.

“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 were begging 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.”

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This last race of the season was meant to be held in Patagonia, with the vehicles shipped relatively than flown throughout the world, but Covid forced a switch to Dorset. Agag means that Extreme E will elevate consciousness of biodiversity loss in Dorset alongside the sporting drama of whether or not Hamilton’s staff, X44, can catch Rosberg’s drivers.

Extreme E is the first sporting entity to put the climate emergency at its heart. This noble mission is deepened by the truth that each staff options female and male drivers. So Jamie Chadwick, the 23-year-old British driver who not too long ago received her second W Series, races towards males of the calibre of Sébastien Loeb, the nine-times world rally champion who is a part of Hamilton’s staff.

Jamie Chadwick is part of the Veloce Racing team, pictured during the Extreme E free practice in Dorset.Jamie Chadwick is a part of the Veloce Racing staff, pictured throughout the Extreme E free apply in Dorset. Photograph: Bradley Collyer/PA

All this makes it much more disappointing that, in April, Agag staged the first Extreme E race in Saudi Arabia. The subsequent races have been held in Senegal and Greenland however the credibility of his total enterprise was tarnished by a choice to gloss over Saudi’s human rights report in favour of big monetary advantages. What message did he supply feminine drivers similar to Chadwick, and ladies typically, by accepting Saudi’s invitation?

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“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. If you ask Saudi women how they feel about the changes happening in their country they are absolutely enthusiastic. 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.”

I remind Agag of how Amnesty International highlighted the case of Loujain al-Hathloul who fought for gender equality and ladies’s proper to drive in Saudi. In May 2018 she was detained with out cost and Hathloul has since spoken of the torture and sexual abuse she suffered. Last December she was sentenced to 5 years in jail. Hathloul has now been launched, however she stays underneath a five-year journey ban, whereas different feminine activists are nonetheless detained. Amnesty reviews that 10 of them have made allegations 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 we mix sport and politics, we will have very few places where we 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 emphasises the significance of training and talking out towards the climate crisis. Yet, in Saudi, Agag and his colleagues have been silent about the abuse of human rights.

Alejandro Agag (sixth left) and the Extreme E drivers at the season-opening race in Saudi ArabiaAlejandro Agag (sixth left) and the Extreme E drivers at the season-opening race in Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Zak Mauger/Motorsport Images/Shutterstock

“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.”

How a lot did Saudi Arabia pay Extreme E to host their occasion? “You will understand I don’t go into those details. We are not a charity.”

What did Agag really feel when, earlier than the Jeddah Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton harassed he was uncomfortable being in Saudi? “Lewis has a very clear position on homosexuality rights. It’s perfectly right to express his views.”

There are additionally public beheadings in Saudi – the place feminism and homosexuality are considered “extreme” and unacceptable. Does Agag don’t have any misgivings in accepting cash from Saudi? “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 you 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 largest producer of fossil fuels however Agag reiterates his “pragmatic approach to environmentalism. We need an organised transition out of the fossil world and this needs lots of money. Who has the money? 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 E at the finish of subsequent 12 months in a technique which follows the withdrawal of Audi and BMW. Mercedes stay dedicated to Formula One however they may minimize ties with Formula E and focus their sources on creating their electrical automobile for mass manufacturing.

Cars pull away at the start of the Arctic X-Prix race at Kangerlussuaq, Greenland in AugustCars draw back at the begin of the Arctic X-Prix race at Kangerlussuaq, Greenland in August. Photograph: Sam Bloxham/Motorsport Images/Shutterstock

“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 bold plans to forge a bond with F1 which he is aware of 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 be broached the chance with F1? “We discuss it all the time.”

Perhaps F1 feels it doesn’t want Formula E? “There are different opinions within Formula One. Let’s leave it at that.”

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That wily politician’s reply chimes with Agag’s private life. Having married the daughter of his previous boss, the former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, Agag had Silvio Berlusconi and Tony Blair as witnesses at his marriage ceremony. He additionally as soon as part-owned QPR in a consortium which included his previous pal Bernie Ecclestone. Agag laughs once I say his pals, and the Saudis, all want a few of his constructive spin. “I’m also friends with lots of people who have a very good image.”

Extreme E and Formula E have been the only sporting bodies at Cop26. But when it comes to Extreme E’s present place, Agag agrees that “we still have lots of work to do. Extreme E is still in the baby phase. 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 huge potential and the purpose is even bigger. 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 virtually finish on that constructive word however, simply after we are saying goodbye, Agag shouts one final invitation: “Come to Saudi with me, huh?”

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