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Earlier this month in Marrakech, Morocco, international leaders convened for the U.N. climate change conference (COP22) to affirm their commitment to the Paris Agreement. Last year’s historic treaty, now signed by 193 countries, is dedicated to preventing global temperatures from reaching catastrophic levels. The treaty officially went into effect on November 4. On November 12, the first Saturday of the conference, Marrakech hosted what might seem an odd complement to strategic talks about emissions reductions: an auto race.
The inaugural Marrakech ePrix, organized by Formula E, the world’s first all-electric street racing series, was in fact COP22’s official sporting event. With six laps to go, Swiss ex-Formula One driver and defending series champion Sébastien Buemi snuck past a fading Felix Rosenqvist for the win at the Circuit Moulay El Hassan. Formula E, which opened its third season in Hong Kong in October, bills itself as a crucial tool in the fight against climate change.
“The ambition of the series is to be the primary platform for companies and manufacturers to develop alternative energy solutions,” Alejandro Agag, founder and CEO of Formula E, tells GOOD, “which will inevitably filter down to everyday electric vehicles on the road.”
For an oddball upstart in the motorsport landscape—Formula E’s roughly 45-minute races feature high-pitched, whining cars, energy boosts awarded via live fan voting, and car swaps at each race’s halfway point—it’s not so far-fetched an ambition. Auto racing has long served as an incubator for the automobile industry. Disc brakes, clutchless manual transmissions, push-button ignitions, and rearview mirrors are just a sample of the consumer technologies that were originated or perfected in motorsport. The rise of electric racing offers automakers the opportunity to redirect their sport divisions, which amount to R&D departments, toward a sustainable future.
So far manufacturers like Jaguar, Renault, and Mercedes Benz have bought in, and last month Audi shocked the international motorsport community by withdrawing from endurance racing after decades of dominance to focus on Formula E. The decision follows Volkswagen’s (Audi’s parent company) pledged pivot to zero-emission vehicles in response to the company’s emissions cheating scandal.
Formula E increasingly looks like the tip of the iceberg. The all-Tesla Electric GT World Series starts racing next year, Red Bull Global Rallycross launches an all-electric division in 2018, and the National Hot Rod Association officially sanctioned electric drag racing in 2012. An all-electric car even competed in this year’s 5500-mile Dakar Rally, considered the world’s toughest off-road endurance race.
Agag, who was a prominent Spanish politician in the European People’s Party before getting into investment banking and professional sports ownership, plays the role of executive evangelist. In an email exchange with GOOD following the race in Morocco, he discusses the United Nations partnership and Formula E’s future. For what it’s worth, Agag denies sensing any post-Trump anxiety during his time in Marrakech. He would, however, like to invite the president-elect—who has pledged to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, but recently told The New York Times he has an “open mind” about it—to next summer’s race in Brooklyn.
“I think if we bring President Trump to a Formula E race, he will completely change his mind about sustainability. I will extend an invite to the race in New York in July,” Agag wrote. “We’ve seen the power that sport has to create awareness and its potential for changing perceptions.”
What does the COP22 partnership mean to you?
It was the first time Formula E visited the continent of Africa and (it) reflects the growing demand for e-mobility solutions across the globe. Formula E represents a vision for the future of the motor industry, serving as a platform to showcase the latest innovations in electric vehicle technology. It’s incredible to see a car become an ambassador in the fight against global warming.
I’ve seen the challenges and risks that climate change presents. I was fortunate enough to visit Greenland earlier this year and witness the ice caps melting under my feet. It was a life-changing experience and something we need to resolve for future generations. In order to make significant changes, we need to continue to raise awareness and work in collaboration. To be in Marrakech, and be a part of the most significant forum for tackling this problem, was a huge honor.
What inspired the idea for Formula E?
We were in the world of motorsport and we thought something was missing—something to make motorsport relevant to what is happening on the streets, the roads of our cities, and our countries—and that is the electric car revolution.
Formula E represents a vision for the future of the motor industry.
We think we are facing a big change in the industry and we wanted to be part of that. We want to accelerate that change to electric because we think that is what makes motorsport relevant: to play a role in one of the biggest challenges that we face, which is city pollution, and also an even bigger challenge, which is global warming. This is why we chose to promote electric cars.
How much skepticism did you initially face?
There was obviously some skepticism when the idea was first mooted—people saying it wasn’t possible, and criticizing whether electric vehicles and racing go together. There was also a lot of people who backed the idea since the beginning, including our founding partners who helped turn the vision into a reality.
But we’ve proved our critics wrong. We managed to build a global electric street racing series in under two and a half years. I think fans, media, and manufacturers alike have bought into the concept and now understand the value and excitement of watching the biggest names in electric motorsport compete on the streets of some of the most iconic cities in the world.
What challenges have the championship faced from the automobile and motorsport industries?
One of the key factors in the success of Formula E is its relevance to the auto industry and the world of motorsport. So we actually haven’t faced much resistance from manufacturers. Actually, we’ve seen the opposite, which is evident from the support of established companies joining the series.
Formula E is becoming an exciting mix of consolidated manufacturers like Renault, Citroën DS, Audi, Mahindra, or Jaguar, and new futuristic brands like Faraday Future, NextEV, or the likes of major component manufacturers like Schaeffler and ZF. Also, manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, and Mercedes have committed their future to the series or taken an option to enter the championship.
How does Formula E help these manufacturers?
Racing has always been a laboratory for the development of technology in the motor industry, before with combustion cars and now with the electric cars. Ten teams want to win and they will develop technologies to win. That is the big motivation. That is the goal.
As they develop those technologies to win, then they can use those technologies for the road cars, and those technologies will improve electric vehicles and the experience of road-car users all over the world. This will help more and more people buy electric cars and drive electric cars.
Is Formula E a tool for shifting public perception of EV technology or a benefactor of shifting perceptions? How do you view Formula E’s role in this shift?
The ambition of the series is to be the primary platform for companies and manufacturers to develop alternative energy solutions, and showcase both improved performance and efficiency, which will inevitably filter down to everyday electric vehicles on the road.
Racing has always been a laboratory for the development of technology in the motor industry
I’ve used this comparison before, but I think it is the perfect example of where we stand at the moment. Many of us still remember the large mobile phones, which you’d plug into your car and charge at every possible opportunity. It was heavy, chunky, and had a short battery life.
Now, with years of research and development, we all have smartphones and tablets, which are not only a huge step up in terms of performance and battery life, but are also more ergonomically efficient. This is what we want to achieve with the electric vehicle, making the transition from current preconceptions and ensuring electric vehicles become the norm in city centers around the world.
What are you most excited for in the championship’s future?
I’m looking forward to watching the championship expand even further—whether that’s welcoming new teams, partners, or manufacturers to the series—and also traveling to new cities and locations to showcase Formula E in the frontline in the fight against climate change. If we can find solutions in the cities, we can influence changes all over the planet. The future is electric.