Feb 17, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
Ahead of the inaugural FIA Formula E championship season, MotorSportsTalk had the opportunity to speak with Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings. Agag, a veteran European Parliament politician who has expanded into motorsports in both Formula One (with teams and for Spanish TV rights) and GP2 (Team Principal of the Addax GP2 team), will oversee the all-electric formula car championship. The season begins in September, but testing will occur all year in preparation.
MotorSportsTalk: With the all-electric format of the championship, it’s ahead of most traditional forms of motorsport. Do you see FE as a trend-setter to shape the direction of global motorsport, or would your preference be to be unique as the only all-electric form of motorsport?
Alejandro Agag: I think we will be on our own for a bit. This is very unique in terms of technology. I think other series will move towards more sustainable practices this year, with limit of fuel consumption, and that’s a path being adopted by the WEC also for some time now.
To go full electric, we won’t see that for quite a number of years. Also take into account we have an exclusive license from the FIA to be the only all electric global motorsport competition for formula cars.
MST: What’s going to be the initial measure of success from year one? Fan interest? Media interest? TV ratings? All of the above?
AA: It’s going to be a little bit different. As you know we have a unique feature in this championship, fans will be able to vote for their favorite driver to give them an additional amount of energy, which we call the fan boost.
We think the measure of success of the championship will lay more in the digital space, in the number of people interacting with the championship, the number of young people interacting with the championship; that plus the traditional way of measuring like TV ratings, or those standards.
We are focusing on the digital side, and we have ways to measure that interaction with the championship. That will be the success and way to measure the success.
MST: You have F1, GP2 series experience personally. What have you learned in those championships that you feel you can take to transition into FE, either from a commercial standpoint, a marketing standpoint or a competition standpoint?
AA: There’s been a lot of lessons learned in my past racing experience that is extremely important for us as a group. We have other partners and people with past experience.
A few lessons I would highlight. We need to have a championship that makes sense financially. It has to be a win-win for everyone. The number one priority is that the teams make money, and costs need to be kept low. We have created a number of rules to make that possible.
The second one is very important: to offer to sponsors a halfway point between motorsport and sustainability. We have seen in the last years in racing that sponsors are more concerned with sustainability issues, and our sport leans halfway between motorsport and sustainability. A lot of people are also keen on that. Sitting in-between is very important.
From the sport point of view, we know we need to put together the best show possible. You need to know a lot of drivers, many who have been in the driver market for a long time. We know the drivers … we how much they bring to the show and for the teams to get the best drivers we get into cars.
MST: That shifts rather nicely into the concept of the Formula E “Drivers’ Club.” Would you like it to be open to all forms of motorsport or primarily single-seater formula drivers, as the bulk of the field is now?
AA: We think the bulk are meant to be from single-seaters. Some have transitioned to sports cars, so there are some who have been in both. But having the single-seater experience is very, very important for the championship of Formula E.
The cars will be tricky to drive; the circuits will be unknown, so drivers will not have raced there before, and we’ll have to learn the tracks very quickly because there is not a lot of free practice in the morning. Immediately they will need to be on it. Having the single-seater background will allow them to take the challenge on.
MST: The noise of the car is unlike anything really, we’ve ever heard in motorsport. What’s your take on the sound, and what would you say to the sound “detractors?”
AA: We think the sound is one of the main features; one of the main advantages and positive additions of our championship. I was talking with our engineers; we’re testing now with the rear battery, the race battery, and the sound is even more jet-like than before. Fighter jet, almost.
That combined with the fact it’s around 80 decibels makes it possible to race in city centres without major sound disruption. I think it’s a great feature. People will get excited by the sound, but not be disturbed by it. That’s the advantage.
MST: Of the decision to change cars at the pit stop, why go that route? Would it eventually be feasible to swap batteries, or did it make more sense to change cars instead?
AA: What makes more sense would be to change batteries. But the decision to go to changing cars was put down to the safety requirements the FIA has imposed. The batteries are in a special crash box, and it takes quite a long time to change it. Therefore it’s not possible to do it a normal race time frame. So that’s why we’ve gone to a swap of cars.
The other thing is we are doing very short races, so (a battery switch) it would not be a good option for the show. We are very aware that this highlights one of the limitations of electric cars, but we also think that this is not a one-year project. It is a long-term project, and the goal is to show the development of batteries.
So the first year they do 25 minutes. The second, maybe 30. The fourth, maybe 35-40. Year five, you only need one car to complete the race. So that will be what we can show; it’s a very strong message of how electric cars and batteries are improving.
MST: Along the same lines, to have some F1 transfer of technology with McLaren ECUs, Renault engines, etc., plus Michelin tires, how key was that?
AA: That’s really a huge advantage for is. When we went around the world looking for technology for these cars, we ended up at the starting point which is Formula One. This championship, technology-wise, is a child of Formula One.
There’s motors from McLaren, batteries from Williams, battery safety management and integration from Renault F1, so that’s all the technology to work with. It’s very pioneering. I’ve been with Williams to see how they are with the batteries; they’ve done some incredible R&D work. Stepping into the new areas of technology is very exciting.
MST: Of the teams, the two that will probably stand out the most as a cross-referencing of culture is getting Leonardo DiCaprio and Sir Richard Branson as team stakeholders. How do you see them being ambassadors for the series and what can they do to increase interest?
AA: It’s important to get the right mix. We think having Leonardo DiCaprio and Sir Richard Branson is a great addition because they can really help us raise awareness and make the championship more popular.
Of course we have a strong electric background team with Drayson, traditional teams like Andretti, Audi Abt, or like DAMS, we have achieved a great mix of characters and teams to make the show very good.
Having DiCaprio and Branson raises the profile of the championship. They can help make the electric car more popular.
MST: From a purely racing perspective, the other teams (Andretti, Dragon, Drayson and others) have some standing and respect in the U.S. market. How important was it to ensure you had “name” teams in the championship to provide the series a legitimate foundation of operations?
AA: It was very important because what we need to deliver is a true grid. This cannot be taken for a show or parade of electric cars. This is a true race, and that’s the cornerstone of the whole project. True race needed with teams on top of it.
Having Andretti, Dragon, DAMS and others brings that legitimacy to make motorsport fans say, “Let’s give this championship a chance because these true racing names are involved.”
Andretti was a major turning point for the championship when they signed up back in July. We really felt when people like that started calling us from the motorsport world, it gave great credibility for the championship.
MST: Clearly with two races on either coast, the U.S. is an important market for FE. Given there are so many other forms of motorsport here, how do you plan to have the U.S. attention be captured?
AA: Our two main markets we always say are the U.S. and China. And particularly with the U.S., motorsport is very strong there. It has “home” motorsports of NASCAR and IndyCar; F1 has had ups-and-downs in U.S.
We have a special chance; but we need to be different. We cannot be another race, another one-of-the-same. We need to feature a different kind of show. We need to focus on the digital interaction with the fans. We have two teams, two races in the U.S.; we also have Leonardo DiCaprio, an American name and working with a Monaco-based team.
We have the necessary elements. But we really need to push on presenting ourselves as a different kind of motorsport. Also having TV with FOX Sports is very important; it will help us raise the profile of the championship.
MST: All this being said, this is a long-term process, so where do you see the series five years from now? Is there an opportunity to win over disenfranchised fans of other racing series?
AA: Five years from now, this championship needs to be the platform for electric technology and relevance. We need to have different global partners on board; at the moment we have Renault, Mahindra, Audi, but I think others will join us.
We could see American car manufacturers, Japanese car manufacturers, more European car companies, because they’re all betting on electric.
We need to be the place where all these technologies are tested, and we want to be relevant. We want to be a place where technologies are exported to road cars, and make the expansion of electric cars grow to where it’s the first choice for people to want to buy one. That’s what we’d like to become.