Alejandro Agag laughs in his smooth and charming way when I read out a quote which suggests that, as the founder and chairman of Formula E and the driving force behind Extreme E, the new environmentally conscious motor sport venture, he is closer 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 will soon ask Agag why his many laudable ambitions are linked to sportswashing in Saudi Arabia, but it seems appropriate to focus initially on Extreme E as it reaches the climax of its inaugural season in Dorset this weekend. Teams created by Lewis Hamilton en Nico Rosberg are in a battle to win the championship in a field which includes an outfit run by a third former Formula One world champion in Jenson Button.
“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 draw significant figures into a form of motor sport watter, hy sê, “is unique because Extreme E is a race which leaves no trace”. Apart from aiming to showcase Extreme E in locations which have been hurt by the climate crisis, their electric cars make zero emissions. Without any crowds, as events are televised and audience engagement is online, the carbon footprint of each race is negligible.
But setting up a new sport in the midst of a global pandemic has stretched the 51-year-old Spaniard. 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 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. ek het gesê: ‘Let’s wait Covid out and find places where we are sure we can race.’ Most of my day is spent putting fires out.”
This final race of the season was meant to be held in Patagonia, with the cars shipped rather than flown across the world, but Covid forced a switch 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 first sporting entity to place the climate emergency at its heart. This noble mission is deepened by the fact that every team features male and female drivers. So Jamie Chadwick, the 23-year-old British driver 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.
All this makes it even more disappointing that, in April, Agag staged 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. 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. Kyk, byvoorbeeld, 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 women’s right to drive in Saudi. In Mei 2018 she was detained without charge and Hathloul has since spoken of the torture and sexual abuse she suffered. Last December she was sentenced to five years in prison. Hathloul has now been released, but she remains under a five-year travel ban, while other female activists are still detained. Amnesty reports 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? Geen. I accept all your arguments. I only make my additional argument – we need to change [Saudi]. And it is changing.”
Extreme E emphasises the importance of education and speaking out against the climate crisis. Tog, in Saudi, Agag and his colleagues were silent about the abuse 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.”
How much did Saudi Arabia pay 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 when, before the Jeddah Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton stressed 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 also public beheadings in Saudi – where feminism and homosexuality are regarded as “extreme” and unacceptable. Does Agag have no misgivings in accepting money 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. Vir my, 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 biggest producer of fossil fuels but 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, Skulp, 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 end of next year in a strategy which follows the withdrawal of Audi and BMW. Mercedes remain committed to Formula One but they will cut ties with Formula E and focus their resources on developing their electric car for mass production.
“On the other hand," hy sê, “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, vir my, 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 possibility with F1? “We discuss it all the time.”
Perhaps F1 feels it does not 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 also once part-owned QPR in a consortium which included his old pal Bernie Ecclestone. Agag laughs when I say 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.”
Extreme E and Formula E were the only sporting bodies at Cop26. But in terms of Extreme E’s current position, 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 almost end on that positive note but, just after we say goodbye, Agag shouts one last invitation: “Come to Saudi with me, huh?”