Dining at a small Italian restaurant in Paris, Alejandro Agag first heard the idea that would change his life, and potentially the world. Electric motor racing: a counterpoint to Formula 1 in which all the cars were battery powered. For several years Agag had felt motor racing was in danger of becoming obsolete, as climate change and rising environmental concerns made petrol an increasingly controversial fuel. This proposed new championship sounded like the future, and Agag wanted to be part of it.
Aged 42 at that dinner in 2011, Agag had already been part of quite a lot. He’d spent several years in Spanish and European politics – including a three-year stint as an MEP – before moving to London to start his own consultancy firm. This thrived to the extent Spanish GQ named Agag its ‘Businessman of the Year’ in 2008. His 2002 wedding was attended by the King and Queen of Spain, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi.
So it’s hardly surprising that Formula E has thrived under Agag’s stewardship, establishing itself as a serious force in motor racing while preaching an environmentally conscious message (namely: don’t break it). Over four years the sport has got bigger and bigger: in terms of manufacturers – Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz recently joined the fold – sponsors, drivers, and of course races. Whereas the first season climaxed in Battersea Park, the fourth had New York City as the backdrop to its final weekend. Wandsworth’s loss is Brooklyn’s gain.
Meeting at his West London office – there’s a full-scale replica of an FE car in the lobby – Agag cites the street circuits as the key factor in FE’s appeal. Its cars have zoomed through the great cities of the world, from Paris to Hong Kong, Rome to Santiago. Was it easy, I wonder, to convince such cities to unleash motor racing onto their streets?
The mayor of Paris doesn’t want cars – but she’s the one pushing to have Formula E
“No, it was horrible!” laughs Agag. “It was an absolute nightmare.”
Still, you don’t become the Spanish businessman of the year without the ability to thrash out a few deals – and today cities compete to welcome FE for the weekend.
As reigning drivers’ champion Jean Eric-Vergne observes: “The mayor of Paris is closing all the roads because she doesn’t want cars any more in Paris – but she’s the one pushing to have Formula E in the streets of Paris. It’s just a strong message. It is insane. Formula 1 would never, ever come close to Paris, and I’m sorry, but as a fan I prefer to go see a motor sport event in Paris than in the middle of nowhere three hours away where there is no hotel.”
(Vergne is French, as you can probably tell. But more on him later.)
So city circuits is one of FE’s great attractions; the other is the very concept of electric racing itself, the combination of motor sport with a genuine ethical cause. It was the opportunity to “help the battle against climate change” that attracted Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Racing has competed in FE since the first season in 2014. (Although Branson isn’t the starriest name involved in the sport: Team Venturi was co-founded by a certain Leonardo DiCaprio.)
“The growth in Formula E has been amazing, particularly as you consider that Formula 1 is declining in viewers year-on-year,” Branson tells me over email. “It’s been so successful so far because it is very engaging for audiences. It’s really exciting – you can vote for your favourite driver on Twitter, you can watch sessions live on social media or from a city centre.
“Tickets to races are affordable and the access to the fans is incredible – you can meet all your favourite drivers, hang out with your friends in the E-Village and then watch the race from a grandstand that could be placed somewhere that you walk past every day.”
The drivers are not secluded but are visible presences on race day
Accessibility is arguably the third trump card FE has to play: as Branson says, the drivers are not secluded in the metaphorical ivory tower but rather visible presences on race day, frequently mingling with fans in the specially constructed E-Village – a free area designed to keep families entertained.
Yet another indication of how FE balances its image: the plucky underdog that is still sponsored by private banks and luxury watch brands; the sport of the people where supermodels and Hollywood stars quaff champagne in the VIP tents.
None of this is in anyway hypocritical; simply an indicator of how well FE has spread its appeal between the average punter and the roster of celebrities at every race. (Many of whom get to test drive the car.) Yet despite all the razmataz and good intentions, if there wasn’t any action on the actual track then interest would be hard to hold.
Enter Vergne. If you want to put a face on your still-nascent sport then you could do a lot worse than Jean-Éric Vergne’s. A thrillingly visceral driver with a playboy reputation (I’d write ‘fast cars and faster women’ but it’s 2018), the Frenchman also retains the increasingly rare trait of speaking his mind and damn the sponsors.
To quote Vergne on Vergne: “I just do my own thing. I am known to always say the truth. If there is something wrong, then I will just say it. I’m not going to go behind back doors to say things. Yes, sometimes I can be unpolitical, but that’s what people love. To see drivers saying what they have to say written on a paper, it’s kind of boring. ‘Yes, another very good race. Thank you my team. Thank you this, thank you that, and goodbye.’”
Earlier in the year I was among a group of journalists to spend an afternoon with Vergne in Paris. He was charming, witty, and never quite able to disguise the fact that he had better places to be, almost certainly very nice places that contained beautiful women and expensive champagne. Exactly what I want from both my racing drivers and my Frenchmen. I liked him a lot.
In 2018 Vergne became FE’s fourth different champion in its four seasons, sealing the deal with a remarkable drive from the rear of the grid to fifth place, and the title. He then won the Sunday race of the weekend double-header, a man who’d already won the argument but still very much demanded the last word. Talk, meet walk.
“The problem in motor sport,” Vergne told me in Paris, “is people lose their personality. I lost it in F1, but I’m not going to lose it again.”
All four of FE’s champions once raced in F1 – and, let’s be honest, all four would still be racing there if a drive had been available. A couple of days after Vergne’s triumph in New York, the driver revealed that several F1 teams had made contact regarding potential drives for the 2019 season. Despite having spent three frustrating seasons at Torro Rosso, the junior team of Red Bull Racing, Vergne didn’t sound unenthused by the prospect of a return to the Formula 1 fold.
“To have some teams calling me to know what I’m going to do next it feels like ‘ah, I exist!’ for Formula 1,” Vergne told The Autosport Podcast. “What would be really nice is to have a proper chance in F1. I have got some unfinished business there and with everything that I’ve learned lately, and how much I’ve improved, I think it would definitely be a completely different story.”
None of this should be surprising, or reflect badly in FE. After all, F1 has been the pinnacle of motor sport since 1950, its greatest drivers nothing less than sporting icons: Fangio, Prost, Senna, Schumacher. The German was Vergne’s boyhood hero, but then every current FE driver will have grown up idolising somebody on the F1 grid. That drivers are able to move between the two organisations indicates the progress made by the young upstart in its four short years of existence.
The question is not ‘Is there a hierarchy?’ but ‘For how long will this hierarchy endure?’ How far away is the day on which the F1 champion announces he will race electric? Will such a day ever come – and, for that matter, does it need to come? Can electric and petrol co-exist in the manner of rugby union and league, boxing and MMA? Or, like Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, is it a case of neither can live while the other survives?
Agag has faced this question a lot, and he does so with a smoothness that recalls his political days. “Sure,” he says on the feasibility of co-existence. “I think we co-exist now.”
Branson is more bullish: “I’ve been quoted many times saying that if Formula E continues to grow at the rate it currently does then I believe it will overtake Formula 1 within ten years. The world’s attitudes are changing and this is something I still stand behind.” (“Very clever person, Richard Branson,” smiles Agag when I recite this quote to him.)
If you look at the UFC for many years they were a little bit niche, and suddenly the sport for some reason it explodes.
The boldest verdict comes from Vergne. “In 50 years’ time there are not going to be any more petrol engines. It’s only going to be electric, or new kinds of energy such as solar power, such as hydrogen… The fans that will make the popularity of the championship are now maybe five or ten years old. Those are the ones that will have the power in ten years’ time, 15 years’ time, to decide whether we’re going to invest in Formula E or Formula 1.”
In the meantime, FE will keep innovating, keep redrawing the boundaries. A new-look Gen2 car will debut in Season 5, and its increased battery power will eliminate the current requirement to swap cars mid-race. Again, the benefits to the sport will be mirrored across society: the International Energy Agency predicts electric vehicles will grow from 3m to 125m by 2030.
Make no mistake: this is the motor sport of the future. In terms of FE going fully mainstream, the line between ‘if’ and ‘when’ may have already been crossed.
Agag sounds in no hurry. “If you look at the UFC for many years they were a little bit niche, and suddenly the sport for some reason it explodes. We’re not in a hurry but we’re pushing, we’ve investing a lot to become mainstream. We do really well with the younger demographic. We will become mainstream.”
It’s coming faster than you think.
Formula E Season 5 will run 15 Dec 2018 – 14 Jul 2019