Zak Brown admits he didn’t take Alejandro Agag seriously when the Spanish entrepreneur first dreamed up Formula E, the electric open-wheel series that is now an official FIA world championship. But the co-owner of the Andretti United team, who is honest enough to say he was a “late convert” to sustainability, had learned his lesson when Agag followed up with the new Extreme E off-road series that takes its bow in Saudia Arabia this weekend.
“When Alejandro first presented Formula E years ago I laughed — and I was wrong,” Brown — who is in Al’Ula to witness the inaugural Extreme E event, at the helm of one of nine teams that have signed up for the initiative — told RACER. “I tell everyone in my office mistakes are OK — learn from them and don’t make the same mistake twice.”
Brown likes what he sees in the Saudi desert and has a lot of time for Agag’s approach to creating and organizing motorsport events. In fact, the man whose day job is CEO of McLaren Racing, reckons Formula 1 could learn a thing or two from Extreme E’s founder.
“When this came around I looked at who’s involved, the vision, the sustainability angle — not just for the vehicle but for the whole operation,” said Brown. “Alejandro is a real visionary. I wish more people in racing were as commercially focused as he is. We’re in sports and entertainment and the majority of motorsport starts with, ‘What are we going to do technically? By the way, I hope it works commercially.’ Alejandro asks what he wants to do commercially then works out technically how he can do that. He has a good balance other racing series could learn from.
“Then there’s the diversity and equality in the series, and the short-form content. One of the things that hurts NASCAR is the day is a four-hour sporting broadcast. Plus, Extreme E is economical and doesn’t cost a fortune. Let’s jump in.”
Rivals teams might argue with his point on budget, following a trying first qualifying day for a few of them. Veloce Racing was forced to step down from “all further competition this weekend” after the first runs in the morning when Frenchman Stephane Sarrazin rolled his Odyssey 21 and bent the roll-cage. Then Abt Cupra’s Claudia Hurtgen suffered a massive crash when she was launched into a multiple roll, fortunately escaping injury — apart from biting her tongue in one of the impacts.
Jenson Button, another famous face from the world of F1 who is taking a step into the unknown with Extreme E, told RACER a roll that damages the cage will cost a team “£100,000” ($138,000) — and now a team owner as well as a driver, that makes the 2009 world champion wince a little more than it might have done in the past. He and teammate Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky were running on reduced power “just to get around,” according to Button, then found themselves pinged with a time penalty in the afternoon for the Swede speeding in the “switch zone.”
Brown accepts the series has problems to address, as you’d expect for a concept that is brand new. Battery temperature is a concern, from Andretti United’s perspective, and it’s having a direct effect on Extreme E’s claim to be centered around flat-out motorsport.
“It was never going to be smooth running this weekend,” said Brown. “We’re going through battery management right now — if you go flat out you won’t make it. It’s not about turning down power, it’s about batteries getting hot. We’re going through lift and coast, trying to minimize sliding because you’re burning energy, trying not to lose the brakes too much. The battery gets hot, then once it does there’s no way to cool it and recover. If you get too hot you’re in trouble. But that technology will develop.”
The team faced another challenge on its first run when Swedish rallycross ace Timmy Hansen handed over to British rally driver Catie Munnings, only for the 23-year-old to find she was carrying a right-rear puncture. Munnings bravely pressed on and finished her lap of the 5.5-mile desert course despite the Continental rubber’s gradual disintegration. The team finished the session fourth fastest of the nine teams, seven of which completed their runs.
— Extreme E (@ExtremeELive) April 3, 2021
In the second session, Munnings was the first of the Andretti United pairing to run and completed her lap without drama, with Hansen logging more useful miles after a universal lack of testing for all teams in the run-up to the event.
The Extreme E opener is the third major motorsport event to take place in Saudi already this year, following the Dakar Rally in January and the Formula E season opener in February. Then in December the kingdom will host its first F1 grand prix — and the elephant in the desert cannot be ignored. What’s Brown’s view on accusations of “sports-washing,” given Saudi Arabia’s troubling reputation on human rights and, of all things, gender equality?
In response, Brown calls on the view of former British Olympic champion and current president of World Athletics Sebastian Coe, with whom Brown worked at his former business, the JMI marketing agency.
“Seb always says about the Olympics, which is the most global sporting event in the world and has all sorts of countries participating, that sport has a great way of uniting the world, driving change and not getting caught up in the politics,” Brown said. “It’s clear to me that Saudi is trying to drive change, so you can either decide to help or not. We’re here to race, to entertain and if countries want to welcome us to help transform their country, we’re contributing to the good intentions they have.”
Like Agag, who takes a similar view on sport and politics, Brown is already looking further ahead beyond the Saudi round and hopes the series will visit the U.S. in the future.
“It will be interesting to see what Alejandro does with the schedule, whether the rounds are an annual fixture,” he says. “There are so many different areas around the world you can highlight from an environmental perspective. You could fill the schedule for the next 10 years without repeating the same fixture. Heading to the U.S. at some point would certainly help.”
For now, the priority is for Extreme E to successfully negotiate its tricky first weekend. “Everyone recognizes and accepts there would be problems this weekend,” said Brown. “As long as nothing embarrassing happens tomorrow — like no one finishes — we’ll be fine.”
The Extreme E opener airs this weekend on Fox Sports:
• Saturday – Qualifying, 10:00am-1:00pm ET, FS2
• Sunday – Preview show, 3:00pm-3:30pm ET, FS2
• Sunday – Semifinal and Crazy Race, 3:30pm-5:00pm ET, FS2
• Sunday – Final, 6:00pm-8:00pm ET, FS1
Check your local listings for air times in your area