How Alejandro Agag is the Elon Musk of motorsports

Formula E chief Alejandro Agag stands side-by-side next to Tesla's Elon Musk as an EV visionary: Musk is revolutionizing road cars; Agag is electrifying motorsports. By Bradley Berman.

How Alejandro Agag is the Elon Musk of motorsports

The similarities between the two men are uncanny and it’s only a matter of time before Agag, like Musk, becomes an international celebrity and household name. It’s hard to remember the time – really not so long ago – when Elon was unknown and musk was just an animal secretion.

In the early days, when he founded SpaceX with plans for interstellar travel, analysts like John Pike said, “He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He has fallen into the hands of a bunch of people who have convinced him that they are smarter than everybody else.”

When Musk took over as CEO of Tesla in 2008 – and started talking about ridding the world of internal combustion and turning his employees into “special forces” – people thought he was crazy. When he began draining his personal fortune earned as a founder of PayPal to keep the company afloat, the internet scoffed and launched “Tesla Deathwatch” blogs.

Agag faced the same kind of derision when the all-electric Formula E racing series launched four years ago. Many auto enthusiasts scoffed at the notion that battery-powered vehicles whizzing around city circuits could ever become a viable form of racing. Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s former boss, dismissed electric Formula E cars as “lawn mowers.”

Now, on the eve of the opening race in Formula E’s fifth season – which starts in the Saudi city of Ad Diriyah – nobody is making jokes about the electric racing series. In fact, there are clear signs that Formula E is gaining ground on Formula 1, just as Tesla’s market cap is bigger than GM’s and Ford’s.

Those who continue to disregard electric racing fail to see the bold new vision of mobility that Formula E represents – or the outsized talent of Alejandro Agag, the former businessman and politician who founded and continues to run the series. As with Elon Musk at the helm of Tesla, a company that also was dismissed at its start, Agag is a visionary leader who stared down EV naysayers to guide Formula E to its meteoric rise.

Tom Dillmann, NIO Formula E Team, NIO Sport 004

Tom Dillmann, NIO Formula E Team, NIO Sport 004

Photo by: Malcolm Griffiths / LAT Images

Faster, Longer, Sexier

What separates Musk and Agag from those who previously pushed for electric mobility is how they express the vast potential of EVs through spectacularly sexy machines. The imperfect-yet-seductive Tesla Roadster led to the throbbing Model S, the vehicle that showed the world that an electric car can be muscular, comfortable, long-range, and fast as hell. It beat Maserati and Aston at its game. Tomorrow on the outskirts of Riyadh, we will see the second-generation Formula E vehicle in action. It’s also a game-changer.

Unlike the first-gen Formula E model, which was just cool enough, the new FE car is being universally praised. It’s commonly compared to the Batmobile. More importantly, it ups energy storage from 28 kilowatt-hours to 52 kWh so that drivers no longer need to hop from one car to the other in the middle of the race. That was arguably the biggest cause for haters to dump on Formula E.

The outgoing car, which has been in place since the series started in 2014, had a top speed of 140 miles per hours. The second-gen car debuting this season can reach about 180 miles per hour. That might not be the 230mph velocity of a Formula 1 machine, but it’s well suited to the twists of Formula E’s street circuits. And the rate of improvement in battery range and motor speed is only beginning to ramp up for electric vehicles – with F1 specs looming on the not-too-distant horizon.

Stoffel Vandoorne, HWA Racelab, VFE-05 in the garage

Stoffel Vandoorne, HWA Racelab, VFE-05 in the garage

Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / LAT Images

Laboratories of Innovation

Have no doubts that both Musk and Agag will push the limits of battery and motor technology until electric motivation surpasses internal combustion. Tesla and Formula E are not companies as much as they are mad laboratories. The list of Musk-fueled Tesla tech innovations are too numerous to name here, but the greatest hits include the use of commodity cells in an EV battery, camera-based Autopilot self-driving features, and over-the-air updates for core vehicle and dashboard functions. 

Critically, many Tesla features that were once considered impractical – such as long-range batteries, fast highway charging, and aerodynamic flush door handles – are now considered conventional wisdom by legacy automakers.

In season five, all the Formula E cars will use the same standard battery system, designed by McLaren of (ahem) F1 fame. Credit Agag with the vision not to let the team’s development budget get out of control, a real risk if they were to build their own batteries. Instead, as reported, the teams will continue to fiercely compete on developing cutting-edge motors, gearboxes, inverters, and software.

Agag understands that by keeping the batteries standard for now, and capping the team’s size to 20 people and their annual investment to $3.3 million, that Formula E can play the role of small, scrappy disruptor – the Tesla of motorsports. Agag wants to maximize the potential of every dollar of investment to disrupt auto racing and, by extension, the whole automotive industry. 

“One of the key reasons we got into Formula E is technology transfer,” said James Barclay, Team Manager of Jaguar Panasonic Racing. Jaguar was the first premium automaker to field a Formula E team two years ago. “While our e-motors might not be quite the same on our Formula E car as our i-Pace road car, what we can transfer to our production cars is a benefit to our consumers,” said Barclay. “A race car that can go further for longer is a road car that can go further for longer.”

This season brings BMW into the series as the car manufacturer for team Andretti Autosport. “The borders between production and motor-racing development are more blurred at BMW i Motorsport than in any other project,” said Jay Hanson, a BMW spokesperson, in an interview with Popular Mechanics. To ensure tech transfer, the same engineers that develop BMW i electric cars for consumers also work on the electric racing technology.

“It’s important for motor racing to show technological leadership,” wrote Agag in April. “Sophisticated control electronics, whose durability and safety have been proved in motorsport, will enable manufacturers to consolidate the operation of onboard systems, making road cars lighter, more energy-efficient, and better-performing.”

Porsche stand at Formula E

Porsche stand at Formula E

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images

Making Converts

Tesla’s path from Silicon Valley outlier to mainstream automaker has been a 10-year journey. With the exception of a few Toyota and Honda cars, Tesla delivered more Model 3s in the past few months than any other vehicle on the market, regardless of price or size. It helps in a campaign to convert traditional gas-car buyers to electric when you have a superior product and you can make a legitimate claim on the future. Formula E is using the same strategy to win fans, partners, drivers, and sponsors.

If you’re not yet convinced that Formula E could one day approach F1 status, then consider this incredible event come true: Porsche withdrew from the top-tier Le Mans Prototype class (LMP1) in the World Endurance Championship and the Le Mans 24 Hours so it could join Formula E starting next year. Audi had already done so. Add Nissan (replacing Renault) and Mercedes-Benz to Audi, BMW, and Jaguar on the list of major FE players, and you can practically hear the dominoes starting to fall.

Moreover, Formula E’s fifth season brings two additional veteran F1 racers to the electric grid. In May, news broke that Brazilian Felipe Massa, who won 11 grands prix in 15 years as an F1 racer, signed on to the Monaco-based Venturi team, which was co-founded by Leonardo DiCaprio. Massa said that Formula E had appeal because many drivers can win a race, something that’s no longer possible in F1.

In October, McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne announced his switch to Formula E, joining HWA, an offshoot from Mercedes’s high-performance division. Massa and Vandoorne join previous F1-to-FE refugees Nick Heidfeld, who raced in F1 for a decade – and reigning Formula E world champion Jean-Éric Vergne, who competed for Scuderia Toro Rosso from 2012 to 2014.

“When Formula E started, people said that there was no way this series could ever overtake F1,” said Heidfeld in an interview with Autoweek. “I’m not so sure anymore.” 

The UK’s Sun reported that even F1 champion Lewis Hamilton is slowly warming up to the potential of Formula E – after he admitted that he was “conflicted” about the emissions produced in Formula One. Hamilton said it might take five to 10 years longer before you could compare the two races. Long-time F1 sponsor Hugo Boss didn’t wait for that day. The German luxury brand shifted its sponsorship to Formula E last year.

Sam Bird, Envision Virgin Racing, Audi e-tron FE05

Sam Bird, Envision Virgin Racing, Audi e-tron FE05

Photo by: Joe Portlock / LAT Images

Go Big or Go Home

Despite these wins, Agag is not letting go of his spirit of radical innovation. It’s the same approach that leads Musk to push ahead for things like the world’s biggest battery factories, electric Semi trucks, and a new version of the Roadster that accelerates from zero to 60 miles per hour in 1.9 seconds.

Since he started Formula E, Agag has similarly stretched the limits of what’s possible. Formula E engages fans by allowing them to vote online before a race for teams to receive a bonus boost of power several times during a race. In season five, a new feature called 'attack mode' will be added to the mix. Drivers can position their cars off the main line to special zones where they claim a temporary power boost much the way Mario Kart cars can grab a gold star.

Are these things just gimmicks? Well, that same complaint was levied against Tesla for the Model X’s falcon doors or its use of HEPA filtration system that can be used for defense against bioweapons. But prone to gimmicks or not, Musk and Agag win fans by always erring on the side of outrageous.

It’s the same bravado that led both men this year to attempt to buy back their companies. In August, Musk failed to put the pieces together for a $72 billion share buyback bid. This came three months after Agag made a $700 million surprise bid for full control of Formula E. The scale of the two enterprises is very different and both attempts failed, but it shows how Musk and Agag are undeterred by their company’s near-death experiences.

Musk recently admitted that Tesla faced a severe death threat in April 2018 when it was ramping up production of the Model 3. “The company was bleeding money like crazy,” he told Axios. Musk is accustomed to running the company on the edge going back to 2018 when Tesla was in dire need of cash after the financial crisis hit. Formula E also faced down a financial collapse during its first season in 2014. After the first three races in Beijing, Putrajaya, and Punta del Este, the company ran out of money. “We were not supposed to be that much on the edge but shit happens,” he said.

Either company could encounter financial woes again but, despite those challenges, Musk and Agag are willing to bet the farm on an electrified future. Passion persuades. The world is not going to displace the immensely powerful fossil fuel and retrograde automotive industries with cautious, baby steps. 

FIA Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag talks with Julia Piquet

FIA Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag talks with Julia Piquet

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images

Legends in the Making

For Musk and Agag, the transformation to EVs goes beyond what’s under the hood. It’s about changing the entire conversation, which starts by changing the venue. Musk railed against the idea of selling Tesla vehicles alongside internal combustion cars in an outdated conventional dealership. His viewpoint gave rise to the Tesla retail store which is more about engaging potential buyers in a dialogue about energy, the environment, and the future of transport than it is about moving metal. Similarly, Agag is committed to using city streets as the venue for Formula E races – despite the hassles it brings for event planners.

“It adds a huge amount of complication and logistical challenge,” said Agag. “But we just take it on because this is what we are.” Formula E is held in some of the world’s most populated and sophisticated cities. A new generation of young people can access the races near where they live. Fans avoid long queues to get into a stadium. Spectators are encouraged to take public transportation to the events. And the accessible urban setting creates an up-close and personal racing experience filled with twists and turns.

Agag repeatedly speaks of Formula E as a race format design for young people. “If we can get children who are 10 years old to be a fan of the series, they will be a fan for life,” he wrote earlier this year.

This next generation of enthusiasts is coming of age in a motoring world that’s very different than the one being quickly left behind. If most driving in their lifetime will be behind the wheel of an electric vehicle, as many people predict, then they can credit Tesla as the world’s first great EV company. Elon Musk has undoubtedly earned his legendary status. But when the history of vehicle electrification is recounted to future generations, Alejandro Agag deserves a place next to Musk in the pantheon of EV revolutionaries.

What’s most exciting is that we are witnessing the transformation take place before our eyes. See it for yourself starting when season five of Formula E kicks off in Saudi Arabia. The series then makes its way through Asia, Europe, and North America through mid-July. See the entire season five race calendar.

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