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Opinion: Extreme E's approach is unique in world motorsport

Jason Barlow suggests there's promise among Extreme E's flaws

Published: 08 Apr 2021
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There is zero doubt that a) opening your new race series in Saudi Arabia and b) vigorously promoting sustainability in a motorsport series that travels the world on a diesel-powered ship is making a rod for your own back.

I will not defend Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights and its other ‘issues’. Any country in which homosexuality is still illegal and free speech is repressed is not a country I have any truck with.

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That said, it would be remiss of me not to point out that the people I met during my nine days in the country were hospitable, courteous and often fascinating. Despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms, Saudi Arabia’s attitude to women remains questionable. However, none of the female drivers I spoke to – and I asked plenty of them – seemed to have much of a problem being in a country that only permitted women to drive three years ago, and where they are required to seek a man’s permission before being allowed to travel.

Extreme E founder Alejandro Agag and other prominent men I spoke to either said “we don’t do politics” or pointed to the fact that the regime is actively trying to change its hard-line stance on a number of issues.

Neither answer is satisfactory, but they were hardly likely to start slagging the place off as they sat there. (It’s also true that things in the kingdom are changing: there is apparently a thriving LGBTQ subculture in major Saudi cities, for example, it just doesn’t get talked about very much for obvious reasons.) The female drivers, in particular, were there to race, and for me they were the breakout stars of the weekend. I doubt many of us had heard of Catie Munnings, Sara Price, Cristina Gutierrez or Molly Taylor before this weekend. Is it better to bemoan Saudi Arabia’s record on female empowerment, or go there and actually demonstrate what you can do?

Do you think the likes of Lewis Hamilton would sign up if he hadn’t done due diligence?

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Anyone who has met Agag knows that he is cast in the same mould as Bernie Ecclestone, Flavio Briatore or perhaps even Simon Cowell, and thus a very long way indeed from Greta Thunberg. He’s a showbiz impresario and whip-smart opportunist, but he also has an amazing ability to persuade powerful people to get onboard with something.

Do you think the likes of Lewis Hamilton would sign up if he hadn’t done the necessary due diligence (although sadly he wasn’t there – the optics presumably weren’t right). Agag took advantage of KSA’s desire to promote itself, for sure, and when I asked him directly about sportswashing his answer was that of a politician, which of course is something he used to be. F1 will be in Jeddah in December, should Lewis boycott that GP? Or should he go there and use his platform to say something? That’ll be an interesting test for his burgeoning and widely applauded activism.

Then there is the sustainability brief. I had a long conversation with XE’s main scientific adviser, Professor Richard Washington. This is a man about as far removed from Agag as you can get: softly spoken, someone who weighs his words carefully, and rather shy. He makes many excellent points, and notes that when a scientist writes a report it’s an achievement if it is peer-reviewed and a miracle if it’s read by 1,000 people. In one weekend he spoke to more journalists than he has done in his entire career, all of whom will be citing his findings to millions of readers worldwide via some prestigious platforms. This is a level of exposure for the professor and the causes he espouses than he would previously have thought possible.

On to XE’s legacy aspect. We wandered up a beach where endangered turtles live in the shadow of a huge cement factory. A motley band of media, VIPs, and racing drivers, it was a surreal sight, up to and including the office desk that had been placed near a ridge. Insta-friendly eco-activism or paying lip service to the biggest emergency the planet faces? Who knows. The line I kept hearing was “you have to break eggs to make an omelette”. That and the fact that doing something is better than sitting at home doing nothing. The fact is, XE means that the ongoing climate disaster is being talked about in the context of a sport where that conversation doesn’t happen very often.

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Trust me, I had my doubts as I followed the great Carlos Sainz up a beach with a bin bag swinging from his shoulder, and the PR stunt element of it was transparently obvious. But that’s what PR stunts are about, I suppose. They get people talking. No one thinks a bunch of racing drivers removing plastic from a beach is going to change the world, but it gets people talking. XE must prove it is carbon neutral as it develops, and everyone involved knows their every move will be scrutinised. The ambition is to leave the different venues in a better place than they were before, whether literally or in terms of awareness. Maybe some eggs will be broken along the way, but the resulting omelettes will make it all worthwhile.

Now let’s remove the politics and climate agenda: does XE work as motorsport? If you watched it, did you enjoy it? Personally, I did. There were a handful of great moments throughout, arguably as many as you'd find in the average weekend of F1. And lots of them came courtesy of female drivers I previously knew little or nothing about. I found this very refreshing. I toured the track several times, and you could see how difficult it was. It was also constantly evolving in a way that no traditional racing circuit ‘evolves’, demanding huge skill from the drivers. Jenson Button was visibly nervous about it, and he was right to be given what happened to Stephane Sarrazin, Kyle LeDuc and Claudia Hürtgen.

Ultimately, the dust meant it boiled down to a first corner blast for the three cars in the semi-final and final, and Loeb backed off big style when Kristofferson beat him to it. But dust won’t be an issue in the other venues, and the car's currently rather rudimentary suspension set-up will be improved. The batteries were also overheating, and there were power steering issues, too. These problems will also be addressed. But for the first shot at a new series that was running in the middle of the Arabian Desert and being broadcast live to 70 countries worldwide, only a true cynic would have been left unimpressed. The effort that went into it was astounding, the camaraderie on the site among the teams genuine.

I used to watch rallycross on ITV in the late 1970s (when Murray Walker commentated and Jenson’s dad competed in it), and I always loved it.  But no one would broadcast a race from Lydden Hill on prime time TV today. Lewis Hamilton et al wouldn’t have an RX team in a million years. But they do want to play in Agag’s sandpit, because they understand that the guy knows how to market entertainment, which is what this is really all about. XE is designed to work on mobile phones, in a relatively quick hit, or while being streamed. Holding the first round in Saudi Arabia was a mistake, in my view, but I suspect realpolitik – and money – was involved there. As it is and will continue to be in all global sport.

How we respond to that as individuals is up to us. What we do about addressing climate change is also an individual choice. Whatever your opinion on XE, it’s something that is front and centre in the series. And that makes it unique in world motorsport.

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