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Exclusive: Q&A with FIA Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag

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Ahead of the inaugural FIA Formula E championship season, MotorSportsTalk had the opportunity to speak with Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings. Agag, a veteran European Parliament politician who has expanded into motorsports in both Formula One (with teams and for Spanish TV rights) and GP2 (Team Principal of the Addax GP2 team), will oversee the all-electric formula car championship. The season begins in September, but testing will occur all year in preparation.

MotorSportsTalk: With the all-electric format of the championship, it’s ahead of most traditional forms of motorsport. Do you see FE as a trend-setter to shape the direction of global motorsport, or would your preference be to be unique as the only all-electric form of motorsport?

Alejandro Agag: I think we will be on our own for a bit. This is very unique in terms of technology. I think other series will move towards more sustainable practices this year, with limit of fuel consumption, and that’s a path being adopted by the WEC also for some time now.

To go full electric, we won’t see that for quite a number of years. Also take into account we have an exclusive license from the FIA to be the only all electric global motorsport competition for formula cars.

MST: What’s going to be the initial measure of success from year one? Fan interest? Media interest? TV ratings? All of the above?

AA: It’s going to be a little bit different. As you know we have a unique feature in this championship, fans will be able to vote for their favorite driver to give them an additional amount of energy, which we call the fan boost.

We think the measure of success of the championship will lay more in the digital space, in the number of people interacting with the championship, the number of young people interacting with the championship; that plus the traditional way of measuring like TV ratings, or those standards.

We are focusing on the digital side, and we have ways to measure that interaction with the championship. That will be the success and way to measure the success.

MST: You have F1, GP2 series experience personally. What have you learned in those championships that you feel you can take to transition into FE, either from a commercial standpoint, a marketing standpoint or a competition standpoint? 

AA: There’s been a lot of lessons learned in my past racing experience that is extremely important for us as a group. We have other partners and people with past experience.

A few lessons I would highlight. We need to have a championship that makes sense financially. It has to be a win-win for everyone. The number one priority is that the teams make money, and costs need to be kept low. We have created a number of rules to make that possible.

The second one is very important: to offer to sponsors a halfway point between motorsport and sustainability. We have seen in the last years in racing that sponsors are more concerned with sustainability issues, and our sport leans halfway between motorsport and sustainability. A lot of people are also keen on that. Sitting in-between is very important.

From the sport point of view, we know we need to put together the best show possible. You need to know a lot of drivers, many who have been in the driver market for a long time. We know the drivers … we how much they bring to the show and for the teams to get the best drivers we get into cars. 

MST: That shifts rather nicely into the concept of the Formula E “Drivers’ Club.” Would you like it to be open to all forms of motorsport or primarily single-seater formula drivers, as the bulk of the field is now?

AA: We think the bulk are meant to be from single-seaters. Some have transitioned to sports cars, so there are some who have been in both. But having the single-seater experience is very, very important for the championship of Formula E.

The cars will be tricky to drive; the circuits will be unknown, so drivers will not have raced there before, and we’ll have to learn the tracks very quickly because there is not a lot of free practice in the morning. Immediately they will need to be on it. Having the single-seater background will allow them to take the challenge on.

MST: The noise of the car is unlike anything really, we’ve ever heard in motorsport. What’s your take on the sound, and what would you say to the sound “detractors?”

AA: We think the sound is one of the main features; one of the main advantages and positive additions of our championship. I was talking with our engineers; we’re testing now with the rear battery, the race battery, and the sound is even more jet-like than before. Fighter jet, almost.

That combined with the fact it’s around 80 decibels makes it possible to race in city centres without major sound disruption. I think it’s a great feature. People will get excited by the sound, but not be disturbed by it. That’s the advantage.

MST: Of the decision to change cars at the pit stop, why go that route? Would it eventually be feasible to swap batteries, or did it make more sense to change cars instead?

AA: What makes more sense would be to change batteries. But the decision to go to changing cars was put down to the safety requirements the FIA has imposed. The batteries are in a special crash box, and it takes quite a long time to change it. Therefore it’s not possible to do it a normal race time frame. So that’s why we’ve gone to a swap of cars.

The other thing is we are doing very short races, so (a battery switch) it would not be a good option for the show. We are very aware that this highlights one of the limitations of electric cars, but we also think that this is not a one-year project. It is a long-term project, and the goal is to show the development of batteries.

So the first year they do 25 minutes. The second, maybe 30. The fourth, maybe 35-40. Year five, you only need one car to complete the race. So that will be what we can show; it’s a very strong message of how electric cars and batteries are improving.

MST: Along the same lines, to have some F1 transfer of technology with McLaren ECUs, Renault engines, etc., plus Michelin tires, how key was that?

AA: That’s really a huge advantage for is. When we went around the world looking for technology for these cars, we ended up at the starting point which is Formula One. This championship, technology-wise, is a child of Formula One.

There’s motors from McLaren, batteries from Williams, battery safety management and integration from Renault F1, so that’s all the technology to work with. It’s very pioneering. I’ve been with Williams to see how they are with the batteries; they’ve done some incredible R&D work. Stepping into the new areas of technology is very exciting.

MST: Of the teams, the two that will probably stand out the most as a cross-referencing of culture is getting Leonardo DiCaprio and Sir Richard Branson as team stakeholders. How do you see them being ambassadors for the series and what can they do to increase interest?

AA: It’s important to get the right mix. We think having Leonardo DiCaprio and Sir Richard Branson is a great addition because they can really help us raise awareness and make the championship more popular.

Of course we have a strong electric background team with Drayson, traditional teams like Andretti, Audi Abt, or like DAMS, we have achieved a great mix of characters and teams to make the show very good.

Having DiCaprio and Branson raises the profile of the championship. They can help make the electric car more popular.

MST: From a purely racing perspective, the other teams (Andretti, Dragon, Drayson and others) have some standing and respect in the U.S. market. How important was it to ensure you had “name” teams in the championship to provide the series a legitimate foundation of operations?

AA: It was very important because what we need to deliver is a true grid. This cannot be taken for a show or parade of electric cars. This is a true race, and that’s the cornerstone of the whole project. True race needed with teams on top of it.

Having Andretti, Dragon, DAMS and others brings that legitimacy to make motorsport fans say, “Let’s give this championship a chance because these true racing names are involved.”

Andretti was a major turning point for the championship when they signed up back in July. We really felt when people like that started calling us from the motorsport world, it gave great credibility for the championship.

MST: Clearly with two races on either coast, the U.S. is an important market for FE. Given there are so many other forms of motorsport here, how do you plan to have the U.S. attention be captured?

AA: Our two main markets we always say are the U.S. and China. And particularly with the U.S., motorsport is very strong there. It has “home” motorsports of NASCAR and IndyCar; F1 has had ups-and-downs in U.S.

We have a special chance; but we need to be different. We cannot be another race, another one-of-the-same. We need to feature a different kind of show. We need to focus on the digital interaction with the fans. We have two teams, two races in the U.S.; we also have Leonardo DiCaprio, an American name and working with a Monaco-based team.

We have the necessary elements. But we really need to push on presenting ourselves as a different kind of motorsport.  Also having TV with FOX Sports is very important; it will help us raise the profile of the championship.

MST: All this being said, this is a long-term process, so where do you see the series five years from now? Is there an opportunity to win over disenfranchised fans of other racing series?

AA: Five years from now, this championship needs to be the platform for electric technology and relevance. We need to have different global partners on board; at the moment we have Renault, Mahindra, Audi, but I think others will join us.

We could see American car manufacturers, Japanese car manufacturers, more European car companies, because they’re all betting on electric.

We need to be the place where all these technologies are tested, and we want to be relevant. We want to be a place where technologies are exported to road cars, and make the expansion of electric cars grow to where it’s the first choice for people to want to buy one. That’s what we’d like to become.

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.

‘Uncle Bobby’ Unser turns 83 today

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February 20 is quite a day for birthdays in the North American racing world. “The Captain,” Roger Penske, turns 80, and the Shaker Heights, Ohio native continues at the head of his incredibly successful race team and automotive group without so much as a sweat.

One of Penske’s longtime drivers has his birthday today, as well. Bobby Unser, or “Uncle Bobby,” turns 83.

A member of the famed Albuquerque family, Unser won three Indianapolis 500s (1968, 1975 and 1981) before moving into broadcasting after he retired, working with ABC at the ‘500 and throughout the IndyCar schedule. A legend on Pikes Peak as well, Unser has more than a dozen wins there.

As time has passed, Unser’s forthright, candid insights have really stood out in a time where fewer drivers have properly spoke their minds.

Last May at Indianapolis ahead of the 100th Indianapolis 500, I had the opportunity to chat with “Uncle Bobby” about his life and career at the Speedway. A selection of those quotes are below:

“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve been coming every year since 1959. I saw the lights blinking on track and wonder what just happened!” he said. “This place has been going 100 years, and I’ve been a part of it for a long time.

“There’s been too many changes and I couldn’t remember them all in my head anyway. I don’t like the changes I’m seeing, but it doesn’t mean they’re all bad.

“I don’t know why I got into TV; I didn’t even go to high school. Yet I’m an engineer! Who’d ever thought Bobby Unser would do television? I ended up with a really good group at ABC. I didn’t think I could ever do it – but I did! I enjoyed myself.

“I lost a brother here. And I lost an uncle who was preparing to come here. My brother Jerry was killed here, and my uncle Joe was killed preparing to come here in a car. We were testing it in Colorado. We’ve lost two Unsers here – we don’t need a medal – but it hasn’t all been peaches and roses.

“The evolution of cars was easy. It was better to do it when we’re young! I’m not kidding. One of my heroes was Don Branson. He was a dirt track legend for sure, but he was good here too. He was the upper end of years, and I was gonna get his car. I didn’t know he’d get himself killed… we had it preplanned. But he was gonna quit driving and work for Goodyear as field manager for their racing tires. That was a big step for me.

“Don, I’m not gonna tell you I’m better than him. But he didn’t like the rear-engined cars. I’m young. He’s older. So I stepped into a rear-engined car and it feels fine to me! Some of them couldn’t hack it going from the roadster to rear-engined car. But it was easy for me, and for my brother Al. I think a lot of that is the experience you have, and the age.

“This is a tough place. Arguing about the cars now could be another deal. Most anyone could run the cars today… but I don’t want to go down that road and take up more of your time.

“Mario (Andretti) was one of my closest friends in those days. We’d fly together as I had a junky old airplane that barely made it, but it beat driving to races!

“Foyt’s Foyt. He’s a grouchy old fart, you know? But he’s a hell of a race driver. I wish the younger generation would have seen him when he was young… he was a fireplug. He was fast, he was a chassis man, and he understood engines. He was so good.

“It’s ’68, obviously (my favorite ‘500 win). You never know you can do it. There’s so many guys in this race that could be leading, two laps or 10 from the end the car quits. There’s so many of them like that. How many times are you’re leading Lap 150, and then ain’t gonna win it?

“You don’t know you can win it until checkered flag falls. The next one’s easier.”

Team Penske restores iconic ‘Blue Hilton’ Indy 500-winning transporter

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Few teams have as great an appreciation for their own history as Team Penske, so it’s only fitting that on a day when Roger Penske turns 80, the team reflects on the first transporter that helped launch the team into the national stratosphere.

Penske’s first of 16 Indianapolis 500 victories was achieved in 1972 with Mark Donohue driving, and the transporter that carried that No. 66 Sunoco McLaren Offy was a customized 1972 International Fleetstar truck known in the racing circles as “The Blue Hilton.”

This transporter served Team Penske well, carrying both Indy cars and sports cars that dominated in Can-Am in the early 1970s with George Follmer and Donohue.

More than 8,000 man hours went into the restoration of this transporter, which was only found in 2015 after concerns it’d been scrapped. Penske Truck Leasing’s James Svaasand, Michael Klotz, and David Hall and Team Penske Historian Bernie King led the restoration and can thank Jerry Breon, a long-time Penske team member, who found the truck for sale.

“After we confirmed that it was, in fact, the Blue Hilton that was for sale, I called Brian Hard (president of Penske Truck Leasing) and we agreed that we had to find a way to bring her back to life,” Team Penske President Tim Cindric said in a release. “This transporter was there when the foundation was laid for Team Penske and it is symbolic of the way in which we operate today.  Everyone at PTL did an unbelievable job restoring this vehicle.  I can’t wait for Roger to see it in person, as it is something he will cherish.”

The transporter will be on display at Team Penske headquarters in Mooresville, N.C.

You can read the full release here. A few photos of the transporter are below, courtesy of Team Penske:

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Testing confirmed, races not yet for Mikhail Aleshin in sports cars

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 01:  Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, driver of the #7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsport IndyCar prepares for qualifying to the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 1, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Mikhail Aleshin will focus primarily on the Verizon IndyCar Series this season, but may still be busy with sports car commitments with SMP Racing.

His sponsor he has in IndyCar is working on a new non-hybrid LMP1 car for 2018, as SMP Racing’s technical partner BR Engineering is working with Dallara on that new chassis.

Aleshin said via a press release he’s already been busy working on the development of that car ahead of its planned introduction next season (more info here via Sportscar365 and Endurance-Info).

The new creation stems from the fact BR Engineering was not granted a place to continue with its BR01 LMP2 chassis, which raced in the FIA World Endurance Championship and also won the pole for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona, as the ACO confirmed just four chassis constructors would continue in LMP2 in 2017 to coincide with new regulations (Onroak, Oreca, Riley Multimatic, Dallara). BR and other constructors were removed from the field as a result.

Intriguingly though, Aleshin was also listed as the nominated driver for SMP Racing’s Dallara P217 chassis for both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the European Le Mans Series.

Le Mans doesn’t clash with an IndyCar weekend, while the ELMS and IndyCar have one clash, the weekend of August 26 when IndyCar races at Gateway Motorsports Park and ELMS is at Paul Ricard.

Aleshin may be active in a number of sports car races this year, as he has been off-and-on the last two years. But he doesn’t know his exact schedule yet.

“Well we’re working to produce our own car for 2018… and I’m one of the test or development drivers,” Aleshin told NBC Sports.

“I don’t know yet (Le Mans)… maybe I’ll be there. Well, it’s good to be a placeholder! But hopefully not for every event.

“For me the main thing this year is to concentrate on two things. Number one is IndyCar. But I have a very similar responsibility on taking care of our LMP1 project with SMP, as that will be very big.”