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.

Indy field keen to beat him, but agree Alonso Indy 500 win would boost IndyCar globally

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INDIANAPOLIS – Graham Rahal wants to win Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. If not him, he’d like to see a Honda driver in victory lane.

Ditto for James Hinchcliffe, who’d like to win but would also be happy to see a Honda winner, as well.

Will Power is also of the same mindset. If he can’t win, he’d like one of his Team Penske teammates take the checkered flag.

But those same drivers interviewed by NBC Sports Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, are also well aware of the potential impact of having two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in the race.

And make no mistake, even though this is Alonso’s first foray into IndyCar and oval racing, when it comes to Sunday’s race, he’s in it to win it. And some of the drivers he’ll challenge for the ‘500 win are well aware of that.

“Obviously, selfishly, for a lot of us, we hope he doesn’t,” Rahal said with a smile.

Rahal then grew serious, adding, “But I’m not going to lie to you, he’s driving the same car Townsend (Bell) drove last year, which was one of the favorites to win until the pit lane accident. So it’s a fast car, it’s a good machine, I’ve worked with some of his mechanics in the past.

“They’re quality guys. It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s going to be in the hunt. But I hope it just continues to draw more eyes. I think he’s had a great time here this month. It would be great to have him continue to come back, amongst others. Clearly, we hope one of the regulars wins this thing, there’s a lot of guys that deserve a lot of credit and maybe have been overlooked this month, but that’s just part of it. We’ll see what happens Sunday.”

Hinchcliffe also wants to win Sunday, but knows Alonso brings an additional dynamic to the table that is kind of a mixed blessing.

“That’s one of those bittersweet situations,” Hinchcliffe said with a chuckle. “Obviously, it would be a tremendous amount of coverage for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500, but if a rookie comes in and wins it on pace, it just makes us look a bit silly.

“Now, if you’re going to be made to look silly, if it’s going to happen at the hands of Fernando Alonso, you’ll sleep a little bit better at night because he’s pretty much the greatest living racing driver.

“The fact of the matter is he’s got a really good shot at it, man. He’s been incredible. There’s a lot of difficult situations that you get put into during a 500-mile race here or in practice and we’ve watched him handle them like a seasoned veteran. It’s been very impressive, honestly. He’s in one of the best cars, he’s starting near the front (middle of Row 2), he’s got as good a shot as anyone.”

In addition to Alonso’s massive talent, Hinchcliffe has also been impressed at the Spanish driver’s personality.

“He’s super down to earth, very friendly and has really embraced this experience,” Hinchcliffe said. “The IndyCar paddock is a very different world from the F1 paddock.

“I know for a fact that there are a lot of (F1) drivers that wouldn’t handle the atmosphere here very well, but Fernando hasn’t been like that. He’s embraced the whole experience, the fan interaction we have, which is a massive degree higher than what you see in F1. He’s been an awesome addition to the field. I hope it’s not the last IndyCar race that we see him at.”

And then there’s Will Power, who has an IndyCar championship trophy on his mantle, but not the Borg-Warner Indy 500 winner’s trophy.

Power feels he has a good chance to finally break through and win the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. But he also knows Alonso presents a formidable challenge in addition to the regular IndyCar drivers he does battle with in every series race.

But Power agrees with his counterparts that an Alonso win would bring a great deal of worldwide attention that would provide a big boost of attention and popularity into the IndyCar Series.

“I think you’d have a new group of Spanish fans if Alonso happened to win the race, plus a lot of interest from Europe, which there already is,” Power said. “He definitely has the car and the capability to do it – but so does a lot of people in the field.”

When asked if he can relate his own first 500 (finished 13th in 2008) to that of Alonso, Power said it was completely apples to oranges.

“It’s not similar,” Power said. “When I came here the first time, the team had never raced ovals and we got the car two weeks before the first race of the season and had no idea of the setup. And my engineer had never run ovals, either.

“(Alonso’s) been placed with one of the best teams, one of the best cars and much more experience. I would have dreamed of having that experience in my first time. It would have made it much easier and given me way more confidence on the oval.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

 

Matheus Leist scores pole for Indy Lights’ Freedom 100

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INDIANAPOLIS – Persistent rain threatened to halted all track activity Thursday for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, before efforts to dry the track came good later on Friday.

But once qualifying occurred, Matheus Leist secured the pole for the marquee race of the Indy Lights season, Friday’s Freedom 100 (live, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Freedom 100 has a knack for throwing up surprise polesitters – Ethan Ringel and Ken Losch immediately come to mind – and Leist, the Brazilian rookie in his first-ever oval start, now joins that list.

Leist, driver of the No. 26 Carlin Dallara IL-15 Mazda, looked a promising prospect after posting the first official lap over 200 mph in series history, a tow-assisted lap of 201.032 mph (44.7690 seconds), and also the best no-tow speed of 199.354.

He backed up with laps of 199.268 and 199.128, respectively, for a new two-lap record of 199.198 mph. The previous mark was held by Ringel, in the first year of the new car in 2015, at 197.684 mph.

Despite seven other drivers that took their shot to beat him, none did. Colton Herta came the closest with a two-lap average of 198.648 in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing entry.

Two more of Herta’s Andretti Autosport teammates posted excellent qualifying runs. Dalton Kellett, who was third here last year in what stands as his best Indy Lights finish to date, will roll off from the same position in his teal-and-white No. 28 car, while rookie Ryan Norman will start alongside in the No. 48 Andretti Autosport entry, keeping up his strong weekend.

Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five in the second of four Carlin entries, while Aaron Telitz upheld Belardi Auto Racing’s honor with sixth on the grid.

While Herta enters Friday’s race third in points, 18 behind the top two, neither Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) nor Nico Jamin (Andretti Autosport), had good qualifying runs.

With speeds of 196.058 (Kaiser) and 195.661 (Jamin), they’ll roll off from positions 11 and 13 in the 14-car field.

Here are your qualifying speeds and provisional starting lineup for Friday.

Prior to qualifying, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crew got the track dry in time for a 20-minute practice, which Leist also led.

As you can see below, drivers spent the rain delay trying to make due of things.

The points standings heading into tomorrow’s race are below:

1. 18-Kyle Kaiser, 139
2. 27-Nico Jamin, 126
3. 98-Colton Herta, 121
4. 22-Neil Alberico, 103
5. 9-Aaron Telitz, 97
6. 26-Matheus Leist, 89
7. 5-Santiago Urrutia, 87
8. 13-Zachary Claman De Melo, 87
9. 51-Shelby Blackstock, 80
10. 31-Nicolas Dapero, 75
11. 48-Ryan Norman, 71
12. 28-Dalton Kellett, 64
13. 2-Juan Piedrahita, 55
14. 11-Garth Rickards, 54

Hinchcliffe will donate brain to study race-related concussions to help safety of sport

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INDIANAPOLIS – James Hinchcliffe is well known throughout the Verizon IndyCar Series for his sense of humor.

He’s the kind of guy that keeps not just his own team loose, but also does the same for other teams and fans.

Even when he’s talking about a serious topic, he can usually be counted on interjecting at least one or two great one-liners.

Hinchcliffe was in his usual form during Thursday’s Indianapolis 500 Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But while he joked at times, the underlying message he tried to get across was very serious and very poignant to all forms of motorsports.

Namely, concussions and concussion research.

Hinchcliffe went so far as to say that when he passes away, he’s ready to donate his brain to science so it can be studied, particularly for some of the impacts and resulting concussions he’s endured throughout his racing career.

“Oh yeah, 100 percent, absolutely, it’s a done deal,” Hinchcliffe replied when asked if he’d ever consider donating his brain.

He then added with a whimsy but serious reality, “If it can help, if it can be put to use, I’ve got no need for it at that point. Absolutely, I’d donate it to the cause.”

Hinchcliffe said he’s studied the topic of racing-related concussions in all forms of motorsports, particularly IndyCar and NASCAR.

The Canadian driver, who sat on the pole for last year’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, said he’s thought on occasions about the ramifications of concussions upon race car drivers.

But it was NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion that forced him to sit out the entire second half of last season that greatly increased the attention of a number of drivers across all forms of motorsports.

“Honestly, I think most guys would be in a similar situation,” Hinchcliffe said. “Dale’s (Earnhardt’s) situation, I think that was something that a lot of guys had never been asked.

“But as soon as it was brought up, it was a no-brainer.”

Hinchcliffe then grew embarrassed when he realized his verbal faux pas and apologized, but his message was still on-point.

“It’s a very easy decision for us,” Hinchcliffe said. “If we can do something now, especially with something we don’t need anymore (after dying) and it’s going to help benefit the future safety of our sport, then it’s an easy call.”

Hinchcliffe starts 17th in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda for Sunday’s race, a year after qualifying for the pole position.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Vice President Mike Pence confirms Indy 500 visit

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INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence, the former Gov. of Indiana, will be “back home again” this weekend for the Indianapolis 500.

The slight difference, of course, is that his main residence is now in Washington, D.C. since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January.

Pence is a longtime fan and visitor of the race, so while he confirmed he’ll attend on Thursday, it will not be in any official capacity.

“The Vice President is a Hoosier, grew up here, and tweeted some photos. He will be here as a fan. There will be no official role for him at the Indianapolis 500,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles on Thursday.

Rumors percolated on Wednesday he’d be in attendance. On Wednesday, Boles said IMS was in the process of preparing for Pence’s arrival from security and operational protocols.

“We have heard, as have all of you, that there is a possibility the Vice President of United States,” Boles said Wednesday. “We are not in position yet to confirm or deny yet; however I can tell you we are preparing for it. As soon as we know, we hope to know by end of the day tomorrow, we’ll have another one of these briefings.”

Indeed they have on Thursday. The only major change announced was that there will be no pedestrian traffic at Gate 4.

“The Turn 2 suites, just South of those suites is what we call Gate 4. Gate 4 will be closed to pedestrian traffic beginning tomorrow,” Boles said.