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Alejandro Agag: tearing up the motorsport rulebook - for equality and the environment

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Alejandro Agag
Alejandro Agag   -   Copyright  euronews
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'Disrupted' is the show where we speak to people who are shaking up their industries - and in doing so, also shaking up the way we think.

The first guest on this inaugural edition of the show is Alejandro Agag, whose career trajectory has taken him from politics in his native Spain to Formula 1 racing - and then on to being a fully-fledged environmental activist.

He admitted to Euronews' Isabelle Kumar that it's an unusual path:

Alejandro Agag: Yeah, I don't know any other (career) like this, from politics to car racing. I love politics. I started very, very young: when I was in university. I did it for many years. If I hadn't married my wife, I would probably still be in politics. My wife is the daughter of the prime minister at the time in Spain (Ana Aznar Botella, the daughter of José María Aznar). So, I basically decided to stop (doing) politics, in order to not have a conflict of interest with my family, basically - to not work for my father-in-law. I really didn't like that plan. So I stopped politics and then I had to look for a job. I had some friends in motorsport, Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore. They invited me to start doing things with them and the rest is history. I started doing normal motorsport and, I'm not an environmentalist (at that point). I'm probably a new environmentalist, if you like, but I think it's very important that there are lots of new environmentalists.We need to make everyone an environmentalist.

Isabelle Kumar: For you, working Formula 1 as it was, was potentially untenable and you needed to kind of change, did that just come like that overnight? Or was it a gradual realisation?

Alejandro Agag: It was both, actually. I always had worries for the environment, especially since I had kids. But I think this is what many people have: we read the news, we see documentaries and we realise that something is wrong. So I had that in my mind. Second, I realised the commercial reality. Sponsors, big corporations were withdrawing from getting involved in Formula 1, because it was not a green sport. So I put both those two things together and I said we should try to create a green version of what we're doing, a green version of motorsport. And that was how the idea came up.

Isabelle Kumar: It's a big gamble though, isn't it? So how did you pull it off and what is it about you that allowed you to pull it off?

Alejandro Agag: Well, not only was everybody not on board immediately, everybody thought it was completely crazy! Everybody thought it was going to fail, we were going to go bust - and we were really close to going bust. And - I don't know if it was me, it was just like when you believe in something and you push and you think it's the right idea, then sometimes, you know, you're right and you get lucky. I was almost too early. We almost failed, but we managed to survive and then the whole movement came behind us and we were able to grow it to the size it is now; it has become a huge reality.

Isabelle Kumar: It's a huge reality, now it's allowing you to look at new challenges, which is Extreme-E. Now that's going to be launched in 2021. Just tell us a little bit about that?

Alejandro Agag: Through Formula-E, I really became more and more passionate about climate action and action for the environment and I thought we could do more with motorsport. The most watched shows on television are sports, sports are bigger than anything else. A lot more people watch sports than environmental documentaries. So I thought: 'sport can play a role to help people understand the message of what's going on around the planet'. So let's take sport to those places where climate is affecting what's going on and show - through sport - what's going on in the Arctic, in the rainforests, in the deserts, in the oceans. And that's Extreme E.

So I'm taking electric SUVs to those remote locations to show that electric cars are also a good option for off-road.We have a ship - the St Helena - (as it would be ) otherwise impossible: you need your own transportation to go to those places.We don't want to fly things - because we want to reduce the CO2 footprint also - and we organise these races there. We hope to have some of the biggest names in the off-road racing world. And (after) that, we (will) organise these races all around the world, five races per year, in those locations.

Euronews
"Sport can play a role to help people understand what's going on around the planet. So let's take sport to places where climate is affecting what's going on.".:Euronews

Isabelle Kumar: Are you finding the same amount of support when it comes to something like this, which is taking on new challenges in terms of the environment, really driving it home as you would have done with Formula E?

Alejandro Agag:I'm finding a lot of support. It is fascinating to see how more and more people really now want to get involved in this. I'm also finding some resistance. Some people say you shouldn't race there at all because that's no place for cars.

I think that gives me a lot of motivation, because there are a lot of negative people out there. There are a lot of people that just don't want to do anything and I think that's wrong.

I always give the same example: we're going to have to emit a lot of carbon to get out of the carbon age. For example, we need to make solar panels. We need to make millions of solar panels. That's going to produce a lot of carbon. But in the long term, it's going to get rid of the carbon. So it's the same thing with us - we have to promote electric cars. We have to make millions of electric cars. We have to make them more efficient. We're going to produce some carbon on the way. So the important thing is to take action. I really get very annoyed with people who don't want to do anything.

Isabelle Kumar: But is Extreme E going to be carbon zero?

Alejandro Agag: There is only one way to be carbon zero for something that emits carbon, which is to offset the carbon produced. First, you try to emit as little carbon as possible; that's why we use a ship instead of using a plane.

We will minimise the road, the routes around the world, optimise them and so on. But once you minimise the carbon you emit, you still have a footprint that you have to offset. By planting trees, for example; by doing actions that take carbon out of the atmosphere. There are many different ways and then you become carbon neutral or even carbon negative.

Isabelle Kumar: So you're going to go to areas that have been damaged by climate change. What are you doing to ensure that you actually don't create more damage once you've left?

Alejandro Agag:We call our race 'Extreme E: Race Without A Trace'. When we leave, you won't see that we've been there. We have a scientific committee with some of the top scientists in the world that are focusing on environmental questions, from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. They first look at the situation on the ground and check, obviously, that damage is not done there. But second, they coordinate our legacy programme. In every place we're going to leave a legacy.

We're going to work with local communities and we're going to have specific actions. It doesn't matter if they're small. We're doing something! My obsession is to do stuff, not to talk. And, that's how we're gonna guarantee that we race without a trace in those locations.

Isabelle Kumar: It's not only environment. You also doing something for equality when it comes to Extreme E. And this really caught my attention, because I think if you look at motorsport, it's very much a testosterone-fuelled environment. And you're getting women in the driving seat alongside men. What was your motivation for doing that? Was it marketing? Or do you kinda really want to take this challenge of beating sexism in the industry head-on?

Alejandro Agag: Equality is one of the big causes of this century. And I think that parity between men and women, there's a lot of work still to be done there. And especially in motorsport. My world is motorsport. I work on the things I do. I cannot (make changes) in the fashion world or the pharmaceutical industry. I do motorsport. So I try to bring equality into motorsport.

I tried 15 years ago: I did a team in Formula 3 in Spain where I said 'OK, I'm going to do a team with only women'.And I did a team with two women, but they were competing with the men and it wasn't successful. And since then, for 15 years, I've been thinking, 'what would be the best way to bring (in) women? But on equal terms with men in motorsport, because it's not good if the woman is losing the race and the guys are on top of the podium, that generates even more frustration.

So I thought - and the idea came from tennis - from the mixed doubles: the women and the men are equally important for victory. So I thought, 'let's make teams of a woman and man where both do one lap and we do the races of two laps'. Then, it doesn't matter who goes faster, the man or the woman, both are key for the victory and they will be both standing on top of the podium. And actually, now it's fascinating because now we're really getting into it: I was testing two weeks ago with the female drivers and the male drivers. And the males were saying that the winning team will be the one that will get the best woman.

Euronews
"Let's make teams of a woman and man where both do one lap and we races of two laps. Then, it doesn't matter who goes faster, the man or the woman, both are key for victory."Euronews

Isabelle Kumar: Exactly, because women don't have the same experience in this sport. So there must be huge disparity between the best woman and maybe the third best.

Alejandro Agag: That is very interesting. Of course, there are a lot of men and because there are so many men racing, the ones that are going to race are really close to each other (in terms of ability). There are less women in the sport. So the difference between the best woman and the woman that goes a bit slower is going to be bigger. So, they're all looking all around the world for the best female driver. They were telling me female drivers have never felt so in demand since we announced the format of Extreme E and (its) gender equality action. So I think it's already having a great result.

Isabelle Kumar: There's not going to be any spectators are there?

Alejandro Agag:No paying spectators. We think that in some places where there are locals, we're gonna do some areas where they will be able to just come for free and watch. But no there no spectators, it's all for media. So there will be live broadcasting and there will be a documentary side of it. We didn't really know about COVID-19 when we launched Extreme E, of course. But makes it ideal for this COVID era where you cannot really have spectators. We are a COVID-proof sport in a way.

Alejandro, whether deliberately or not, is proving to be a massive disruptor when it comes to the motorsport industry. But he says that wasn't really his intention or his motivation:

Isabelle Kumar: You're proving to be, and maybe this wasn't your intention, a massive disruptor when it comes to the industry. Is that something that motivates you? What gets you going in the morning?

Alejandro Agag: What really gets me going in the morning is not disappointing the people who trust me. So a lot of people put their trust in me and I'm very grateful for that. But the teams that sign up, they make investments and they believe that I will deliver a championship.

The investors that back me, the television, the broadcasters that agreed to broadcast our races. And at the end also the local communities - in this case, of these countries that we are going to. For example, we're doing a programme where we're going to plant one million mangroves in Senegal with the local community. We're going to restore hundreds of hectares of rainforest with the local communities in the Amazon. So that's what really drives me: not to disappoint all those people. I have promised that I'm going to deliver this championship, or even more: this kind of action that we're gonna do all around the planet.

Isabelle Kumar:Has your attitude towards business changed as you've progressed along this path, which has been really quite recent because Formula E was only launched in 2014?

Alejandro Agag: "Yeah, definitely, my attitude towards business has changed. Before, my legitimate interest in business was of course to do well and make money with my businesses, which is the normal way to do it. Now it's a lot more about - it's kind of a cliche - but you want to make the world a better place. If you can make the world a better place when you're old - and I just turned 50, so I feel a little bit older than three weeks ago - then you can be happy. Even if it's a small thing."

Isabelle Kumar: It seems your drive to disrupt the industry across the board has become almost an addiction. Are you addicted to this now?

Alejandro Agag: "Yes! I mean, it probably could be like being addicted to electricity. Once I have done one, it's easier to do another one. "So when we came up with the idea of Extreme E because we had Formula E, we said, why not? Now the idea of doing electric boats, why not? Now we're looking into electric planes also. So there are some options for things with electric planes in sport, so we can electrify the sport in cars, in boats and in planes. Why not? If we are capable (of doing) it, because we can raise the capital, because we have the know-how, because we have the contacts in the industry, the suppliers of technology and so on, let's do it! I think it's a fun thing to do. It's a good thing to do - and it's also profitable."

Isabelle Kumar:You've said you've taken many risks during your career. What's the best advice you've ever received?

Alejandro Agag: "Probably not listening too much to the critics, because you have to listen to the advice and to the positive advice. But there is so much negative opinion out there. So many people told me I wouldn't make it. If I had listened to (just) one, I would have gone to bed and just stayed there. So probably the best advice is: don't listen too much to people who think you're going to fail."