Motor racing: Extreme E puts 'docu-sport' on environmental map

LONDON (Reuters) - An ‘Extreme E’ race series launched on Thursday plans to showcase electric SUVs in some of the world’s harshest and most remote environments while also highlighting the effects of climate change.

The brainchild of Formula E founder Alejandro Agag and former Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran, the series plans a series of races in locations ranging from Arctic wastes to Brazilian rainforests.

“Formula E’s great but we don’t race with cars that people can buy on the road,” Agag told Reuters, referring to the city-based single-seater electric series that is now in its fifth season.

“So I thought there was space for a championship with cars that people can buy, especially electric SUVs (sports utility vehicles),” added the Spaniard.

“Then we came up with racing in the most extreme locations to showcase that the cars can operate in any temperature, on any surface -- snow, ice, sand -- that’s how the concept came together.”

Agag said there had been plenty of commercial interest in the project, with Continental Tyres already a founding partner, even if permissions in the relevant geographical regions had yet to be secured.

“For Formula E it was difficult to raise capital, for this one so many people want to join and to invest.” added the Spaniard.

Formula E features manufacturers like BMW, Audi, Nissan, Citroen, Mahindra and Jaguar with Mercedes and Porsche joining.

The 7,000 ton former mail ship ‘St Helena’, that once served as a link to remote South Atlantic islands, will serve as a floating paddock.

Agag called it a ‘Calypso for the 21st century’, comparing it to the boat used by 20th century French oceanographer and marine conservationist Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

The races, in head-to-head elimination format, will be filmed in areas already suffering from environmental damage or under threat before being edited into a 10-part ‘docu-sport’ package. There will be no spectators.

Fisher Stevens, the Academy Award-winning artistic director, described the venture as ‘Blue Planet meets Dakar (Rally)’.

“It’s not just about the race, it’s about where we race, the people that live in the places where we race,” he told reporters.

“We’re going to leave the places better than we found them. We’re going to help their communities with electric, solar power or whatever they need. And that is part of the narrative.”

The 400kw cars will feature common chassis, produced by Spark Racing, and batteries made by McLaren but manufacturers will be able to make the externals look like their regular showroom offerings.

Agag said the first prototype would be ready by April, with production starting in July and the first race likely to be held in January 2021.

Asked what he would say to cynics who might see his new series as little more than a car commercial with a conscience, Agag shrugged.

“I’m fine with that. Car commercials are fine. And the conscience is fine,” he said. “We have been doing pretty well in Formula E by ignoring cynics. We like doing things. And we look at the big picture.”

Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis