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Electric series generates plenty of buzz

By Alan Baldwin

LONDON (Reuters) - Alejandro Agag, the man leading the world's first all-electric car racing series, laughingly describes himself as an 'old petrolhead' who likes a bit of noise.

The joke stops there, however. The 43-year-old chief executive has silenced the doubters who only two years ago were questioning whether he could turn his 'Formula E' plans into reality and next week he hopes to show he is on to a winner.

The first race, or 'ePrix', will be held in Beijing on Sept. 13, sanctioned by the International Automobile Federation and broadcast around the world, and Agag is smiling at how perceptions have changed.

"Many people thought this (series) was not going to happen because it was a really difficult project to put together. There were no cars, no cities, no sponsors, no television," the Spaniard told Reuters in an interview.

"Now people have seen the testing, they've seen the cars, they can walk in the Olympic Park in Beijing and see all the fences and walls so the race is happening. So that really changes the minds of people."

If Formula One remains in a league of its own, with the glamor of Ferrari coupled with the allure of tracks like Monaco and Monza, Agag has a different audience in mind - one that is younger and more interested in social media than motorsport.

"We have one thing in which we are the best. We are the cleanest," said the chief executive.

"And for the world today, that’s probably the most important thing.

"The world is changing and the world is not any more so concerned about the fastest or the noisiest. But it is concerned about who is doing things that are better for the environment. And in that Formula E is unbeatable."

BIG FANS

Agag is used to comparisons being made with Formula One, even if Formula E will race in city centers, over shorter distances and with very different cars.

The Spaniard is in any case perfectly placed to deal with them, having been involved in both.

As well as a longstanding involvement in Formula One feeder series GP2, he was a business partner at London soccer club Queens Park Rangers with F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and former Renault team boss Flavio Briatore.

"We are big fans of Formula One and whoever tries to compete with Formula One will fail," said Agag.

"From Fangio to Fittipaldi to Senna to Schumacher to famous racetracks, the glory and the drama; All that Formula One has behind it is so important for motorsport that it’s impossible to fight with that.

"What we try to build is something complementary, which may be smaller, and at the beginning we are modest and know who we are, but we think we have something very important."

Agag said the Sept. 13 race would be a "transforming moment" for Formula E with the press room already having to be enlarged from a planned 300 capacity after a rush of accreditation requests from a curious media.

The series hopes to break even in year one, with some big corporate partners already on board and a range of broadcasters that includes Sky Germany and ITV in Britain, and has a clear sense of direction.

All ePrix 'weekends' shoehorn practice, qualifying and the race into one day, and drivers must switch cars at the sole mandatory pitstop because of the limitations of battery technology.

Maximum speeds will be about 225kph, compared to the 340kph likely to be reached by Formula One cars at Monza this weekend, and the series will end in Britain next June.

"We started the project focusing on China and the US as the two main markets for the development of electric cars in the future," said Agag. "We thought there was a window of opportunity there for Formula E to grow.

"China I think symbolizes very well what we want to show, that electric cars are the solution for pollution in cities... to show these cars in action in Beijing sends a strong message of what we want to achieve."

WORLDS APART

Formula One, which has a grand prix in Shanghai, has also been re-positioning itself to project a greener image.

It switched this season from the old howling V8 engines to much quieter hybrid V6 turbos with energy recovery systems and an increasing focus on battery technology in line with automotive industry priorities.

However the changes were not welcomed by all, with the lack of noise bemoaned by some fans for whom the ear-splitting roar of a normally aspirated V8 was the big draw.

Those fans may well dismiss the electric racing, where the noise comes largely from trackside DJs and sound systems rather than the cars, but the two worlds are already overlapping and could converge further in future.

Renault are active in both while McLaren provided the powertrain and electronics for Formula E cars and Williams the batteries.

Many of the drivers are also familiar to F1 fans, with Alain Prost's son Nicolas and Ayrton Senna's nephew Bruno among them.

Formula E also has women racers and teams backed by the likes of Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio and British entrepreneur Richard Branson.

But in other areas the championships are worlds apart.

"I think we have the most aggressive social media strategy of any sport at the moment. No sport allows the public to have a direct effect on the result of the sport as we do," said Agag.

"Fans vote and the car gets more energy. We will be the most digitally open championship in the world," he added, referring to a 'Fanboost' feature which allows fans to vote online for an extra speed boost for the driver with most support.

If purists dismiss that as a gimmick, Agag took it on the chin: "We do understand people who criticize it, we understand their point, but we think the point is irrelevant because we gain so much more because of the contribution of the fans."

Fans will be able to get close to drivers and cars, with an open paddock compared to the exclusive Formula One version.

Eventually there could even be a final virtual round with gamers challenging drivers in an online ePrix with points and prize money at stake.

Agag said talks were ongoing with digital developers, who wanted to wait and see how the championship fared.

"If you invest $10 or 20 million in creating a video game and then the championship underneath disappears, you lose your investment," he explained.

"I think it will need the first season to happen, to be able to launch that video game but we are definitely keen on doing that. We know it’s possible."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris)

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