Alejandro Agag called it “probably the biggest news in the short history of Extreme E”, but what on earth is a Formula 1 team famed for being squeaky clean doing going off-road racing?
Listening to Zak Brown, the mastermind behind McLaren Racing’s F1 resurgence, plus its expansion back into IndyCar, it’s not as crazy an idea as it may seem.
That’s because Extreme E is a racing series unlike any other. Sure, it involves cars driving around a track, but it also has a wider message of making the world a better place while improving technology, and that’s precisely what McLaren is buying into, and why Extreme E has managed to come – seemingly – out of nowhere, leapfrogging proposed sportscar and Formula E efforts (which “remain under review”), to become McLaren’s latest adventure.
“We are now very excited to be joining Extreme E in 2022 to accelerate our learning our sustainability and diversity programs, and ultimately continue to build the McLaren Racing franchise,” Brown told a collective of written media that included DirtFish. “We think this continues to build our franchise and enable our partners, existing fans, create new fans, to have the most exciting proposition of a racing theme around the world.”
Unlike a typical ‘works’ racing program, McLaren’s Extreme E entry won’t be about selling a car or a product – in fact, senior figures from sister firm McLaren Automotive have often denied that it could follow in the footsteps of the likes of Lamborghini and Porsche by offering an SUV.
The Extreme E move is what Brown calls a “racing driven decision”, that is “not an indication one way or the other as to automotive position on SUVs”. Rather it is about improving how McLaren operates across the board, all while being at the forefront of technological development as the automotive world approaches a crossroad of whether to fully adopt electrification, alternative fuels, or other emerging technologies.
Technology plays a huge part and is very relevant, but we are sport entertainmentZak Brown
“I think the common theme is [that] sustainability is critically important and there are different ways to approach motor racing,” Brown said. “I think we need to remember [that] motor racing is a sport and entertainment.
“Technology plays a huge part and is very relevant, but we are sport entertainment and I think ultimately there are different [technologies] – you’re hearing hydrogen fuels, hybrid and electrification, and I think we’re in the early days in the automotive space of developing these technologies.
“I think the exciting thing is [that] motor racing becomes a platform to develop these various technologies. And I don’t think anyone yet knows definitively what the future holds. If there was, everyone would be going the same direction.
“So the good news is everyone’s addressing sustainability and there are different technologies in which to get there and the different forms of motor racing, are going to explore it.
“And maybe that will all come together in 10 years time, or maybe there will be multiple different ways to address sustainability through the automotive industry.”
The idea is a simple one: The orange, sorry, ‘papaya’ team wants to turn green, and it sees the unique Extreme E series as a way to further that aim.
But for an organization that has spent the best part of a decade rebuilding and going winless in F1, is a radical new racing program going to rock the boat? Definitely not, Brown insists.
“What we will never do is distract or detract from our Formula 1 efforts,” He insisted. “IndyCar and Extreme E, they’re all there to be complementary and to help accelerate our Formula 1 efforts.”
So I think Extreme E gives us the chance to introduce new fans around the world to the McLaren brandZak Brown
Discussing how the Extreme E program could prove beneficial to McLaren’s F1 team, or even its IndyCar operation that it runs in cooperation with the race-winning Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team, Brown highlighted not only the technological crossover as the world’s premier open-wheel series continues to adopt electrification through hybridisation and other high-tech enhancements, but also the possibility of widening McLaren’s hugely passionate fanbase and its list of partners by introducing the name – or indeed the series it participates in – to new audiences.
“I think technically, electrification – I think that’s going to continue to be developed in Formula 1, so the knowledge and knowhow there, I’m sure there will be some technical benefits to that,” he said. And then bringing in new fans. I think McLaren has a world-class fanbase, but we’ve seen by things like Netflix, how many new fans are coming into Formula 1.
“So I think Extreme E gives us the chance to introduce new fans around the world to the McLaren brand. And so that might mean they’re Extreme E fans or McLaren Formula 1 fans, McLaren IndyCar fans, or Esport fans. Hopefully they just become McLaren fans.
“And then our commercial partners, if you look at our Formula 1 and IndyCar teams, Arrow came from IndyCar into our Formula 1 team.
“Darktrace, most recently, on our Formula One team have come across to our IndyCar team because America is important to them. With Arrow, they had America and they wanted the rest of the world. So I think we have great partners that we work closely with around sustainability and diversity, and I could see them participating in Extreme E to help amplify and accelerate the sustainability programs that we’re doing together.”
Among all of this, Brown of course was already no stranger to Extreme E, being involved with Andretti Autosport’s entry through his own United Autosports team – although only as what he describes as a “silent partner.”
Brown said that United Autosports is “my relaxation, it’s my golf at a race weekend if I’m not doing my day job”, adding that he will be “100% McLaren” when it comes to Extreme E going forward.
What does McLaren’s entry mean for Extreme E?
It’s certainly not a brand one would expect to be entering Extreme E, and there might have been an element of that from Agag too, who couldn’t hide his joy at securing one of motorsport’s all-time greats to his burgeoning series.
Attracting names like Chip Ganassi, Andretti, General Motors, and the Volkswagen Group were already massive coups for Extreme E, but with McLaren it now has a beautiful, big cherry atop of its very sweet cake.
“Of course the McLaren news, today [is] a major, major boost for Extreme E,” Agag said on the same media call with Brown. “For us, to have a team like McLaren – [with] the competitive heritage of a team like McLaren – is incredible for Extreme E!”
McLaren’s arrival gives Extreme E an additional layer of credibility that it didn’t necessarily need, but will provide a massive boost nonetheless. Now Agag expects other manufacturers to sit up and take note.
“We already have two manufacturer partners: We have GM with Hummer and Volkswagen group with the Cupra brand, and we know that there are many manufacturers looking at Extreme E.
“I think the news of McLaren entering Extreme E is going to for sure help all the manufacturers look at Extreme E with interest. And of course they’re welcome to get in touch with me, but I always say, like in Formula E, it’s important to have a championship independent of the manufacturers. A championship that can also be where independent teams can be competitive, and that goal we want to create with the Extreme E.
“But I’m sure that there will be some car manufacturers looking at the news today with big interest. We have a limit of 12 teams, this is team number 10, so we have still two more and then this will be the maximum number of teams that we will host.
“So we may have two other teams joining soon.”