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April 12, 2024

Behind-the-scenes at E1: the new electric powerboat racing series hoping to make waves

A new electric powerboat racing series with teams owned by a Bolivian billionaire and Tom Brady arrives on the world stage

By Robert Jackman

You may not know the name Antony Noghès, but you will be aware of his legacy. For it was Noghès – a wealthy tobacconist known to the Monégasque royals – who managed to convince the principality of Monaco to host its first Grand Prix in 1929. The rest, as they say, is history. Monaco and motorsport would not be what they are today without him. Who, then, is this century’s answer to Antony Noghès? 

[See also: Is Formula 1 becoming the hangout of choice for UHNWs?]

It might be too early to say for sure, but one candidate emerged recently in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where Spear’s was invited courtesy of a contemporary figure every bit as well connected, entrepreneurial and driven as that forebear of Formula One. 

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‘We want to take this race to some of the most attractive cities in the world,’ enthuses Alejandro Agag, a handsome Spanish former politician and now co-founder of E1 – the world’s first fully electric powerboat race series. His vision, he explains as he reclines in a chair wearing a pristine white Hugo Boss shirt embroidered with the E1 logo, is to take sustainable racing to citadels of culture and wealth, including Monaco, Venice, Hong Kong and Geneva.

The E1 series features the Racebird, a prototype electric powerboat / Image: Greg Funnell

The backing of famous friends

Alejandro Agag is the co-founder of E1
Spanish ex-politician Alejandro Agag is the co-founder of E1 / Image: Greg Funnell

As we sit in a makeshift meeting room at the back of the Ocean Club – E1’s answer to the F1 Paddock Club – the rolling hills of Switzerland seem a rather distant reference point. Instead, Spear’s has gone to Saudi Arabia’s second city. The Red Sea destination has become a focal point of the kingdom’s sporting ambitions – and home to E1’s inaugural race.

[See also: The new face of Saudi Arabia]

Should Agag and his co-founder, former F1 engineer Rodi Basso, get their way, E1 will become a fixture of the sporting calendar. It sounds a tall order to carve out a place in the already crowded field of racing. But then Agag has some notable backers.

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Two years after its conception, E1 already has eight team owners, most of whom are household names in their own particular sports. Completing the collection of team sponsors are two musicians – DJ Steve Aoki and Marc Anthony, Grammy winner and ex-husband of Jennifer Lopez – and Marcelo Claure, a Bolivian-American telecoms billionaire

A spectator explores a Team Aoki vessel at the E1 race in Saudi Arabia
The name of DJ Steve Aoki adorns one of the boats competing in the championships / Image: Greg Funnell

‘Some of them are personal friends of mine, others are friends of friends,’ Agag tells me as I dig for details on his impressive Rolodex. ‘I’ve known Checo [F1 driver Sergio Pérez] since he was a teenager.’ Other E1 backers include tennis’s Rafael Nadal and NFL megastar Tom Brady.

[See also: Saudi Arabia brings ‘Davos in the Desert’ to Miami]

The useful friends don’t stop there. Just before the Jeddah race comes the news that Agag has secured the backing of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, to buy into E1 as well as two of its sister ventures (electric motor-racing series Formula E and a high-adrenaline off-road venture, Extreme E). The PIF is tight-lipped when it comes to revealing the details of its deals, but Agag confirms that it is ‘more than just a simple sponsorship deal’ and that he has met with Saudi Arabia’s all-powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, personally.

‘A hovercraft crossed with a bobsleigh’

And what of the product itself? Cruising through the designated viewing area at the north end of Jeddah’s corniche, Spear’s isn’t exactly bowled over by the size of the crowd – but then again public sporting events still remain something of a novelty in a country which, until 2018, forbade cinemas for religious reasons. 

[See also: Buy, build or borrow: how to dive into the world of superyachts]

When the time comes for the powerboats to take to the water, the crowd has swelled slightly. A gaggle of locals push close to the railings to capture a close-up of the Racebird, E1’s prototype vessel, which looks like a hovercraft crossed with a bobsleigh and was conceived by Norwegian designer Sophi Horne.

In sets of four, the pilots propel their vessels around a circuit that is shaped like a sailor’s knot. The crowd – mostly locals – have a clear favourite: a Saudi female rally driver called Mashael Al Obaidan who is racing for Team Aoki. In the end it is Team Brady who win the inaugural race. After the race, Team Brady’s pilots – a Finn and a Welshman – pose for photos grasping a trophy that is shaped like the E1 logo. 

In the Ocean Club, dishdasha-wearing Saudis and assembled VIPs, many emblazoned with E1 team logos, snack on canapés provided by the Jeddah Ritz Carlton. As highlights from the race are played on screens, the service staff rush to clear away empty glasses that had contained non-alcoholic cocktails. Excited chatter from guests helps to drown out the low thrum of techno music, which presumably wasn’t supplied by Steve Aoki.

An experience money can’t buy

A vessel on the course of the inaugural E1 race in Saudi Arabia
In sets of four, the pilots propel their vessels around a circuit that is shaped like a sailor’s knot / Image: Greg Funnell

Amid the action, Spear’s catches up with Claure, an ambitious entrepreneur best known, at least recently, as a high-ranking fixer for Softbank. Tall and muscular, he seems a natural fit in the sporting world – he could easily be mistaken for a veteran sporting star himself. 

[See also: Is the superyacht industry sailing too close to the wind?]

As we sit down in a room at the back of the club, Spear’s asks Claure how he got involved with E1. ‘I was looking for something that combined my passions for sports and sustainability,’ he says. Such environmental piety will be music to the ears of E1’s leadership, who have carefully positioned the sport as a more sustainable alternative to other pursuits. But does it go deeper than that?

A woman waves a chequered flag at the inaugural E1 race in Saudi Arabia
Organisers hope this will be the beginning of another major event in the global sporting calendar / Image: Greg Funnell

Basso, E1’s chief executive and most senior engineer, has said he hopes the event will catalyse R&D into the electrification of marine craft, which can help reduce emissions from global shipping. 

Still, organising a globe-trotting racing tournament isn’t exactly light on air miles, even if the racing vessels are electric.

Both Agag and Basso have high hopes, in particular, that E1 will become a draw for international visitors, including HNWs. ‘We want to offer them an experience that money cannot buy,’ Basso tells me. VIP guests will have access, he adds, to hospitality at some of the world’s most exclusive yacht clubs, including in Monaco.

Is there a future for E1?

Bernie Ecclestone famously suggested that F1 should only cater to those with deep enough pockets to buy a Rolex (a 70-year sponsor of the sport). Yet Basso bristles at the idea that E1 will be a playground exclusively for the rich. Unlike an F1 Grand Prix, a powerboat race can be watched by anyone with a deckchair and a viewing point.

In the Ocean Club, the VIPs who have made the trip are happily sipping their non-alcoholic beverages in the company of Anthony and Aoki. (However, it is notable that four of the eight team owners do not appear to be in attendance.) The man who made it happen, Agag, is back in politician mode, pacing around the room and dispensing handshakes.

As the sun sets on the Jeddah waterfront, his brainchild has reached its first milestone. The schedule for the first season of E1 racing is mapped out, with six further races culminating in Hong Kong in November. As for E1’s future beyond that, right now it’s anyone’s guess. 

This feature first appeared in Spear’s Magazine: Issue 91. Click here to subscribe

Spear's Issue 91: cover image
Introducing Spear’s Magazine Issue 91 / Artwork: Diego Abreu

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