A celebrity’s playground: How is Saudi-backed E1 Series changing the world of water mobility?

BlackBook Motorsport travelled to Puerto Banús, the site of E1 Series latest round, to talk to the organisation’s chief executive Rodi Basso about his vision for the championship, engaging with fans at home and at events, and the real-world application of electric powerboat technology.
E1 Series

The latest brainchild of Spanish entrepreneur Alejandro Agag is perhaps his most extravagant idea yet.

Formula E applied an environmentally-conscious approach to the familiar Formula One format. Extreme E doubled down on the sustainable focus, taking the racing off-road in locations affected by climate change. E1 Series is more akin to the high-tech SailGP series than either of its more established predecessors.

In many ways, it’s a high-end alternative to the other all-electric series in Agag’s stable, with a calendar that spans the picturesque sights of Lake Geneva and Venice, the luxury yachts of Puerto Banús and Monaco, and the sprawling cities of Jeddah and Hong Kong.

An extensive list of celebrity owners amplify E1’s message to a wider audience, too. In sporting legends like Tom Brady and Rafael Nadal, current athletes Sergio Perez and Virat Kohli, and even A-list celebrities such as Will Smith and Marc Anthony, the nascent series has an enviable range of voices to broaden its reach.

Keeping it all afloat as it sets out on its journey, though, is Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which in January was announced as the principal sponsor of E1. At the time, it was announced that the Electric 360 partnership, which also covers Agag’s other motorsport properties, will ‘spearhead E1’s revolutionary drive around marinemobility’.

PIF’s involvement also goes further than this: Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund owns 50 per cent of E1’s shares. The series’ debut race taking place in Jeddah was no coincidence, and it’s important context when carrying out any analysis of a series that places sustainable progress high in its list of priorities.

But this must be weighed against the strides being taken by E1, especially as the technological innovation being pursued by the series would not be possible without this level of investment. It’s a dilemma across all of motorsport right now, but for E1’s chief executive Rodi Basso, the benefits of the collaboration cannot be understated.

“As an engineer, the principle behind the [Electric] 360 [partnership] is something that is really in my heart,” he tells BlackBook Motorsport. “They are trying to understand, together with us, how to keep developing sports platforms and sports events with a high commercial relevance – where the relevance is not only economic or financial, but how you can impact billions of people.”

A different kind of race day

The old adage about motorsport being a testbed for technology is plain to see in E1. Indeed, the futuristic ‘RaceBirds’ would look more at home in the sci-fi realms of Star Wars than the Puerto Banús coastline.

BlackBook Motorsport attended the series’ most recent round held in the famous port situated just along the coast from Marbella in Spain. What became quickly apparent was that the sleek and stylish RaceBirds were not fully equipped to deal with the choppy waters off the Spanish coast.

In tranquil water, the machines glide effortlessly to reach speeds of up to 93kph (58mph), but the windy conditions meant they struggled to exceed 50kph (31mph). While Basso was reassured that it was possible to race in these conditions, he admits “the spectacle is even better when we have flat water”.

“Today we had a very, very tough test, because the water and wind conditions were very challenging,” he adds. “On top of this, we never tested the boat in these conditions. But, of course, it was the same for every pilot and every team.”

Ultimately, testing the technology in a variety of conditions is part of the objective of the series, and Basso wants this variety to remain as E1 evolves.

“We will have a mix,” he says. “We are keen to have a very local experience in everything we do. That will be like races in lakes with calmer conditions, and then open seas where we will have something similar to what we’ve seen in Puerto Banús.

“For me, the variety is very important.”

The RaceBirds had to contend with choppy conditions off the coast of Puerto Banús

Tailoring the fan experience

Alongside these technological strides, it was interesting to witness the event experience firsthand. The premium Ocean Club hospitality offering will contribute to Basso’s ambition for E1 to be a “playground for high net-worth individuals” and, crucially, potential investors and sponsors.

But the Acceleration Festival is of much more relevance to the wider prospects of the series.

Offering free entry, this fan zone was located close to the viewing area looking out over the coast, ensuring those in attendance could follow the action. This was especially useful in difficult conditions where the boats were often indistinguishable.

“It’s a mix of a family experience, a mix of awareness, education and city lifestyles,” Basso explains. “So wherever we go, we want to showcase how to enjoy the coastline in that specific place.

“It’s very much for the local people and I like to see it as a family moment where those from 40 to 50 years old and the younger generations come together to enjoy a good time.”

‘The meeting point of three cultures’

Complementing the race day entertainment, the series has an evolving broadcast offering. Basso previously told BlackBook Motorsport that the goal was to develop a product that was “understandable, clear and exciting for the fans”, and it is clear that this will be an ongoing process.

“We’re trying to get out of the comfort zone of motorsport, sailing, and powerboating, and do something that is the meeting point of the three cultures,” says Basso. “Jeddah was tough because we had many technical issues, but after that Venice was much better, and here even better.

“We are learning, improving and moving forward with a blur between augmented reality and [real life] that offers broadcasters content which is pretty unique. I strongly believe in the power of our investment in the broadcast technology.

“We are now stablising this platform and, as soon as it is stable – and for me Puerto Banús is the tilting point – then we will keep developing and adding features in order to make it even more compelling.”

After Jeddah, E1 signed six new broadcast deals, highlighting the bubbling interest in the series and its promise to deliver something a bit different to traditional motorsport.

Testing the transport of tomorrow

The question of real-world relevance hangs over any motorsport series, and it is no different for a championship like E1. Funding from PIF means that scouring for sponsors isn’t the top priority, allowing the organisation to focus on the development of this new technology, although there will likely come a point when it will have to prove it is commercially sustainable.

The discourse around a series like Formula E focuses on its relevance to e-mobility, so it is no surprise that E1 is concentrating on the future of water mobility. Using transport akin to E1’s RaceBirds might seem like an unattainable reality, but a series like Airspeeder – which uses flying cars – highlights how science-fiction is increasingly becoming science-fact today.

“I am keen [for E1] to be perceived as the place to go when you want to test something new for the water mobility of the future,” Basso states.

The potential for the technology is undeniable but, above all else, E1 is attempting to establish itself as a sport. Getting the fan experience right both at the races and on TV is crucial to building and retaining an audience, and this interest is a requirement for the series to justify its existence.

Will E1 be able to navigate the choppy waters of its initial years? Or will the series’ undeniable style lack the required substance to emerge unscathed?

Time will tell, but for now it has the necessary funding to give the series every chance of being a success.

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