Extreme E promises electric racing in the spirit of Jacques Cousteau

Founder & CEO of Formula E, Alejandro Agag with Extreme E's chairman Gil de Ferran, chief explorer David Mayer de Rothschild and Artistic Director Fisher Stevens. Luke Walker/Getty Images for Extreme E

LONDON -- The promoters of Formula E have revealed their plans to launch an all-electric racing series in some of the toughest environments on earth.

Extreme E, which will host its inaugural race in January 2021, hopes to spread a message of environmental sustainability by racing off road in parts of the world affected by climate change. The series plans to race in the Arctic, the Himalayas, the Sahara desert, the Amazon rainforest and low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean to highlight the environmental issues caused by global warming.

The races will see all-electric Sports Utility Vehicles [SUVs] go head-to-head over 10km stages, with 12 single-car teams taking part in five rounds per year. The carbon-neutral series will operate out of a floating paddock on board a former Royal Mail ship, RMS St Helena, that will travel from race to race carrying cars, team members and equipment.

The racing will not be broadcast live, but instead edited into a documentary series by Academy Award winning filmmaker Fisher Stevens. The documentary will tell the story of each race as well as highlighting the environmental issues impacting each area. The series aims to take part in projects to help the places it visits and, ultimately, leave them in a more sustainable condition than they were in when it arrived. There will be no fans, no crash barriers and no physical branding on the courses, with the outline of the stages being added to the documentary in post-production.

The idea for the series was dreamt up over coffee by Formula E's founder Alejandro Agag and McLaren's sporting director Gil de Ferran, who is also Extreme E's chairman. Agag said his inspiration for the project, and the message it aims to portray, came from the documentaries of French explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau.

"When I was a kid my love for the ocean started, and it started for only one reason: I watched these documentaries from the French biologist Jacques Cousteau," he said at Extreme E's launch event on board the St Helena. "And since I watched that it changed my perception and changed my love for the ocean. That's how powerful a documentary can be.

"And, especially, Jacques Cousteau made me dream because he had a boat, he had the Calypso. My dream is that this ship [RMS St Helena] becomes the new Calypso; the Calypso of the 21st century. But this is not something you can just say, this is a title we need to earn, so I hope to make this ship the space for a huge adventure, a huge exploration and to showcase, not the beautiful environments [Cousteau captured], but showcase the huge challenges that our planet faces."

The SUV's themselves will use similar technology to Formula E cars, but will be twice as powerful as well as having four-wheel drive. Manufacturers will be allowed to develop the motor-generator units that drive the cars and will have the freedom to shape their bodywork to mimic road-going electric SUVs. However, like Formula E, the battery technology will be supplied by McLaren Applied Technologies. The introduction of hydrogen fuel cell technology is also being considered for the second generation of Extreme E vehicles, which may be introduced as early as the second season. Extreme E aims to limit the budget for each team to roughly £5 million and manufacturers will be forced to share technology with independents to ensure a level playing field.

No drivers, teams or locations are signed up to the series yet, but Agag says nine car manufacturers have already shown an interest in the series. Tyre supplier Continental is signed up as a founding partner, while the series claims to be a "fully-funded venture", with Agag among the investors.

"We are speaking to manufacturers and my personal opinion is that this is a great platform for manufacturers, because they can showcase the cars that they then sell on the streets," Agag said. "Also, there is a very important message for the manufacturers to showcase that electric cars, especially electric SUVs, can operate in any of the conditions -- any temperature, hot or cold, any surface, any condition. I think it is a very attractive concept for the manufacturers."

A multi-million-pound renovation of the RMS St Helena, which hosted Thursday's launch event on the River Thames in London, is already underway to accommodate all 12 cars in the ship's cargo bay. It will also be the floating home of the teams, drivers and organisers, as well as having the potential to be used as a research vessel. The series claims fuel usage on the ship will be cut by 50 percent with the use of a Sky Sail.

In order to find suitable locations for racing, Extreme E has appointed British adventurer and environmentalist, David de Rothschild, as its 'chief explorer'. The series intends to race in extreme environments without damaging local eco-systems and Agag is confident governments will be keen to work with Extreme E to allow the races to take place.

"I think governments, once we show them what we want to do, are going to be quite keen on this concept. We saw with Formula E and the cities that the big question was always 'how are you going to get cities to allow you to race in the streets?' and the answer is simple: because we are electric. I think the same is true of governments in these eco-systems.

"Also, the footprint is quite small. We will have four loops of 10km but we are not going to occupy a huge surface. We haven't yet started talking with governments, so once we start exploring we will start talking to the governments, but I think it will be easier than with the cities in Formula E."