Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle On Pandemic Sustainability And Hopes For The Future

Illustration for article titled Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle On Pandemic Sustainability And Hopes For The Future
Photo: Sam Bloxham/FIA ABB Formula E (Getty Images)

As you might have seen, we had a chance to talk to Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle earlier this week to coincide with the announcement of an updated schedule. But our conversation went far beyond just chatting about the schedule itself—I also wanted to know more about the complexities of creating that schedule, of how the series is balancing the disposability of PPE with the series’ sustainable goals, and, most importantly, how the fate of the New York City ePrix looks (spoiler alert: it’s good.

If you think you’ve heard the name Jamie Reigle before, that’s because you very well may have. He’s worked with big names like the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL and Manchester United in the English Premier League. And as someone born in Montreal, Quebec, it’s an added bonus to know he has a keen interest in bringing Formula E to North America.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Elizabeth Blackstock: Thanks for taking the time to chat. I really want to talk about how Formula E has had such a fascinating reaction to COVID-19 and the structure of the series itself has made logistics difficult. Especially the fact that last year was your first full year as Formula E CEO and you kind of got thrown into the proverbial fire. What was it like to face a global pandemic just a few months after you first started?

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Jamie Reigle: And a global pandemic that everyone hoped and assumed would last a few months!

The Formula E opportunity was special for me on a personal level, and the plan was for the first season to be observing and see how the series is operated. It’s a pretty incredible story, what Alejandro [Agag, former Formula E CEO] and his team have built in a fairly short period of time. The plan was really just to observe, learn, meet everyone in the paddock—all the teams, manufacturers, and partners—and then perhaps start to think about how we can evolve things going into season seven.

Obviously, it didn’t work out that way. It’s interesting. We first started hearing about COVID in January of last year and postponed our race in Sanya. We took the decision the first week of February. So it’s basically been a year since we started going through this.

But I think the good news with Formula E—and this is what I said pre-COVID, and it still stands true—having been in a number of other sports, typically there’s a bit of a zero-sum game with the athletes or teams or whatever the setup is. But Formula E is pretty collaborative. There’s generally a sense that everyone is in this together. We’re not at scale of other big global sports, so everyone is on the same page in trying to grow the sport. Everyone understands that there’s the racing and the reason. We’ve got this racing product but we’ve got this purpose around climate change and advancing EV technology, and that shared alignment is very important.

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That being said, in February, when you start talking about postponing one race but it doesn’t seem too dramatic, by the end of March, we were parking everything for an indefinite period of time. That was a big decision. We tried to do everything with the entire ecosystem in mind, making sure people feel safe and healthy and that we’re being responsible in the cities we go into. But ultimately, people want to race. In some ways, because we’re smaller on a relative basis, we had to figure out a different way to complete the season, and we looked at a lot of different alternatives. You saw the NBA did the bubble model in Orlando. In Toronto, they did Toronto and Edmonton. We looked at that, and that actually worked quite well for us, which is why we did Berlin.

This year’s different. We’re a World Championship, and what that means is that we’re a world championship and we have to race all around the world if we can. That’s what we’re trying to do this year.

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EB: I’m looking forward to it. Berlin’s six races in nine days was a really smart idea, and it was a lot of fun to watch with the different track layouts. It was cool to see it happen, but I imagine it’s easier to find flexibility now that you’ve been through this before and that we all kind of know what to expect with COVID.

JR: I think that’s right. There were moments last spring where we thought we’d be racing again in June to complete our season. It became very clear by the middle to the end of April that that would be very optimistic. It’s not that we saw something that no one else saw. We just looked at it and said, we’ve already done five races and we’re supposed to do 14. We want to protect our first year as a World Championship. So, if you work backwards from there, that means we basically have to finish our season in August. Maybe September if we push it.

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Once you’ve looked at that, we asked if we were better off trying to have a series of events in different places or is there a different way to do it. Berlin fit well because it’s a city we’ve raced in before, Tempelhof is a venue we’ve raced at before. We thought, hey, this is a different way to showcase the product. To your point, it was six races in nine days, we switched up the tracks, it was a different intensity like an NCAA tournament—that analogy wouldn’t land with my European friends.

But the intensity of the playoffs you might have in other sports would be probably the most responsible way. It’s credible. It’s efficient. And it allows us to test something that we don’t know will be successful but it might give us a window into how we might do things differently.

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With hindsight, it was very well suited to 2020. It was very well suited to achieving our goal. Antonio [Felix da Costa, 2020 champion] and the Techeetah team did so well in the first couple of races. We hoped they’d draw it all the way to the sixth race, but it didn’t work out that way, but hey—he’s a super deserving champion.

When we look back, we did debate last fall whether we should look at season seven and do pods or buckets of races, basically. And we had to think about who we’re optimizing for here. It’s Formula E—is it the championship, our teams, our manufacturers, our commercial partners, our media partners? If we have an ambition to be a tier-one global sport, which we do, we have an obligation to try to make it as global as we can.

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There are constraints to that, like getting into China right now. With their COVID restrictions, that’s very hard to do. When we look at the teams, the business model of Formula E dictates that we be a global championship. We can take some learnings from Berlin, but I wouldn’t see us repeating that model again.

Now, equally, if things get dramatically worse—I don’t think that’s going to be the case, but I’ve stopped making prognostications—we know that we can do that. We know we have that alternative. Is it the Formula E that we all love and believe in? No, it’s not. The one we believe in is one that travels around the world and puts on races in city centers. And that’s what we’re going to try to do.

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EB: You’ve been reorganizing the schedule as of late. Can you talk about what it’s like, talking to local governments and conforming to local protocols? How do you take those into account as you restructure the season?

JR: The most important thing to say is that, whenever we go into a city, we’re bringing our product. We want it to be a product that is consistent and recognized around the world. But, equally, how we express that product in markets around the world is very different based on the regulations and cultural expectations or acceptance of motorsport of those markets. Each one has its own idiosyncrasies. So, that’s the starting point.

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Then you overlay COVID and a health crisis, which—forget sports for a second. Governments around the world and the political structure of the countries, there are tons of different approaches to and tolerances for certain levels of caseload and what that means for social gatherings. We have to be adaptable to fit within those requirements. Equally, we had Berlin and we had delivered events in what we believe is a very safe way with very clear protocols and with a very strong bubble. In fact, we had two cases out of 1400 tests on the first day, and our founder Alejandro [Agag] was one of them. He spent 14 days in a hotel in Berlin. There are no exceptions to this.

There’s law in Germany in that case, and there’s our responsibility as a company. The good news is that we’ve got the protocols from the German races we did, and we’ve got the protocols from the testing we did in Valencia, in Spain. When we go and speak to our partners, for example, in Santiago, Chile, where we were supposed to start this week, we work with their local health ministry and local business partners while also bringing our approach, showing them our protocols, and see if that fits within the context of Chilean law and health policy.

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If you and I had spoken on December 15, I would have said that I’m confident we’re going to Chile—we’ve already shipped the cars and the logistics shifts have left. Vaccines are coming, and it’s not that I’m a wild optimist, but it would be hard to imagine it could get worse.

And then three or four days later, a new variant emerged in the UK, and within the space of 48 hours, pretty much every country in the world had issued a ban on travel from the United Kingdom. It was interesting. We did have the conversation with our partners in Santiago about possible exemptions, and ultimately that door was not open. But even if it had been, you get into social responsibility. Imagine the country was willing to give you the exemption. Are you okay to do that? In the case of Santiago, it was too soon. That’s why we made the tough call to postpone that race.

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On the other hand, time has gone by, and we’ve been working with the Saudi Arabian ministry of sport and health authorities. They hosted the Dakar over the last few weeks. They have protocol about how international sports can function. People can come in under exemptions, quarantine and test, and so on, and the country is comfortable. So, we’re going to go to Saudi Arabia. We’re working on the same thing for the spring races, but unfortunately, this changes daily.

In simple terms, you have to be super adaptable and very respectful of local policy. Ultimately, as we sit here today—I could be wrong on this—but I don’t think there are any countries in the world where we could just show up and host a race. They are all individual negotiations with health ministries, local authorities, visas. I think that’s just going to be our reality for all of 2021.

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EB: I’m assuming that’s an intensive process. About how long does it take for these negotiations to take place?

JR: The good news is that our calendar is fairly settled, with all those cities we’ve raced in before, so there’s an existing relationship and in each case, we’ve been in dialogue with them for years. When you overlay COVID, which has health involvement as well as immigration and border controls, it’s just an ongoing dialogue. There’s no specific time frame, but we’re coming up on what we call a decision gate, where we’ve communicated to everyone that we’re going to try to communicate the next slate of races. We have Italy, Spain, Monaco, Marrakesh, and Santiago. That’s the intended plan, and as of today, we believe we can do it. But on December 15, I thought we were going to Chile. That’s just the practical reality, which is that things are challenging.

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I’m optimistic—and I think most people are optimistic—that there are many countries in the world where the vaccination process has started. While it’s quite scary and sobering when you look at the statistics in the moment, it’s sort of strange, but it should improve. Is it going to improve in April? Is it going to improve in July? I don’t know. But unless it turns out that one of these variants is resistant to the vaccines, vaccine distribution should help us be in a better place later on in the year. It’s just a question of whether that’s in three months or nine months—which matters a lot to our series.

EB: What are the specific series protocol? What are you guys doing to stay safe, as Formula E, when you come into a country?

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JR: The first thing that we propose—and we did this in Berlin—is that we effectively enter our own bubble. In simple terms, we rent out a hotel. In Saudi, it might be two or three. Everyone within the Formula E paddock will stay in one of those hotels. In the case of Berlin, we had codes based on which zone you were in. So, were you in the garage zone, the catering zone, the media zone? Those people were not only confined to the same spaces at the hotel and the race track, but you were only allowed to ride a bus with people in your zone. You could only have meals in a specific hotel restaurant with people from that zone. You couldn’t do whatever you wanted.

The whole idea is that you’ve got a sealed-off group. In our case, we had over 1,000 people, and those people are separated into smaller pods to minimize interaction. The idea there is that, if you did have a positive trace, in theory you would minimize the touchpoints in contact tracing.

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In Saudi, we’ll operate, broadly, the same program. I suspect it will be the same in Rome and so on. When you get into the spring, with Monaco, we’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to host some fans and open things up a little bit.

EB: Formula E is all about being eco-friendly, but a lot of COViD protocols highlight disposability—like single-use masks, getting rid of water fountains, that kind of thing. Are you guys thinking about how you’re combatting those issues that come up when you’re a sustainable series dedicated to being eco-friendly?

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JR: We’re always looking at ways to implement technologies or products that allow us to reduce our footprint. One of the examples is with our partner Allianz. We do water stations at races to reduce the number of single-use plastic cups or bottles. We hand out pouches that people can use all around the e-village and hospitality. We’re trying to evolve to a model where all of our touchpoints are consistent with the overarching brand promise.

In the case of COVID, just to be candid, the desire to be ecologically unimpeachable is trumped by the necessity to keep people safe and healthy. The reality is, yes, you have to use new masks. In fact, in Germany, we had to change masks. That’s dictated as part of the policy there. Now, in Germany, if you use public transport, you have to use an N95 mask. If we were doing an event in Germany tomorrow, we would be held to that standard.

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That’s just the trade-off right now. There’s not much we can do about that.

EB: Formula E operates on a slightly different model than other motorsport events—what are the specific challenges with the series when it comes to scheduling races and do you see there being any benefits to FE as opposed to a series like Formula One that can race in relative isolation?

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JR: There’s no doubt that the city-center racing model is more challenging in this environment. As you know, in terms of the calendar, Paris will be coming off this year and the reason for that is that, in the best of times, it’s a really logistically challenging race to put on. I say this, but I haven’t actually seen it yet—I’m going on what my team tells me here. But if you see where the track is, right through Les Invalides and at the bottom of the Champs-Elysées, this is prime Paris real estate. The fact that it can happen at all is a testament to the community in terms of Paris’ commitment to go post-carbon and banning internal combustion cars by 2030. They’re really at the forefront of that, and they’re willing to put on the race, and the citizens are willing, too.

In this context, when the number of cases is incredibly high and resources from the government need to be applied toward vaccinating the population and taking care of sick people, it just didn’t feel right.

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I’m using that as an example. Sometimes, the things that make Formula E special are really challenging. Equally, in Mexico, it’s a much easier race to up on because it’s a track where F1 races. But, as of today, that track is an emergency hospital and emergency vaccination site. It’s the same thing for the Excel center in London, which is a privately owned entity, and the terminal in Brooklyn as well. Interestingly, some of the sites that work for Formula E are also very effective emergency medical care sites. I suspect that’s not a coincidence.

The good news is—and I don’t really want to compare us to other motorsports, but look—we’ve raced in a lot of different venues and believe we have the opportunity to test the model. So we have venues like Berlin where we can try a new format. We’ve got places like Marrakesh where no one else typically goes, and we know how to do a race there. We’re going to look at alternatives.

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I’m a firm believer that Formula E needs to lean into why we’re different, and racing in cities is one of the reasons why we’re distinct. Whether you’re a motorsport or a consumer product, those companies have really strong value propositions and their competitors and peers can’t replicate it. For us, that’s city racing.

Equally, not every single race needs to be in that vein. Part of what makes Paris so special on the Formula E calendar is the fact that it’s the one that’s done that way. In the last few months, we’ve been looking for places where we can race and truly broaden our principles while maybe pushing the envelope a little bit. That’s the pragmatic point. For example, in Italy, we have our typical Formula E site, but there’s a track at Vallelunga that we’ve been having conversations with as a backup in the event that we’re not able to host one in Rome.

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Is that true to Formula E’s DNA? It’s not. But is it the right thing to do in light of this current crisis? Yes, it is.

EB: It seems like there’s a lot of tradeoff between what you want the series to be and what’s most practical right now, which seems to be the case for everyone everywhere right now.

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JR: Right. If you look back at last year, we got mixed views on Berlin. Some people really praised it and said it was a great idea. Others said, hey, we noticed you did that, but Formula One managed to run 17 races and travel the world. And they did. And I give them an enormous amount of credit for that. If I look closer to home for me, with hockey, the Canadian border is closed. As a hockey fan, it’s a shame the Habs can’t play the Bruins. But, y’know, they’re going to play the Leaves and the Jets and the Flames tons of times this year. Are Canadians going to be less interested in hockey because of that? No. I think fans and the media and sponsors understand that we’re navigating unprecedented times. Not to be overly dramatic about this, but in 10 years, people are going to be reading about this in textbooks.

I’m not that old, but when you read about World War II and how that defined a generation, COVID and the pandemic will define this period and will continue to reverberate for years in terms of how we host events and interact with people. So, I think people are pretty understanding. Formula E has a distinct positioning around city racing, and we’re strongly committed to that. As I look in the medium-term, though, that doesn’t mean we need to do 15 races in the city center. What Berlin said is that they don’t have an All-Star weekend or playoffs or the final shootout. I mean, I’m encouraging our team to say that the things we do during COVID are replicable in some way. Our Race at Home series is now an esport series called Accelerate. That was something that was born out of necessity with COVID, but we’re not abandoning it. We’re asking how we can make this platform travel.

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And again, I don’t think we’ll do Berlin again in terms of six races in nine days, but there’s something to be said for having one venue and having a few races and changing the track and making a big festival around it as we imagine the product. Probably not for this year, but in the future, that could actually be a cool concept.

EB: I have to ask as an American, how are negotiations for the New York ePrix coming along? I know you said that site is being used as an emergency center, but how have conversations been? How are the prospects of a race actually happening?

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JR: We feel really good about New York with the only caveat being the fact that it was used as a hospital last summer. We’re not announcing New York as part of this decision gate, but that doesn’t reflect a lack of confidence in the venue. It’s more a question of the exact dates and when we can clarify the full calendar.

So, this year we’re trying to learn from last year, but I will say this. One of the critiques we got last year was that we decided to do Berlin late in the minds of some of our stakeholders. I think people’s memories are short. In May, if you didn’t know whether you could go anywhere or travel, it was hard to plan. But basically what we said this year is, let’s do decision gates. That way, we’re telling our teams and drivers and fans and media what races we believe are going to happen on those dates in the near future.

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We’ll announce the set for the spring, and I feel very good about the ones being announced. Can something change? Yes. Do we have backup plans for each? Yes. But we’re pretty confident those are going to happen. And then, sometime in the spring, let’s say early April, we’ll be able to announce the final set of races. I’m hoping that’ll be Mexico, New York, London, Berlin, Seoul, and China. Now, as we sit here today, China and Korea have hard border closures. New York feels pretty good. London feels good except for the fact that it’s a vaccination site, but we still think that’ll be okay. And Mexico, it’s really just a matter of which date and how far along they are in terms of vaccinations.

Famous last words, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t go along with this. And New York is important to us in that same vein. The current logic is Santigo in June, then North America thereafter. That would be the logistically efficient way to look at it.

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EB: Do you have an interest in bringing back a Canadian race? Because the Montreal ePrix was hands down the best motorsport event I’ve ever been to.

JR: I am!

Let’s put it this way, when we think about where we want to race, we want them to be big end markets for our manufacturing partners and to have passionate fans who understand the sport but appreciate why we’re different to other motorsport. Our commercial partners play a role in markets where they could entertain clients or put on marketing campaigns. When I’m asked by our manufacturers, they’ll often say mainland China is really important, western United States and California, but Canada actually features quite high because it’s known to be a passionate market for sports fans. There’s a good understanding of motorsport, whether it’s F1 in Quebec or IndyCar in Toronto and Vancouver. There’s an enormous amount of trade across the border that happens in the automotive sector. And Toronto, as you know, is one of the biggest cities in North America in terms of both population and economic output. It’s a big market. 

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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