Hydrogen racing cashes in: Extreme H shows climate awareness can pay

Extreme E

Alejandro Agag has launched Extreme H – the world's first hydrogen-powered racing series. But the tweaks in messaging and prominent partners shows that climate change awareness might have taken a back seat to business

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Extreme is set to become Extreme H – motor sport's first ever hydrogen racing series

Glasses tinkle, champagne fizzes and guests try to exchange pleasantries through mouthfuls of canapé as racing history is apparently made at a glamorous riverside setting on the River Thames.

Attendees are gathered on the glammed-up ex-Royal Mail ship St Helena to witness the official launch of the world’s hydrogen-powered racing series, Extreme H, and its new car, the Pioneer 25.

Morphing from Extreme E – the electric-powered off-road SUV racing series with a mission of raising climate change awareness – the rebranding of the championship will see hydrogen cars go head-to-head for the first time in the history of motor sport.

There’s a huge amount of money behind the hydrogen energy sector – and now its muscling its way into motor sport. Other similarly-powered machines have taken part in race events, such as the H24 Hydrogen Le Mans prototype, which has run in support series’ for WEC, as well as cars which have taken on stretches of the Dakar, but Extreme H’s monstrous hydrogen buggies will mark a milestone in racing competition.

And while former F1 sporting director Ross Brawn has suggested even grand prix cars could run on hydrogen from 2030, Extreme H has got there first.

Extreme H Pioneer 25 car

The new hydrogen-powered race car, the Pioneer 25

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The new championship is the latest venture of bombastic eco-exec Alejandro Agag – following on from Formula E and his electric powerboat championship E1.

Extreme H will carry over teams such as Nico Rosberg and Jenson Button’s eponymous squads, as well as McLaren and Andretti.

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Some of the world’s best off-road drivers will remain too as part of gender-equal line-ups too, with Johann Kristofferson joined by his WRX rivals the Hansen brothers as well as Catie Munnings, who tells Motor Sport “I’m really excited for the new car – but none of us drivers know what it’s going to be like.”

Motor Sport royalty – and Extreme E/H team owners – Carlos Sainz Sr and Jimmie Johnson are present to give their stamp of approval, but a change can be detected in the air.

Once the climate crisis and the ‘race’ to save the planet were at the heart of Agag’s mission and messaging, now it appears to be about facilitating industry and business. In the opening words of his welcome speech, he admits as much.

The former European Member of Parliament, now-green tech entrepreneur, addresses a small sea of dark suits, even darker sunglasses and sharp haircuts at an event that feels like an investor conference as much as a motor sport gathering.

“The question that deserves an answer is why did we transition from Extreme E to Extreme H?” he says.

“The are many reasons but, when you look at the world around us, it’s different from five years ago.

“When we launched Extreme E, climate change was at the top of the worries for everyone.

Alejandro Agag Jimmie Johnson Catie Munnings Hedda Hosaas

Series boss Agag lines up with (left to right) Hedda Hosaas, Carlos Sainz Sr and Catie Munnings

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“We feel now that the climate alert is going to a second or third place [in the general public’s mind]. People are worried but there are other very important problems too: there are wars, different problems in the economy, etc.”

Agag then warms to his main theme – supplying new industries.

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“On the other hand, the arrival of Artificial Intelligence is going to multiply the needs for energy that we’re going to have in the world,” he says.

“Therefore, we are going to need every source of energy and every way to supply it: renewables, solar, wind – and fossil fuels for a while longer.

“Hydrogen can be the enabler: solar and wind energy can be wasted if it’s not sunny or windy. Hydrogen can be the solution, to store that energy and transform the whole energy system.

“We love to race – but we come together to discuss this new technology. Hydrogen can have a role far beyond mobility. It can decarbonise the industry. It’s much bigger than a racing championship.”

Extreme E is only in its fourth season now since its debut, so why have the winds of change swept through so quickly for a championship which was still finding its feet?

One of the biggest reasons appears to be, quite simply, money. It was rumoured last year that Extreme E was on unsure financial footing – the calendar has constantly changed as the championship has struggled to find regular venues, and a widespread the entry of large-scale car manufacturers – like Formula E a few years ago – has failed to materialise.

All the while, Agag has described the move to hydrogen as a “unique business opportunity”.

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The Extreme E caravan is on a journey towards hydrogen transformation

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Apparently pushing the move – along with a financial incentive – was Saudi Arabia, whose energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman al-Saud who has said the country intends to become the world’s top hydrogen producer.

Already sponsoring the championship with its Enowa state energy company and Neom tech-city, last year Motor Sport suggested to Extreme E managing director Ali Russell that Saudi’s influence might be behind the move.

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“There are many governments around the world looking at how they can move into it,” he replied.

“You’ve got countries like Morocco, Namibia, Brazil – there’s a huge amount looking at the opportunities that hydrogen presents, and that’s what’s so interesting about it.”

However, sure enough, the new hydrogen-powered Pioneer 25 was unveiled in London with a sizeable Public Investment Fund sign (Saudi’s financial lung for making its vast oil wealth go that bit further) behind it.

It was almost impossible to get a shot of the car without including the sign, with the top three sponsors on the press conference podium all being Saudi – PIF, ENOWA and NEOM. These are also the first sponsor labels to appear on the new car in its promotional video (which also ironically indicates the car’s hydrogen tank as being empty).

The UAE monolith is trying to both diversify its wealth but also clean up its image in all senses, using sport and technology as a tool to do so – but Agag has refuted that his sport is being used in such a way,

“This is about diversification,” he told Forbes earlier this year. “One of the things that the Crown Prince always mentions is he wants to make Saudi Arabia a nice place for its citizens to live in – sport is part of that.

Extreme E Chile 2024 launch Jimmie Johnson

NASCAR legend and Extreme H team owner Jimmie Johnson present at the launch

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“Greenwashing and sportswashing are western concepts from people who think they have moral superiority.”

On social media and in house Extreme H web pieces concerning the hydrogen development, the climate crisis element appears to have been toned down – suggesting the St Helena is becoming a vessel for new business and technology as much as its pseudo Jacques Costeau scientific mission.

“What we want to make sure is that we don’t get into a situation where we change for change’s sake,” says Russell.

“I think the point here is, we want to be singularly focused on the hydrogen aspect, because we think that’s a catalyst for a whole adjacent industry.”