Welcome to E1: the ambitious new electric powerboat racing series aiming to save the planet


In 2019, Rodi Basso had a very good job, managing director at McLaren Motorsport. There was no compelling reason to make any massive changes.

It might come as a surprise, then, to see that two years later Basso is helping drive a new, experimental start-up: it’s not just untested, it’s a world first.

But talk to the Italian, and it becomes clear why he’s hitching his wagon to E1, the world’s first electric powerboat championship aiming to shake up the marine industry and bring ‘rock and roll back to racing’.

Electric powerboating might not be the event top of the typical sport fan’s agenda, sure, but futuristic boats which wouldn’t look out of place on a Star Wars set, wing-to-wing, high octane racing in spectacular cities and some of the most remote locations in the world, and focused on saving the planet too? 

It almost sounds too good to be true. So, Sportsmail‘s Max Mathews ventured to their swanky launch event – flights carbon-offset, of course – at the Yacht Club de Monaco to see what all the fuss is about…

E1 is an ambitious electric powerboat racing series aiming to revolutionise the marine industry

The sleek, futuristic craft looks like something out of a science-fiction flick or a Star Wars set

The sleek, futuristic craft looks like something out of a science-fiction flick or a Star Wars set

Realising a dream

Picture the scene. London, the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Basso, on a sabbatical suggested by his wife Giuliana, was strolling along the Thames with close friend Alejandro Agag, shooting the breeze.

They discussed how the marine industry is lagging behind. There are electric cars, and electric versions of Formula One (Formula E) and rally racing (Extreme E), but no such thing with boats. This is where E1 comes in.

Basso, a passionate sailor and engineering expert who has worked with NASA, Ferrari and Red Bull, had the technical know-how and racing experience. Agag, a former politician with a thick contacts book, had the financial clout and business acumen. 

They teamed up with young Norwegian designer Sophi Horne of Seabird Technologies and Victory Marine’s Brunello Acampora, who co-designed the boat, and announced the E1 project to the public on September 25, 2020. 

A year later, the covers came off the RaceBird. 

The covers came off the first full-scale RaceBird model at the Yacht Club de Monaco last month

The covers came off the first full-scale RaceBird model at the Yacht Club de Monaco last month

Prince Albert of Monaco attended the swanky event in the wealthy city-state on September 20

His Serene Highness was joined by (l-r) GAISF president Raffaele Chiulli, Alejandro Agag, Sophi Horne, Rodi Basso and Victory Marine's Brunello Acampora.

HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco (left) provided the royal touch at the event on September 20

Launching in Monaco 

At the prestigious Yacht Club de Monaco, the anticipated unveiling of the first full-scale ‘RaceBird’ boat was impeccably organised. 

The weather, however, hadn’t read the memo, dark skies and thunder greeting Prince Albert II of Monaco and the hundreds of people present. But in a way, it was apt, the lightning mirroring the pyrotechnics on stage.

Looking at a design on paper is one thing, but seeing the impressively sleek, futuristic RaceBird in the flesh is quite another.

The guestlist provided glitz and glamour too, with Prince Albert providing the royal touch and several former F1 stars including David Coulthard and Nico Rosberg present. 

The boat is yet to be tested on the water, but is expected to go at speeds up to 50 knots/58mph

The boat is yet to be tested on the water, but is expected to go at speeds up to 50 knots/58mph

The next morning, E1 co-founder and CEO Basso is engaging, clear-sighted and intense company.

‘Everyone realised: these guys have got something for the next 25 years’.

The next big thing?

Formula E was conceived in 2011, had its first race in 2014, was in profit by 2019, and is already covered by broadcasters including the BBC, FOX Sports, and Eurosport. 

Extreme E – where electric SUVs race off-road across the globe – launched in 2018 and had its first race in April. However, it already has serious backing: Sir Lewis Hamilton (X44), Jenson Button and Rosberg have their own teams; Valtteri Bottas and rally legend Sebastian Loeb are among the drivers.

Agag created both. The hope, alongside fellow co-founder Basso, is that they can mirror the development and growth of the previous two, just on the water. Formula E, at sea.

E1 also aims to encourage commercial use of electric marine vehicles, with a SeaBird boat (similar to the RaceBird) available to rent or buy. New technology discovered by E1 teams could ‘trickle down’ from racing and eventually become more common and accessible for everyone. 

And with around 90 per cent of global trade taking place via ocean and sea freight, it’s not hard to see how innovation could have an impact. 

‘We are very clear about our mission – but without making it (just) a communications strategy. Instead of doing the sustainable, being sustainable. That’s key.’ 

Electric racing figure Agag, Norwegian designer Horne and engineering creator Basso all collaborated to bring the project to fruition after Agag became an investor in Horne's SeaBird

Electric racing figure Agag, Norwegian designer Horne and engineering creator Basso all collaborated to bring the project to fruition after Agag became an investor in Horne’s SeaBird

Saving the planet and gender equality

Extreme E has demonstrated its commitment to both protecting the environment and gender equality, with a male and female driver sharing duties, and its ‘Legacy Programme’ providing social and environmental support to race locations, like aiming to plant a million mangrove buds in Niaga, Senegal.

Cynics say it may end up little more than a photo opportunity without concrete targets.

But St Helena, the mothership transporting the boats around, will be a base for water analysis and marine biology research, and the project also plans to install marinas with permanent charging points to encourage electric vehicles in future, and envisages week-long festivals showcasing sustainable technologies.

In other words, race locations should be left in a better place than which they’re found. 

And although there are questions about lasting inclusion for women – Katherine Legge and Michaela Ceruti joined Formula E and left quickly – Basso confirmed male and female pilots will swap between sessions, and spoke fluently about equality. 

So what will races look like?

The pilots will sit in closed-cockpit carbon fibre boats, weighing around 800kg, seven metres long and two metres wide, with a range of 50 nautical miles, 150kw of power from an outboard electric motor and a top speed of 50 knots/58mph.

Plenty of boats go faster. But it’s not only about speed, with tight, twisting courses designed to encourage overtakes and side-by-side racing.

Pioneering hydrofoil technology will lift the futuristic-looking craft around 16 inches above the waves, reducing drag and significantly improving speed. It should ‘fly more than float’, E1 claims.

The 15-minute races – 10 per year, with 12 teams contesting – forbid any recharging, with current suggestions hinting at four-boat heats, before knockout rounds culminating in a final.

There are plenty of exciting potential locations, including places threatened by climate change, with Basso claiming as many as 70 places are in talks about hosting a race. Only Monaco is confirmed as yet.

Imagine. Antarctica, a Greenland fjord, upriver in the Amazon, Indonesia, the Red Sea. And Sydney Harbour, Tokyo Bay, Lake Geneva, Singapore, plus going full circle in the Thames. Saudi Arabian city Jeddah and Scandinavia have also been mooted, with Basso keen on the ‘Le Mans of powerboating’ Venice, St. Louis, and Miami. 

Hydrofoil technology will lift the craft around 16 inches above the waves to improve its speed

Hydrofoil technology will lift the craft around 16 inches above the waves to improve its speed

Questions over Saudi involvement 

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) – the sovereign wealth fund of the country – was announced as a partner to the project in June. For context, Formula E announced a 10-year deal with capital city Riyadh as a race location in May 2018. E1 may follow.

Western intelligence believes crown prince, and PIF chairman, Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of critical journalist Jamal Khashoggi – something he denies – and the regime has a questionable record on human rights, press freedoms, and treatment of LGBTQ+ people.

E1 is far from the only event to be criticised for ties to Middle Eastern countries with contentious regimes, with the recent takeover of Premier League side Newcastle, Anthony Joshua fighting in Riyadh or the World Cup to be played in Qatar, and there have been recent modernising measures in Saudi, with women now able to drive. 

Co-founder and CEO Basso, pictured, spoke to Sportsmail to discuss E1's vision and principles

Co-founder and CEO Basso, pictured, spoke to Sportsmail to discuss E1’s vision and principles

But it seems challenging for the project to be espousing modern, progressive thinking and invoking gender equality while citizens in Saudi Arabia may not benefit from some of these principles. Basso, however, sees E1 as a chance to let sport push for equality and change perceptions.

He said: ‘This is absolutely the idea. Sport is a unique opportunity to show there is equality, there could be equality, and actually there must be more and more equality. This is as important as environmental sustainability. Sustainability also embraces governance, the impact on society, culture and ethics.

‘We have a big responsibility. We cannot just claim electric power, sustainability as a hashtag. Given the interest we are having, we will be seen by all the nations, different cultures. This is where the responsibility, leadership comes in. Sometimes I’m more worried about these topics than the actual project.’

Ex-Formula One driver and Monaco resident David Coulthard (right) is thought to be one of several high-profile figures, including an NBA star, interested in and supportive of the project

Ex-Formula One driver and Monaco resident David Coulthard (right) is thought to be one of several high-profile figures, including an NBA star, interested in and supportive of the project

Who is interested? 

Although no teams have officially signed up yet – and are unlikely to until the boats prove their viability in the water – there are reportedly 36 vying for 12 spots, with one NBA star and several F1 names understood to be interested.

Formula E had a shaky start but has gradually increased its audience circa 24 per cent year on year, mainly among young people, while Extreme E’s inaugural race attracted 18.7million global viewers. The young audience is likely to be crucial.

E1’s social media followings remain modest – 8,698 on Instagram, 1,762 on Twitter,  724 on YouTube – but that is likely to grow.

The inaugural season of the world championship series is planned to commence in early 2023

The inaugural season of the world championship series is planned to commence in early 2023

Watch this space  

There are a lot of hurdles to overcome before E1 achieves its goal. The RaceBird isn’t on the water yet, with prototype testing scheduled for this winter.

It will be a massive challenge to emulate Formula E or Extreme E, embed itself fully in the sporting consciousness, or lead to a revolution in electrifying the water. 

But E1 undoubtedly has the ambition, and seemingly has the interest and capital to deliver on its plans.  

Back to Basso. ‘It’s not a choice, it’s a responsibility… E1 is what is needed to turn the page. All that is happening in the world, we have to do something about it, and pretty quickly. We’ve got to make it. We have a chance.’ 

They’re certainly making waves. Watch this space.