Cold temps didn’t keep F1 drivers from scorching in Spain

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Seeing three-time and reigning Formula One World Champion Sebastien Vettel flash past us as soon as we entered the Circuit de Catalunya paddock was a sign it was going to be a great week.

The fact that he was sprinting from the Red Bull hospitality suite to the garage to avoid requests from media & fans alike was also the first evidence that these pre-season tests are motor racing’s mirages. It’s not what you see but more what you don’t see.

(The cold temperatures also could have explained the running.)

Experiencing F1 2013 in the pitlane of the Barcelona track was an exhilarating way to start the season and begin NBC Sports’ relationship with the world’s premier form of motorsport. But you had to be fast to see what you wanted to see.

Every team, from Infiniti Red Bull Racing to Marussia F1, went to great measures to ensure their 2013 pride and joy was only uncovered when it was time to hit the track.

Seven-foot blinds on rollers covered the entrances to the garages and they were removed with swift precision when the car exited and re-installed when the car returned. Team members did their best to stand shoulder to shoulder and obstruct determined camera crews (both TV and still photographers) at any time the cars may have been exposed to the outside world. Perspex shields with paint in specific areas to cover diffusers were inserted on the rear of the Ferrari 138, silver blankets smothered the rear of Red Bull’s RB9 and similar cover-ups were evident all the way down the lane.

While Will Buxton was busy conducting interviews for our season preview show (airing March 7 on NBC Sports Network), David Hobbs and myself were lucky enough to occasionally penetrate Formula One’s force field.

Enjoyable time was spent with F1’s hard man Mark Webber one evening in an informal chat in the hospitality area. I’ve known Mark since he was young and he gave Hobbo and I some wonderful insight into his world circa 2013.

I’d never met Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo until this test. That came about courtesy of his trainer and right-hand-man Stuart Smith (who I last saw 17 years ago in Australia when he was a student of mine at Ipswich Grammar School!).

Williams F1 Team Manager Dickie Stanford kindly took us into garage for a chat about his men Pastor Maldonado and rookie Valterri Bottas. He relived the Maldonado victory at Barcelona last year and what it was like standing on the podium again (he said it had been so long since they’d won he’d forgotten what it was like).

Most of these experiences were spent holding a hot cup of tea or coffee, as it was about as warm as Alaska in January! Perhaps one of the most peculiar sights was that of David Hobbs fingers. The tops of them looked like he’d dipped them in yoghurt. Poor circulation comes from being spoiled by spending the winter months in Florida. Through pity alone, I lent him my gloves.

We were afforded free reign and able to see every team put the new cars through tire evaluations, single laps runs, race simulations and pit-stop practice up close and personal. Standing just feet away from the likes of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton perform practice starts was mind-blowing. Here now, gone in a second. These guys are fighter pilots on the ground!

Oh, did I mention it was cold in Barcelona?

The relatively new pit stop procedure of no refueling is a popular one in pit lane. Safety is paramount and this has been one rule change applauded by everyone.

Speaking of pit stops, one of the lasting memories of the Barcelona test was watching the Red Bull team’s lap-after-lap ritual of nailing them. Our vantage point was from the Media Center and where we stood was directly above Red Bull. We could see inside the cockpit of the RB9 and had a bird’s eye view of it all. Of the 10 stops we saw, three of them were an astonishing 2.1 seconds. How much faster can they go? It’s incredible!

So, after a week of sampling Formula One, Paella, Rioja and Spanish Ham, oh as well as seeing how long we could stand in the cold and who gave in first to seek shelter, we are ready for F1 2013 on NBC Sports.

It’s a new season on a new network with new drivers, in new cars and different teams and a 25-year old German attempting to win his fourth consecutive title (if Seb drives as fast as he runs – it’s a done deal). It couldn’t be better if you ask me!

Leigh Diffey is the F1 and IndyCar play-by-play announcer for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @leighdiffey

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”