A wet start to the Grand Prix meant that the normal regulation stipulating the mandatory use of both compounds of dry tire was overridden. Teams were faced with a tricky dilemma, as the first part of the Sepang circuit was very wet, with the middle and last sectors drying up quickly in the first couple of laps.
Alonso’s race was over at the beginning of lap two, following a collision with the back of Vettel’s car on the first lap, partially damaging his front wing. With the wing clearly hanging off, the team gambled on leaving Alonso out for another lap in the hope they could sneak into the window of being able to change to slick tires at the same time as replacing the nose and therefore saving an extra pitstop.
Shortly after going past the pits towards the end of the straight, the wing, hanging on with only one of it’s two mounting pillars, failed completely and stuck under the car. Fernando was lucky to avoid a big collision as the front wheels lifted off the ground, leaving him without brakes or steering at around 180 mph.
As the track dried, all cars moved to slick tires and the differing strategies between hard and medium compounds began to play out. With most opting for the softer medium compound, Mark Webber stayed out a lap later than his team mate and went onto the hard tire out in front. He looked to be in a good position, with the potential to stay out longer on the more durable orange banded compound and putting in some very fast times compared to the medium compound shod cars.
Vettel on mediums and Webber on hards, the two fought like arch enemies, rather than teammates, very nearly ending both of their races early. With the team having told the pair, in no uncertain terms, to hold positions, turn down their engines and look after the tires, Vettel took his own decision to fight and pass his team mate, eventually taking the lead and the race. A big move, which has left him in hot water with his bosses and his teammate.
Behind the squabbling Red Bulls, Mercedes had similar issues with Nico Rosberg desperately pleading with his team to allow him passed the ‘fuel saving’ Lewis Hamilton. Conversely to Vettel though, when Rosberg was told to hold position and bring the cars home, he did what he was told and followed Lewis home for a solid third and fourth for the team.
Further down the field the development race in pitstop technology cost Force India and McLaren their races as both Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta, who were looking strong, retired as their new captive wheel nut system failed to allow the Force India to change tires.
Jenson Button, also in a surprisingly good position following improvements to his MP4-28, was hampered by a similar error as his car left its pitstop box before the right front wheel was properly attached.
The overriding factor in terms of outright pace was again the Pirellis and their characteristics in different conditions. Last week’s pacesetter, Kimi Raikkonen, today struggled on an abrasive track and higher temperatures, whereas the Red Bulls, who struggled to make tires last in Australia, managed to use them well and maintain good pace. Those that learn quickly how to manage tire temperatures and use them most efficiently will have the biggest advantage as the season progresses.
Next up China, where the teams will have had a chance to regroup and some will hope to bring more updates for the next Grand Prix.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”