Sebastian Vettel has sent out a warning shot to his title rivals by finishing quickest in Free Practice 2 for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps on Friday, edging out teammate Mark Webber by just 0.059 seconds to head up a Red Bull one-two.
However, the world champion did not have it all his own way, suffering from a puncture that ended his session early. He had already done enough to secure top spot as the field focused on fuelled runs, with Romain Grosjean, Felipe Massa and Jean-Eric Vergne particularly impressing to tail home the Red Bulls in third, fourth and fifth respectively.
Conditions had improved drastically since the end of free practice one this morning where rain showers had limited meaningful running, with Spa-Francorchamps bathing in bright sunshine under blue skies. The serenity was quickly broken as Jenson Button and Nico Hulkenberg were the first drivers out on track, with the latter’s teammate, Esteban Gutierrez, setting the first benchmark time of 1:52.954 only for Daniel Ricciardo to go a fraction quicker seconds later. Paul di Resta and Pastor Maldonado also occupied P1 momentarily as the teams looked to make up for the lost time in the morning session, resulting in a frantic few minutes on track. Once the order had settled down, it was Sebastian Vettel who led from Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso.
With the hard tires thoroughly tested, the first runners began to switch to the white-ringed medium compound, led by Ricciardo in the Toro Rosso. The Australian could only move up to P7 initially, not bothering the leaders who remained in the pits after their initial runs. When they did emerge, Webber set the immediate pace, dethroning his teammate by over one second, only for Vettel to strike back and reclaim P1 minutes later. Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen also set an impressive pace on fresh tires, with both drivers thought to be using the passive DRS device at Spa this weekend. Maldonado also showed signs of good pace throughout the session, suggesting that Williams may have turned a corner in their season.
As the race simulation runs began, the times at the top of the leaderboard came under little threat. Vettel’s engineer reassured the German driver that he was doing a good job as he looks to extend his championship lead this weekend. He will be hoping that he has used up all of his bad luck after a slow puncture forced him to crawl back to the pits with twenty minutes to go. Moments later, Giedo van der Garde speared his Caterham into the wall on the exit of Stavelot, ending his practice session early.
Once the stricken Caterham had been recovered, the yellow flags were withdrawn and the drivers returned to their original programme. However, with heavy fuel on board, none of the drivers could threaten Red Bull’s dominance at the top of the timesheets, suggesting that we could be set for a repeat of the 2011 Belgian GP where Vettel led Webber home in a one-two for the team, barring any punctures of course.
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve
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 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.”