Sebastian Vettel so dominant at Singapore, strategy didn’t matter

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The Singapore Grand Prix may well have been something of a foregone conclusion in terms of the eventual winner, but it proved to be a fascinating battle of strategy and decision making in Sebastian Vettel’s wake.

The ominous truth is that the RB9, in the hands of the current World Champion, was simply on another level all weekend at the Marina Bay Circuit. Such was his utter dominance, not only was he able to sit out the majority of qualifying 3 on Saturday, having set his pole position time early on his first run, but he controlled the race from turn two to the checkered flag.

In a race that was dominated by strategic decisions, that for most teams, meant the difference between success and failure, for Sebastian Vettel his race strategy was largely irrelevant. The car had so much raw pace, pace that he was able to turn on and off at will, that he could react to situations by just pulling out the required gap to the chasing pack whenever the team asked him to.

Any race strategy has to be flexible enough around the tight and twisty streets of Singapore to accommodate the, almost inevitable, safety car period.

Simulations after qualifying predicted a three stop race being quicker than a two, but with the compromise being the difficulty in dealing with a safety car spell that history suggested would almost certainly arrive at some stage.

If we take the top three cars and look at their races, Vettel was in a class of his own and won the race because he had such an incredible pace advantage over his rivals. The safety car, when it came, wasn’t at an ideal stage for Red Bull, and they chose not to pit, along with the three cars behind him. The difference between our winner and the others in the same situation, was that he was able to immediately extend his lead after the safety car spell to over 30 seconds, comfortably enough to pit for new tires and yet still come out in front. Those in second, third and fourth, not so blessed with his speed, but still to pit, found themselves exiting pitlane around the ninth and tenth positions and in traffic that would ultimately prevent them from challenging for podiums come the end.

The second and third podium spots went to two drivers who managed to use strategy to outwit the likes of Webber and the two Mercedes’.

With Mercedes knowing it was unlikely they could pit under the safety car and make it to the end of the long race on the same set of tires, they were forced to stay out and hold on for their second stop. Their car is notoriously poor at looking after rear tires and on a circuit limited by rear thermal degradation, they suffered this track’s big pitlane loss time for a second pitstop, that the likes of Raikkonen and Alonso, stopping under safety car conditions, didn’t.

The gamble for Raikkonen and Alonso was one worth taking. Both cars are traditionally light on their rear tyres and both drivers experienced and skilled enough to know what it takes to make it to the end. With both guys starting the race a long way behind the championship leader, they had to try something different and today it paid off. No one had tried a stint length of that magnitude on the prime tires throughout the weekend, but both former World Champions did enough to get to the end, although Alonso’s car in particular looked to be very close to the limit with its rear tires in parc ferme.

Certain circumstances played into the hands of the lead three today, like the McLarens of Button and Perez struggling to follow a similar strategy to Raikkonen and Alonso and holding up the faster cars of Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton to prevent a late challenge for the podium. But certain key decisions made the difference.

Lotus, starting 13th on the grid with Kimi, were the first to pit for new options on lap ten and in doing so, managed blistering in and out laps to jump Perez and Di Resta early on. That track position allowed steady progress through the field as the middle group pitted and got up to speed.

Alonso, when initially looking at three stops, was held up by Di Resta for 6 laps after his first pitstop lasted 3.4 seconds and brought him out fractionally behind the Scot. A sub 3 second stop would have got him out in front and allowed him to attack the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, in front at the time. In the end it became irrelevant.

Mercedes may rue the decision not to pit under the safety car. The traffic curtailed behind the ailing McLarens at the end might have given them a safety cushion to eek out the long last stint and perhaps challenge Raikkonen’s Lotus for the final podium spot?

These strategic decisions aren’t the kind of thing that teams spend Saturday nights deliberating over, they’re not the decisions made by computers based on endless data and permutations, they’re the decisions, often of the driver or the folk sat on the pitwall, made in the spur of the moment and in the heat of battle. These reactive decisions can be the difference between success and failure and are where experience and instinct can count over and above expensive and complicated simulators and software.

Whilst Sebastian Vettel won today’s race impeccably, but with a far superior car, the two guys joining him on the rostrum were there through great starts, tactics and superior tire management, proving that Formula One’s as much about decision making as it is outright speed.

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

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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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 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 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 car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

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. – McLaren Racing

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.”