Australian GP wide open, both from past stats and preseason tests

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With so much yet to be determined in terms of how the pecking order will stack up for the Australian Grand Prix, perhaps past history could provide a baseline for how certain drivers have done at Albert Park.

Only two drivers competing this weekend, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen, have multiple victories in Melbourne. Button won the 2009, 2010 and 2012 editions; the first with Brawn and the last two with McLaren. Meanwhile Raikkonen won on his Ferrari debut in 2007, and also captured last year’s season opener for Lotus.

McLaren and Ferrari, this preseason, have been good but not great perhaps in terms of outright pace. The Mercedes power unit seems to have an early edge, but no one is sure whether Ferrari has showed its full hand.

A trio of World Champions: Sebastian Vettel (2011), Lewis Hamilton (2008) and Fernando Alonso (2006) have a win apiece in Melbourne. Alonso has four other podiums (two seconds and thirds) and hasn’t finished outside the top-five since 2003. Hamilton has three other podiums (one second, two thirds); meanwhile Vettel has been second and third here the last two years.

Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg hasn’t had an easy time of it in Melbourne. A third in a retirement-plagued 2008 race is his only trip to the top three. He hasn’t scored points any of the last three times in Australia, and retired in both 2011 and 2013.

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, the sole driver to wave the flag this year, posted a ninth place for Toro Rosso in 2012 and will be hoping for at least that if not more on his debut with the primary team.

From past recent Melbourne form, Lotus has been good, with Raikkonen’s win a year ago and a podium achieved by Vitaly Petrov in 2011. If similar regulations were to carry over you’d wager Romain Grosjean would have a good chance at making the rostrum, but not with the way the team’s preseason has gone in terms of time on track and reliability. Like Rosberg, Pastor Maldonado has failed to finish two of the last three Australian GPs, although he was on course to score points before a late accident in 2012.

Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg has nowhere to go but up in Melbourne. He’s yet to complete a single racing lap in three past Australian Grands Prix! Teammate Sergio Perez had his points-scoring Melbourne debut in 2011 wiped out per a disqualification; he hopes to improve on a best of eighth set in 2012.

Sauber’s Adrian Sutil did well a year ago with seventh, leading some laps on his return. Teammate Esteban Gutierrez will look to improve on 13th from his F1 debut. Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne is yet to score in two Melbourne starts.

Williams could surprise, and a result for either Felipe Massa or Valtteri Bottas would likely be their best here. Melbourne has been a traditional bogey track for Massa, with five DNFs from his first seven Australian GP starts. But the last four have included a third (2010), seventh (2011) and fourth (2013). Bottas was 14th here a year ago.

The veterans at Caterham (Kamui Kobayashi) and Marussia (Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton) are simply looking for points; same story for the three rookies, Kevin Magnussen of McLaren, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson, who all seek a debut finish and perhaps points.

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.”