Excuse the familiarity if you’ve heard this statement before – a Ferrari is not at the head of the Formula One field, but yet Fernando Alonso is bringing it to heights it probably shouldn’t be.
The Spaniard has made a habit in recent years of outperforming the equipment at his disposal. Sunday in Shanghai, a race where Alonso won in 2013, was the just the latest example.
The 2014 Ferrari F14 T has gotten off to a bit of a slow start and coupled with the recent management shakeup, Stefano Domenicali resigning and new man Marco Mattiacci coming in, the pressure was on for an improved weekend in the last flyaway round of the season before the European season commences.
Upgrades are always going to be limited in the first few events before teams return home to their mostly European bases in earnest. Still, after the Bahrain disaster, Ferrari introduced a new front axle and brake duct assembly in Shanghai that bleeds airflow from the brake cooling duct through a duct in the centre of the axle. It’s a system that makes brake cooling a bit more efficient while also reducing drag – braking is key at a couple points of the Shanghai International Circuit, notably on the long back straight into the penultimate corner on the circuit, the tight hairpin.
This may not have been the only key to Ferrari’s improved form in Shanghai, but it certainly didn’t hurt. As it was, Alonso got on with the job anyway and drove another near flawless race.
He survived a bit of contact from former teammate Felipe Massa after both drivers performed an excellent getaway from Row 3, moved ahead of the Red Bulls after a round of pit stops and although he was up to second and eventually hauled in by the substantially quicker Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, he held onto third for his and the team’s first podium finish of the year.
With a car that at the moment you’d have to say is maybe third or fourth best, at best, in the field, this was no small accomplishment.
Alonso currently stands third in the World Championship with 41 points. Meanwhile Kimi Raikkonen’s lackluster start to the season continues, as he languishes in 12th on just 11 after an eighth place Sunday, some 50 seconds behind his teammate.
In four races, Alonso has outqualified the Finn three of four races and finished ahead in all four. In both Melbourne and Shanghai, Alonso has started a season-best fifth while neither time Raikkonen has advanced out of Q2, and started 11th. Raikkonen matched Alonso with fifth on the grid in Bahrain but fell to 10th in the race.
It’s been especially impressive to see Alonso – long regarded as one of F1’s best starters and racers, if not the out-and-out fastest on a single lap – up the ante in qualifying to hold such an early edge on Raikkonen, who was expected to be the Spaniard’s stiffest internal competition since then-rookie Lewis Hamilton in the 2007 season.
Alonso’s held an authoritative edge over teammates Nelson Piquet Jr., Romain Grosjean and Felipe Massa since that ill-fated single season at McLaren, and is now giving Raikkonen the business through four races.
This is as good a start as realistically could have been possible for Alonso, and if Ferrari makes further upgrades from the European races, the two-time World Champion could finally return to his winning ways.
At the very least, he’ll continue to punch above the car’s weight.
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.”