United States GP Paddock Notebook – Friday

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As the boom for Formula 1 in the United States continues, this weekend’s grand prix in Austin, Texas is set to be a fantastic event that is loved by both the fans and the F1 paddock as a whole.

The Circuit of the Americas is a superb facility, already establishing itself as a firm favorite for the drivers thanks to its exhilarating yet challenging sections, punishing any errors and rewarding the brilliant and the brave in the field.

Practice today saw Lewis Hamilton dominate proceedings, finishing quickest in both of the sessions on Friday at COTA. However, his margin of victory in FP2 was quite literally a matter of inches: 0.003 seconds across a 5.5km lap equates to just 6.7 inches between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg at the top of the timesheets.

Besides the on-track action, the debate about the F1 cost crisis continued in the team principals’ press conference, and once again it went around in circles. The recent demise of Caterham and Marussia appears to have done little to change the perspective or opinion of the major manufacturers in Formula 1, much to the sport’s detriment.

Here’s the complete paddock notebook from Friday at the Circuit of The Americas.

SESSION REPORTS

NEWS FROM THE PADDOCK

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK

It’s been a very interesting day at the Circuit of The Americas. Although the on-track action did not exactly stir much in the way of shock and awe, a good number of fans still turned out to see both practice sessions on a warm day in Austin.

Yet again, it was Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes who led the way, with Nico Rosberg clinging desperately to his coattails in this championship chase. The German driver did run him very closely in the second session on Friday though, finishing just 0.003 seconds behind the world championship leader. Whichever way you look at it, the fight at the front is going to be a close one.

However, the Mercedes cars once again proved that they are not infallible. Both Hamilton and Rosberg were reporting gearbox problems on their W05 Hybrids, with a fuel leak then forcing the Briton to box and bring his session to an early end. As a result, his times are difficult to understand in terms of a sustained long-run pace.

Rosberg needs to win this weekend’s race in Austin. If he doesn’t, not only will the mathematical difference leave him with a mountain to climb, but his psychological demons that continue to dog his bid for a maiden world title will only grow stronger.

Further back, Ferrari, Red Bull and Williams appear to be locked in a close battle for third place this weekend behind the two Silver Arrows. Although both Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo hit trouble during practice today, both showed some good, sustained long-run pace during FP2. Williams was less hot, but it always seems to struggle on a Friday before coming alive later in the weekend. Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen should also be in the mix for Ferrari at COTA.

Since getting the drive with Red Bull for 2015, Daniil Kvyat has been in a fine vein of form, qualifying an excellent fifth for his home race in Russia last time out. In practice today, he was brilliant once again, finishing fourth in FP1 and seventh in FP2, not letting 17-year-old Max Verstappen upstage him. That said, Verstappen did hold his own once again, and is quickly proving his critics wrong ahead of his F1 debut next March.

Lotus’ day was a bit of a disaster in terms of pace, but with the trial of the 2015-style nose, it was never really about setting the timesheets ablaze. Interestingly, it was Romain Grosjean and not Pastor Maldonado who suffered a few spins today, appearing to lack front-end grip.

In the team principals’ press conference, the big questions about costs were asked once again, and once again they appeared to fall on deaf ears. Toto Wolff and Eric Boullier sat on the front row, saying how a cost cap was unviable, whilst the three representatives from the teams facing financial challenges all pleaded the exact opposite. One journalist perfectly pointed out that the very fact that they couldn’t even agree on one simple topic in the media conference proved the instability harming F1 at the moment.

With the collapse of two teams in the past week, the sport is facing a crisis. The saddest part is that it is not great enough to really prompt change from the powers that be in F1.

Qualifying tomorrow should be an interesting affair, with the FIA sensibly deciding to knock out four cars in both Q1 and Q2 to make up for the absence of Caterham and Marussia. Sebastian Vettel will start from the pit lane, but Red Bull has confirmed that he will still take part in Q1 to ensure that he meets the 107% rule and does not risk being forced out of the race by the FIA stewards.

We’re in for another almighty scrap between the Silver Arrows, but for the time being, Lewis seems to have the advantage – even if it is only by a matter of inches.

NBC/NBCSN SCHEDULE FROM UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX

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.”