Back from the brink, there are signs of life at Caterham once again

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Against all of the odds, Caterham appears to have prevented its own collapse – or, to be more precise, the new administration has done that, in spite of the mess that they were handed a few weeks ago.

For when Tony Fernandes and Engavest entered a war of words over the internet, the alarm bells were ringing louder than ever. Quite clearly, the Caterham ship was sinking. From jet-lagged drivers to a Romanian soccer player that became a cleaner and then a director, the whole thing was a farce.

So when administrator Finbarr O’Connell took over at Leafield, his goal of getting the team back on the grid this season seemed to be a bit far off – yet he appears to have just about done the impossible.

Today, Caterham confirmed its intention to race at the final round of the year in Abu Dhabi, saying that it was thanks to the support of the fans through a controversial crowdfunding campaign that such a feat was possible. The task had been to raise $3.7m from fan donations to get the team on the grid by 7pm ET tonight.

Now though, the goalposts have moved. The deadline was moved to 7pm ET on November 23rd, following the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – the very race that the money was supposed to be going towards.

Here’s a quick run-down on how crowdfunding works. A group has a project (in this case, an F1 team) that needs funding. It asks strangers (in this case, fans) for donations in return for some perks. Said fans donate money that will only be taken from them if the whole target is met. If the target is met, the money is taken, the team dishes out the perks, and everyone is happy.

So in the case of Caterham, the crowdfunding was not a financially-driven project: it was to show that there was the support and care from the F1 community to make the team investable. Given that the team is now set to line up on the grid, it has certainly worked. O’Connell has pulled off a masterstroke.

Moving the goalposts may seem strange, but it is permitted in the small print of the crowdfunding agreement on the website used by Caterham called Crowdcube (which, interestingly, already has links to the company O’Connell works for). So really, it has been extended not to raise more money for Abu Dhabi, but instead to give the fans a chance to buy some very exclusive goods.

It will be interesting to see how the fundraising drive grows from here on in. In fact, this morning, I was in the process of writing an article on how the campaign was ailing, given that they were 40% shy of the target with less than 12 hours to go. Three hours later, they were just 20% short – it had jumped by hundreds of thousands of dollars, so I scrapped the article. On average – that is, dividing the number of backers by the figure raised; £1.89m by 5,276 backers – fans have donated £445, or $700. Curious that Caterham’s fan base has very deep pockets…

As the threat of three car teams lingers, it is for the good of the sport that Caterham does return. Let us hope that O’Connell’s drive does indeed get it on the grid in Abu Dhabi and perhaps lay down the foundations for a sale and rebrand in 2015 that will see it racing, even if it is at the back.

What must be stressed is that the list of creditors for the team is still very long indeed. There still needs to be a great deal of interest and investment to make the long-term future of the operation viable. For starters, though, the signs are quietly encouraging.

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.”