McLaren goes back to the future, but can it return to its heyday?

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So there we have it. McLaren-Honda is well and truly back in business with today’s launch of the MP4-30. Sure, it doesn’t feature the red and white chevrons that made the old cars in the late eighties and early nineties so recognizable, but there is no denying that the new car is very easy on the eyes.

The deal with Honda may have been announced back in 2013, but today is the true starting point for the ‘new’ McLaren. The team has undergone a quiet revolution over the past year or so, and this is the final piece of the jigsaw.

Ever since the sackings of Sergio Perez and Martin Whitmarsh after the disastrous 2013 campaign, the team has made quite clear that it will stop at nothing to get back to the top of F1 – even if it means bringing back a one-time enemy as a driver and cutting ties with your engine supplier of 19 years.

Ahead of today’s launch, McLaren released quite a funny video featuring Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button called “Back to the Racetrack” (a parody of Back to the Future) that saw them turn a McLaren supercar into a flux capacitor. It won’t be in the running for the Oscars, but it was still a nice and funny video that set the tone for the year.

Because in 2015, McLaren is going back to the future. Back to some of its old roots.

The rekindled partnership with Honda is enough to make those who can remember the late eighties a little misty-eyed. The Japanese manufacturer first worked with McLaren in 1988, playing its part in the most dominant performance by any one team in a Formula 1 season. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won 15 of the 16 races, claiming a clean sweep of pole positions in the MP4/4 which is widely regarded as one of the greatest cars of all time. It was devastatingly good.

It didn’t stop there though. The marriage between McLaren and Honda may only have lasted until the end of 1992, but it was enough time to secure eight world titles in total (four drivers’, four constructors’). All three of Senna’s championship came at the wheel of a McLaren-Honda, and if you ask fans to pick out a favorite era in the history of the sport, many will talk about the battles between the two white and red cars.

The emotional ties that McLaren and Honda shared undoubtedly played a big part in them getting back together for 2015, but it is wrong to think that this was the only reason behind it. Quite clearly, McLaren and Mercedes had run its course. Between 1995 and 2009, Mercedes did not have a works team, making McLaren the total priority. When Mercedes then bought Brawn GP and put its own Silver Arrows out there, McLaren was an afterthought. Few teams win world titles without being the ‘works’ team.

By reuniting with Honda, McLaren is the priority once again. After the last failed attempt, it’s highly unlikely that Honda would even consider bringing a works team back into F1 any time soon, meaning that McLaren is, for the foreseeable future, top dog in Japan.

It is still a very big risk though. Honda is turning up late to the party, with the rest of the engine suppliers already having a year of running under their belts. By winning the right to develop the engine in-season, Honda has clawed back some of the deficit, but a reliable F1 insider informed me in Austin that it was behind schedule with the engine and it was too heavy. However, it was producing the same output as the dominant Mercedes power unit. In the past three months, this could have changed, but the early signs of proof should come in Jerez next week.

It’s an old romance that has been rekindled, but not the only one. Fernando Alonso’s return is something that few would have predicted five years ago, and even this time last year, there were serious doubts. Surely, after all that had happened in 2007, and with Ron Dennis back in charge, he couldn’t return to McLaren?

He could and he did, though. After five happy but ultimately unsuccessful years with Ferrari, the Spaniard has been forced to find pastures new in search of his third world title. McLaren and Alonso need each other if they are to return to the front of the field once again; it will be interesting to see how the next two or three years develop.

Things will undoubtedly improve for McLaren. Without a win in two years, it hasn’t been able to hold a candle to the leading teams. Then again, you could argue that without Alonso, Ferrari would have been in the same boat. McLaren now has a driver who is widely regarded as being the best pound-for-pound in F1. If anyone can get through the inevitable teething problems and struggles of a new engine supplier, it is him.

Jenson Button is a driver that cannot be written off either. He may have come close to losing his seat over the winter, but he proved in the second half of last season that he still has what it takes to fight at the very top of F1. His is a firm fan favorite and well-embedded in the McLaren family. In a straight fight, he may not be as quick as Alonso, but he will still play a crucial role in the success of the McLaren-Honda partnership.

The puzzle pieces are all fitting together at Woking. There is now an impressive triumvirate made up of Ron Dennis, Eric Boullier and Jonathan Neale running the team, whilst its line-up is arguably one of the mot powerful that F1 has ever seen.

McLaren may be looking back in shaping its future, but all of the decisions taken have been with one endgame in mind: winning. The remit would have read: “Get the drivers and the engine supplier that will give us the best shot of winning the title again”.

And you know what? McLaren may have done exactly that. Success may not come immediately, but this is a team that is ready to fight back with a vengeance.

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.”