Bad sportsmanship or bad business? Force India couldn’t win in Paris

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Yesterday was a bad day for Formula 1. In the space of 12 hours, both Caterham and Marussia appeared to bite the dust, drawing the curtain on a sorry 2014 for Formula 1.

In the case of Caterham, its demise was expected – after all, it couldn’t find a buyer. Marussia had found investment though, with its fate instead being sealed by a meeting of the F1 Strategy Group in Paris on Thursday.

The team’s plan was to race with its 2014 car this season. Although it wouldn’t have been competitive or much of a rival to the other nine teams, it would have ensured its survival. The plan was to keep it propped up and rebuild from the ground up, with 2016 hopefully bringing better fortunes.

But no. The F1 Strategy Group said that this would not be allowed: Marussia could not race with its 2014 car. Cue outcry on social media and widespread dismay in the F1 community.

The sad irony about this case is that the team that was the first to veto Marussia’s return was Force India – the very team that had threatened to boycott last November’s United States Grand Prix because of how F1 was treating the smaller fish outside of the Strategy Group. It has since become a member of the body, and its first act was to arguably do exactly what it had protested against in the past.

“During the meeting it emerged that there were compliance issues and that the application lacked substance,” Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley told Reuters on Friday, defending his decision.

“Given the lack of information, uncertain guarantees, and the speculative nature of the application, the decision was taken that it is better to focus on ensuring the continued participation of the remaining independent teams.”

The Strategy Group meeting required a unanimous decision to bring Marussia back. With Force India saying no, the rest of the teams didn’t have to say a word as it didn’t matter. Bernie Ecclestone did however tell The Independent that “there were three or four of them” who were against Marussia’s return, without mentioning any team names.

As I explained at length in this article on Thursday ahead of the meeting, by allowing Marussia back, the remaining nine teams would be spurning the opportunity to grab themselves an extra 1.1% of the prize money on offer – Marussia’s allocation – which amounts to several million.

At a time when Force India, Sauber and Lotus are all staring down the barrel of financial uncertainty, income such as that is hard to come by.

The main criticism has been that Force India’s veto was grossly unsporting and unfair. However, bear in mind that it is a business; passing up on multi-million dollar opportunities doesn’t cut it in the boardroom, particularly when your car is behind schedule and may only get four days of on-track running before the first race of the year.

Ecclestone did hint at another reason behind the decision to say no to Marussia, telling The Independent: “Maybe the other teams would have liked to use last year’s car. The trouble was that you can’t do these things for one team, you have got to do it for everybody.”

Force India is yet to launch its new 2015 car, the VJM08. We’ve only seen last year’s car with a 2015 nose in a new livery. Food for thought.

What next for Marussia? Making the grid in Melbourne for the first race of the season appears to be out of the question, considering the time constraints involved. However, written into the teams’ contract with the sport is a clause that allows them to miss three races per year. Theoretically, Marussia could wait until the Bahrain Grand Prix to make its debut and not face any great penalty.

This does need to be a very quick and costly project though. The Marussia operation is, in truth, dead as we know it. The factory has been sold off to Gene Haas, with very little of the old team remaining. There is still a heartbeat though, even if it is a weak pulse. The odds don’t look good, but it isn’t game over quite yet.

Instead of pointing the finger at Force India in this, the bigger picture must be considered. F1’s cost crisis is only worsening, and the F1 Strategy Group continues to do nothing. It is a self-interest group that has made hardly any progress in its eighteen months of life, only acting to alienate the outsiders further.

In 2012, we had 12 teams and 24 cars. In the past three years, three F1 teams have collapsed financially: Marussia, Caterham and HRT. Three more are facing uncertain futures: Force India, Sauber and Lotus. At this rate, we may just have six teams left in Formula 1.

The sport is in crisis. Change must come. Be it from Bernie Ecclestone or from the FIA, or even if the Strategy Group finally wakes up, something must change. And soon.

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.”