A Mercedes title encore? It’s hard to bet against it

1 Comment

What makes a team stand out from a historical standpoint in the more than 60-year history of Formula 1 is legacy, and enduring periods of success.

Whether it was Alfa Romeo in the 1950s, Lotus in the 1960s, Tyrrell in the early 1970s, McLaren Honda in the late 1980s, Ferrari in the early 2000s or Red Bull for its most recent four-year reign from 2010 to 2013, teams become legendary when they sustain their success for more than a single year run.

This appears to be Mercedes AMG Petronas’ time to add itself to the all-time greats, as Mercedes, in this entity.

The team that began as Tyrrell, morphed into BAR, then Honda and Brawn for a single, title-winning season before Mercedes re-entered as a factory team in 2010 now stands at the precipice of extended greatness.

That is, if Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg come close to matching what they did during the 2014 campaign, in what was a classic duel between the teammates (view 2014 team preview linked here).

But that shouldn’t be too difficult.

F1 has lacked that intense, inter-teammate rivalry for title glory for the better part of 20 years. As nearly everyone knows, the Schumacher/Ferrari and Vettel/Red Bull years were dominated by the German driver, with the respective number two driver (Rubens Barrichello, then Mark Webber) resigned to leftovers and the occasional victory.

With Hamilton and Rosberg, Mercedes has arguably the strongest combined lineup on the grid, still, and has two drivers only beginning to enter the peak years of their careers. Hamilton is 30, and Rosberg 29, but combined, they have nearly 20 years of F1 experience.

So long as Mercedes lets them race fairly and freely, as they did last year (even with their Spa contact), it has the potential to rank as one of the sport’s best all-time teammate rivalries.

Hamilton’s resurgence a year ago was the fulfillment of several factors. Personally, some of the personal elements or corporate restrictions he dealt with in his prior life at McLaren were behind him. Competitively, he had a year’s worth of learning his new team under his belt before maximizing everything in 2014.

In 2013, his first season with Mercedes, he was always going to be adapting to his new surroundings, his new life outside the McLaren world, and in the fifth year of a development cycle where Red Bull had the edge. He still won and scored podiums, but a title challenge simply wasn’t on the cards.

But a year ago, whether it was courtesy of his own fuel saving tactics, his ability to be aggressive when needed and his timing to seize the opportunity when it was there, Hamilton was a far more well-rounded driver than when he won his first title as a frequently fast but sometimes erratic sophomore back in 2008. Few begrudged his winning the title and on simple 11-5 win countback over Rosberg, he was always going to be a deserving champion.

But Rosberg, too, has evolved over his career to where he must now, finally, be mentioned among F1’s elite… even though he doesn’t have the World Championship that five of his competitors do on the 2015 grid.

Throughout each of his first eight years, Rosberg lacked consistency. He hit some very high peaks on occasion and scored a few well-judged Grand Prix victories. But a year ago, he managed to add the next level of consistent podium finishes, albeit second to Hamilton way too frequently.

In my estimation, Rosberg needed to go through the battle of a championship fight – and the fact it was versus his teammate probably strengthens him more in the long run – and lose one before he can truly rise to the occasion of winning one.

When you look at first-time World Champions in the recent past, they’ve followed that path. Consider Hamilton probably should have won the 2007 title as a rookie, but for an ill-judged error at Shanghai and subsequent struggle in the season finale in Sao Paulo. Sebastian Vettel was 2009’s most impressive second half driver but was too far back of Jenson Button to make up the ground. Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen each went through years where they were close to the title but didn’t grasp it in their first real chance.

Rosberg can look back on 2014 as a year when he had the speed – he had 11 poles to Hamilton’s seven – but he didn’t have the experience of surviving a title battle and lost the psychological war to Hamilton more often than not in the waning races. He seemed defeated throughout the weekend at Austin, for example, while Hamilton was high on life.

Both now have the knowledge that Mercedes has by far the best car, and one that has only seemed to improve over the winter with the new W06 chassis.

Mercedes was the outright lap leader in testing, and the pacesetters too by the end of the second Barcelona test, when Hamilton and Rosberg stomped the field and then downplayed their achievements.

Those are two very troubling warning signs that Mercedes might already have the year on lockdown.

A storyline to watch this year is Hamilton’s impending contract status. Rosberg signed an extension with the team last year but Hamilton is yet to do likewise, in this, the final year of his contract.

Regardless, both drivers seem poised to build on their accolades a year ago. The Toto Wolff-led team has provided the drivers the challenger with which to do so.

Expect more of the same this year in terms of Mercedes winning the Constructor’s Championship, although it remains to be seen whether Hamilton will be able to make it back-to-back or whether Rosberg can enter immortality as a new World Champion driver.

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

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.”