F1 2015 season preview: Meet the rookies

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As part of our extensive Formula 1 season preview on MotorSportsTalk, we’ve decided to take a closer look at the rookies that will make their debuts at next Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix.

At the time of writing, Manor Marussia F1 Team is yet to firm up its line-up, with one seat remaining alongside Will Stevens who raced in last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix for Caterham (and is therefore not a rookie, despite lacking F1 experience).

So in a couple of days, there may be one more name to add to the list of F1 rookies. For now though, here’s a closer look at the three drivers who will be making their F1 bows in 2015.

Felipe Nasr – Sauber

Age: 22
Car Number: 12
Biggest Achievement: 2011 British F3 champion
2014 Result: 3rd in GP2 Series

Felipe Nasr has been in the running for a Formula 1 seat for a few years now, but will finally make his debut with Sauber in Australia. The Brazilian finished third in last year’s GP2 Series, proving to be Jolyon Palmer’s biggest title rival before his form petered out towards the end of the year. His most notable success to date came in the 2011 British F3 championship, in which he soundly defeated McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen, and he spent last year working as Williams’ test and reserve driver.

2015 is where things get serious for Nasr, though. His failure to put up a greater challenge to Palmer last year in GP2 led many to question his ability, and with Sauber, he doesn’t exactly have the best car to showcase his talents. Nevertheless, the 22-year-old will be hoping to make the most of this opportunity and enjoy a solid rookie season with the Swiss team.

Carlos Sainz Jr.

Age: 20
Car Number: 55
Biggest Achievement: 2014 Formula Renault 3.5 champion
2014 Result: 1st in Formula Renault 3.5

Another man who has been on the fringes of F1 for some time is Carlos Sainz Jr. Son of rally legend Carlos Sainz, “Carlitos” has been a candidate for a seat at Toro Rosso for two or three years. He was not the team’s first pick for the seat at Toro Rosso, but the chain of events sparked by Sebastian Vettel’s departure from Red Bull gave him a reprieve and a place on the grid for 2015.

His title win in FR3.5 last year was impressive, but lacked a bit of fire at times. He should have clinched the crown far earlier than the final race of the year, and it is interesting to note that he never finished on the podium without being on the top step. He certainly has potential, but the notoriously cut-throat nature of the Red Bull junior system means that this is very much a last chance for the Spaniard.

Max Verstappen

Age: 17
Car Number: 33
Biggest Achievement: 2013 World KZ Karting Champion
2014 Result: 3rd in FIA F3 European Championship

The most talked about rookie in F1 this year will undoubtedly be Max Verstappen (pictured). His rise through the ranks into an F1 seat has been controversial, sparking a raft of new criteria to be allowed to race in F1 such as being at least 18 years of age and holding a valid road driver’s licence (Max fits neither). Red Bull has taken a punt on him, but there is no doubt that Verstappen has the makings of a great.

Son of ex-F1 driver Jos, Max was highly impressive in FIA F3 last year, but some inconsistency meant that he finished third in the final standings. His practice run-outs for Toro Rosso showed that he looks ready, and the praise he has received is only likely to continue over the coming weeks and months. However, the big test will be when he goes wheel-to-wheel with the experienced racers out on track. Be aware though: this ‘kid’ could change everything.

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.”