The Equalization Conundrum: Should F1 put sport to one side in favor of ‘the show’?

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One of the most over-used phrases in Formula 1 over the past few years has been “the show”. Ordinarily, it’s a question of improving what the fans at the track and watching on TV at home enjoy as a finished product, with steps being taken to give them more bang for their buck by improving the show.

I have written extensively in the past about the myth surrounding the decline in the global TV audience of F1 that has occurred over the past few years. It is not a result of people simply not relating to F1 anymore or enjoying what they’re seeing, but instead down to the sport’s pursuit of greater revenues through pay TV contracts.

But this has not stopped F1 from trying to spice things up. In 2009, we saw the introduction of KERS to give drivers a power boost to aid overtaking. Two years later, all cars were fitted with DRS (drag reduction system) for the same reason. Most recently, in a bid to keep the championship alive for longer, the final race of the year was turned into a double points round.

All of these decisions were dubious at best, but all were made with one thing in mind: the show.

Because in an ideal world, F1 races would always be thrillers. You would always have a mad fight for the lead, a sprinkling of rain, different strategies and a photo finish.

Alas, this is not the case. Sometimes, as we saw in Australia, races are a bit dull and lack that spark that others have in abundance. It is events such as these that prompt the sport’s powers to make changes to try to spice things up. That was why Pirelli was given the remit of producing a tire that was bad enough to ensure races included two or three stops back in 2011, resulting in a safety debacle two years later.

This is not a problem exclusive to F1 though. It’s simply a fact of sport. Sometimes you will have a one-sided game of football or basketball. Soccer games do end 0-0. Not all hockey games go into overtime.

And yet F1 is unwilling to accept that. Part of the perceived problem comes in the dominance of one single team, as exemplified by Mercedes in 2014. The German marque stormed to 16 wins and 18 pole positions – both records – last year and should probably have enjoyed a perfect season.

The possible ‘turn off’ for fans can be understood here. It is perhaps less entertaining to tune in every week knowing that a Mercedes is 95% certain to win the race. However, given the tenacity of the fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg last year, it seems strange to think that this would be a reason not to watch.

For Red Bull though, this dominance is killing its interest in F1. Following yet another crushing victory for the Silver Arrows at the Australian Grand Prix two weeks ago, in a race where it suggest that it has lost not one bit of its advantage over the winter, Helmut Marko said that Red Bull could quit F1 altogether unless some efforts were made to equalize the field.

In short: Mercedes was too good, and Red Bull didn’t like it.

Unsurprisingly, many within the F1 community called “sour grapes” on this one. What made it all the more ironic was the fact that Red Bull had enjoyed a similar, if not so devastating, level of dominance between 2010 and 2013. Lewis Hamilton himself wryly called the comments from Marko “funny” earlier this week.

In this current era, Mercedes has clearly done a better job than the rest of the field, hence why it enjoys an advantage that is so big it has left Red Bull reeling.

But why should there be any kind of equalization in F1? Why should Mercedes be punished for simply doing a better job than the rest of the field? Red Bull’s argument was “it happened to us” – the ban on blown diffusers did slice its advantage between 2011 and 2012 – and so the same should happen again to Mercedes.

Yet Mercedes isn’t the real problem for Red Bull. The problem lies closer to home with its engine supplier, Renault. Because of the reliance on the power units in this era of F1, Red Bull has lost ground.

However, it is not impossible to cut the gap. Ferrari has made a fine start to the year and produced a brilliant display in practice today, with the advances made with its power unit also aiding Sauber. The gap to Mercedes may not be so big.

Again, this is part of sport. Sometimes, you have spells where one team is unbeatable. Ferrari’s domination between 2000 and 2004 was devastating, but the rest of the field kept on fighting. It was no reason to quit.

Equalization is a very tricky road to go down. Ultimately, if we wanted to know which driver was the best, the entire field would be put in the same car. You’ve then effectively got GP2. F1 is about the entire package – driver, team, engine – working in harmony.

What’s more, if it did happen, Mercedes would surely ask why it has bothered pouring money into its F1 programme to succeed as it has, only to then be pegged back. The team must be praised for its pledge to continue developing and innovating to maintain its incredible level of dominance. It hasn’t eased off because it is winning. If anything, the taste of success has spurred it on to find more.

The situation may not be good for Red Bull, but Mercedes must not be harangued for simply doing a better job than the other teams. The rest of the field has accepted it and pledged to redouble its efforts. Equalization is not the answer.

If Red Bull is committed to a future in F1 – which, with Audi and Renault reportedly sniffing around, it may not be – it should accept that defeat is part and parcel of sport.

The show may be important to F1, but it must remember its identity. It must entertain in a natural and organic way.

Equalization would only falsify the sport – “sport” being the key word in all of this.

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.”