As the Bottas to Ferrari story kicks off F1’s silly season, how might the driver market dominoes fall?

4 Comments

Roll up, roll up! The circus is back in town! It’s been away since the end of 2014, but it is back and back with a vengeance.

That’s right folks – today, July 17, marks the beginning of F1 Silly Season 2015. And boy does this have the makings of an exciting one.

Silly season, ordinarily lasting from Hungary to Abu Dhabi, is the portion of the F1 year that sees every driver on the market get linked with every seat on offer.

Some moves are well-reasoned and possible – look at Fernando Alonso’s switch to McLaren last year – whilst other theories are merely a result of putting two and two together and getting five.

The firestarter this year is Valtteri Bottas, who is bound for Ferrari as Kimi Raikkonen’s replacement according to a report in the Italian press that emerged on Friday.

Ferrari has called the report “bulls***”, whilst Bottas’ manager has also called for a little caution. However, the move seems to be a dead cert given Ferrari’s courting of the Finn and the financial gain on offer to Williams.

The end result for Kimi Raikkonen is likely to be retirement. The Finn has made clear in the past that he would most probably quit F1 once his time with Ferrari was up, and after 18 months and just one podium finish, it looks to be game over for him at Maranello.

Raikkonen’s monosyllabic nature has always made him a target for rumors stemming from a lack of motivation. In this case, that is not true. Raikkonen remains motivated, but has quite simply lacked the pace out on track this year. The 59-point gap to Sebastian Vettel is evidence of this.

He is also the last remaining big figure of the old regime at Maranello. Raikkonen’s signing for 2014 was nothing more than a ‘marriage of convenience’; someone who would act as a stop gap until Vettel and, ultimately, Jules Bianchi would be signed. Had it not been for his accident, Jules would most probably be the man replacing Raikkonen for next season.

So with Bottas at Ferrari and Raikkonen out of the picture, attention now turns to Williams, who will have a seat to fill. The original report suggested that Felipe Nasr may make the move back to the British team, having spent 2014 as its test and reserve driver.

Nasr would present a financially sound option given his backing from Banco do Brasil, but lacks the track record or ability of Nico Hulkenberg, another man tipped to be Bottas’ replacement. After spending his entire F1 career making sidesteps, for the first time, he could be able to move up the grid. It would also turn his F1 career moves into a palindromic sequence: Williams, Force India, Sauber, Force India, Williams.

Another option for Williams is its current test driver, Alex Lynn. The British driver won GP3 last year and is a race winner in GP2 this season, and certainly represents the future. He would be more of a gamble for Williams than the others, given his lack of experience, but as witnessed by other raw youngsters moving up like Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen, it’s not entirely out of the question.

The man with the most experience who could be up for grabs in 2016 is Jenson Button. The McLaren driver narrowly avoided the exit at the end of 2014, with the team eventually opting to drop Kevin Magnussen after just one year to make way for Fernando Alonso.

Button signed a two-year deal in a ‘one plus one’ package – the team has an option on his services for 2016. Given the team’s struggles so far this year, it is hard to see what the worth of retaining Button would be. The experience he provides is on offer thanks to Alonso, and with junior driver Stoffel Vandoorne destroying the field in GP2 at the moment, planning for the future may be wiser.

So if Button were to be shown the exit, Williams may present a nice way for him to finish his career. At 35, he will undoubtedly be thinking about retirement and life after F1, so one final hurrah with the team at which he started out back in 2000 would give him some good closure instead of exiting under the cloud of McLaren’s 2015 woes.

The FIA World Endurance Championship is certainly on Button’s horizon. The British driver was linked to a potential Toyota or Porsche switch last year; Porsche, of course, famously won this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans with Hulkenberg as part of the driving lineup. The WEC would be a natural landing place if Button’s F1 future becomes all the more uncertain.

Whatever Williams does will then set the rest of the dominoes in motion. If the team plums for Nasr, a seat is free at Sauber, most probably for Ferrari junior Raffaele Marciello. If Hulkenberg gets the nod, a space at Force India is created for Mercedes youngster Pascal Wehrlein, who is a big part of the Gemran marque’s future plans.

Another name linked with both the Ferrari and Williams seats is Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian driver is hot property, but his contract with Red Bull appears to be water-tight, meaning he will be sticking around for another season. If Williams wanted to hold out for him, though, a one-year deal with Button may be an ideal stop-gap.

Romain Grosjean’s situation at Lotus is also worth keeping an eye on. The Frenchman has established himself as one of the top midfield drivers in the past three years, but with a lack of bumper sponsorship that many of the teams crave, remaining with Lotus seems the most likely course of action. Reserve driver Jolyon Palmer may have been told that there could be an opportunity at Enstone for 2016, but in all likelihood, Pastor Maldonado will most probably join Grosjean once again.

For Red Bull and Toro Rosso, a change is only going to happen if the bosses cruelly jilt Daniil Kvyat after just one season, which is unlikely. Otherwise, status quo should remain.

The final factor in all of this is Haas. The arrival of another team does release some of the pressure on the driver market, given that there are two extra spots. And they’re not seats to be sniffed at, either, given the extensive amount of involvement Ferrari will have with the team.

Esteban Gutierrez seems to be a sure-fire shout for the team given his Ferrari links and experience in F1, whilst the second slot will largely depend on what Gene Haas wants. Jean-Eric Vergne, who’s also Ferrari-affiliated, would also make sense. If Haas wants to give a young driver a shot, Alexander Rossi would be the obvious choice. An American driver in an American car is the dream for many in the sport who crave a better foothold in the United States.

However, the shake-up in the midfield could give Haas a chance to pick up a big name driver for his team’s debut season. Hulkenberg and Grosjean would certainly be of interest, but would either be willing to take a gamble on a new outfit?

It’s all food for thought. What we do know for sure is that Silly Season 2015 is going to be as unpredictable and ludicrous as ever.

And that’s just the way we like it.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
0 Comments

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 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 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 car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

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. – McLaren Racing

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.”