Smith: Was Jacques Villeneuve’s Formula E departure inevitable?

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When Jacques Villeneuve announced back in August that he would be entering Formula E from the beginning fen season two with Venturi, the reaction was mixed.

The more idealist fans and observers saw it as one of the biggest coups scored by the infant series to date. Regardless of his reputation and somewhat backwards career path, Villeneuve is a former champion in both Formula 1 and CART – and that alone lends a great deal of credence to the series.

The cynics immediately scoffed at his arrival. Given his abrupt and failed foray into NASCAR and the nature of his departure from F1 midway through the 2006 season, few believed that Villeneuve would last long.

I personally belonged in the first camp. My love for F1 and motorsport was encouraged by my mother, who told me stories of seeing her hero, Gilles Villeneuve, race back in the 1970s and 1980s. Reading about the Canadian only increased my amazement.

So this idealist fool put a post up on Facebook on the day that Jacques confirmed his arrival into Formula E, cooing at the fact I would see a Villeneuve out on track the very next week at Donington Park for the first pre-season test.

Naturally, the cynics hit back. The responses read like a bad song list on a new album, fitting since Villeneuve also tried – and struggled – to venture into the music world post-his F1 career.

“You’re looking for the wrong Villeneuve,” one colleague said. “How long until the mid-season walk-out?” quipped another. “Every race needs a 14th place finisher,” added a third.

Villeneuve had long expressed an interest in Formula E as a concept, though. He did try and set up his own team upon the formation of the series, but was unsuccessful. As a result, his arrival at Venturi couldn’t be considered that surprising.

“I got in the car and immediately enjoyed it,” Villeneuve said of a test that helped him make up his mind. “It drove like a proper single seater and I was happily surprised by the feeling in the car and the team atmosphere was great.

“So it was an easy decision to do the full season. It’s a series that will keep getting faster and if you look at the rest of the racing world they try to make them slower, so that’s definitely a positive.”

There were early teething problems, though. The rule change for season two that allowed teams to develop their own powertrains, a task that some managed more successfully than others. Venturi was by no means the worst offender when it came to stoppages, but Villeneuve did suffer a number of issues during his test running, with one leaving him to help push the car back to the garage after grinding to a halt at the end of the pit lane.

Nevertheless, Villeneuve appeared happy. Sporting his famed baggy overalls, he caught up with Jarno Trulli, a driver with whom he raced against the majority of his F1 career. There was a certain nostalgia to it all; the old boys giving it a go against the up-and-comers.

And yet the enormity of the task facing Villeneuve became clear when Formula E hit Beijing for the first race of season two. The Canadian had a nightmarish first race that was interrupted by a tangle with Antonio Felix da Costa when battling over 14th place. He eventually came home in P14, finishing one lap down on race winner Sebastien Buemi.

Putrajaya went little better. Villeneuve came close to scoring a breakthrough point by finishing 11th, yet this was out of just 13 finishers. At the end of a race full of carnage, the opportunity was there for the midfield runners to step up to the plate and pick up some points. Villeneuve missed out here.

He didn’t even make the start in Punta del Este, though. A crash in qualifying left his Venturi car beyond repair, bringing the curtain down on his time in Formula E – unbeknownst to us at the time, of course.

Earlier this week, the team confirmed that Villeneuve had left by mutual consent after “a disagreement over the future direction of the team.” Clearly, Villeneuve wasn’t expecting to fit into the ‘employee’ role that most drivers do; he was always expecting an increased position.

Was his exit from the series inevitable? The aforementioned cynics should in fact be called ‘realists.’ If Villeneuve couldn’t stick it out in a midfield running BMW Sauber back in 2006, what were the chances of him doing so in Formula E? Surely one of F1’s most vocal critics would be unable to find joy in such a young series that, while moving rapidly, still has teething problems?

Perhaps it depended on how he started. Had Villeneuve been battling towards the front early on, it’s unlikely he would have left Venturi. The ins and outs of his departure are not known, but at the age of 44, why would he want to be trundling around at the back?

The level of belief Villeneuve had (and still has) in Formula E is another key factor in his departure. Perhaps he had higher hopes for the championship, only to be disappointed when he arrived in it. Or maybe he felt Venturi weren’t meeting the potential that Formula E offered teams. Maybe he thought it better to go it alone.

So who knows – perhaps this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Jacques Villeneuve in Formula E. The likelihood of him starting his own team anytime soon is low given the grid is at its maximum capacity as of season three with the arrival of Jaguar. All of the other teams appear committed, making a takeover unlikely.

Time will tell on this one. But regardless, Villeneuve may have brought his reputation to Formula E, but the series has proven that no driver – even an ex-F1 and CART champion – is bigger than it as an entity. And that surely is a major victory while it remains at such an early stage.

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.”