F1 Preview: 2016 Australian Grand Prix

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After one of the longest winter breaks in the history of Formula 1, this weekend marks a return to racing action with the traditional season-opener in Melbourne, Australia.

Due to the relative stability of the technical regulations between 2015 and 2016, there a few major changes of note on the cars themselves, but a few tweaks to the sporting rules could make things interesting.

New tire and radio rules place a greater onus on the drivers to manage their races, while the addition of quickfire eliminations to qualifying could catch a few out.

Lewis Hamilton arrives in Australia coming off the back of his third world championship success in 2015, but after suffering three straight defeats to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg at the end of last season, the question will be whether it was a blip or a sign of things to come.

Outside of Mercedes, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari will be keen to build on a year of resurgence in 2015 and carry the momentum gained into the new campaign.

Despite sharing around half of all race wins in their time together in F1, we’ve never had a straight title fight between Hamilton and Vettel. Might 2016 be the year?

2016 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Lewis and Nico prepare for round three

Hamilton and Rosberg have enjoyed a frosty, albeit successful, time together as teammates. However, it has been quite a one-sided battle in truth, with Hamilton enjoying the majority of the success.

Tired of being the bridesmaid and never the bride, Rosberg enters the new season hoping to get the better of his triple-champion teammate at the third attempt. His form at the end of last year signalled some kind of revival, appearing to banish the demons that hindered his title bid form much of the season.

Hamilton insisted that his late-season decline was the result of taking his eye off the ball as he was more interested in partying than racing, but is he back to full focus? Time will tell. Rosberg will want to strike early in this battle though.

Smoke and mirrors from Ferrari in testing, or genuine pace?

Ferrari made a significant breakthrough in 2015 with its power unit that allowed Sebastian Vettel to take three race wins and light the fire underneath both Mercedes drivers.

The hope for those wanting a good show in 2016 – so, everyone except Mercedes – is that Ferrari can build on this and match its German rival this season.

Testing suggested that Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen may be in a position to put up a more stringent fight, but as with all pre-season running, it is impossible to make any firm deductions.

Maybe Australia will provide some answers.

Midfield mayhem

One thing we can take from testing is that Mercedes and Ferrari are clear of the rest of the field. That, along with the hinted closing up of the teams further back, means we could be in for one of the closest midfield fights in F1 for some time this season.

Williams enters 2016 coming off the back of another strong season that saw it finish third in the constructors’ championship, but must be wary of the threat from Force India behind, who also had a great year.

With its engine saga solved in the short term thanks to a name change, Red Bull will be hoping for better this season. Renault (even if it is branded as TAG Heuer) has learned from the mistakes of last season and should grow in strength over the year.

Toro Rosso may enjoy an early advantage thanks to its 2015-spec Ferrari power unit, making Australia the perfect place to strike and pick up some big points. McLaren has also progressed, while Sauber and even the new Haas team will want to impress.

From P5 to P20, the margins could be very fine indeed.

America returns to the grid

After years of planning and widespread scepticism, NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas will this weekend see his eponymous F1 team finally make its grand prix debut.

30 years have passed since an American team raced in F1, making the achievement of the entire Haas team massively important.

Although expectations have been cooled heading into the new season after a tough second week of testing, regular points certainly appears to be within the reach of drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez this year.

Radio Ga Ga?

This weekend will see the implementation of stricter radio rules in F1, limiting what engineers can tell their drivers during on-track sessions.

Barring a safety concern, the drivers will be left largely to their own devices, putting a greater onus on them to manage their tires, fuel and other elements of the car.

It will be interesting to see how this shakes up the pecking order, perhaps hinting at who is more reliant on advice than others.

Furthermore, with the introduction of new quickfire elimination qualifying – a point of controversy recently – and the new tire rules, this weekend will be about getting to grips with some small but possibly significant changes.

2016 Australian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Albert Park
Laps: 58
Corners: 16
Lap Record: Michael Schumacher 1:24.125 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Medium, Soft, Super-Soft
2015 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:26.327
2015 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:30.945
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T16 to T1); T2 to T3

2016 Australian Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBCSN 9:30pm ET 3/17
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 1:30am ET 3/18
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 11pm ET 3/18
Qualifying: NBCSN 2am ET 3/19
Race: NBCSN 12am ET 3/20

Click here for the full NBC Sports broadcast schedule for the Australian Grand Prix. All sessions will be broadcast live on Live Extra.

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.”