Smith: Ferrari plays it safe by keeping Kimi, but it makes perfect sense

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Well that’s it for another year.

Much like Christmas, New Year’s Eve or Halloween, the saga surrounding Kimi Raikkonen’s future in Formula 1 has become an annual event.

With Ferrari confirming on Friday ahead of practice for the British Grand Prix that the Finn would be retained for 2017, it put an end to the questions about his motivation for racing and suitability a team chasing world championships.

Time to take down the bunting and put the fireworks on hold, kids. Kimi’s sticking around.

The news was met with little in the way of excitement or enthusiasm (much like Raikkonen himself). Just as it did last year, the F1 driver market’s shake-up – also known as ‘silly season’ – largely depended on Raikkonen. If Ferrari decided to bring in a new driver, the dominoes would be set in motion through the rest of the grid.

Alas, the status quo remains. Raikkonen is going nowhere, meaning the drivers linked with his seat all have to put their dreams of racing for Ferrari on ice for the time being.

Sergio Perez’s recent form led to his name being thrown into the mix, scoring podiums in Monaco and Baku with some impressive drives. Since his ill-fated year with McLaren in 2013, the Mexican has revived his career with Force India, leading its charge alongside Le Mans winner Nico Hulkenberg.

Romain Grosjean was another option, with many believing his move to Haas to be nothing more than a stepping stone to a future Ferrari seat. He has been the American team’s stand-out driver so far this season, and all of his data will be available to Ferrari by virtue of its technical partnership with Haas.

Other names linked to the seat included Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas, Carlos Sainz Jr. (recently re-signed by Toro Rosso) and even Nico Rosberg should the German decide to leave Mercedes.

Rosberg was perhaps the only truly viable option for Ferrari right now. Otherwise, what do any of the above names offer that Raikkonen doesn’t have?

The Finn may not be as sharp as he was back in 2007, when he claimed Ferrari’s last drivers’ championship ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, yet he has become increasingly at ease with the car. 2014 was a disastrous year, and although he failed to match Sebastian Vettel through 2015, this season he has done so.

Sure, Vettel has been very unlucky, losing points due to dud engines (Bahrain), tire failures (Austria) and Daniil Kvyat (Russia), but the standings show that Raikkonen is level with his four-time world champion teammate: 96 points apiece. Four podiums in nine races is also worth shouting about.

When Raikkonen re-joined Ferrari in 2014, he was always seen as being a medium-term option. Vettel was bound to make the move across at some point, while Jules Bianchi was labelled as being Ferrari’s future star before the accident at Suzuka that ultimately cost the young Frenchman his life and robbed F1 of one of its brightest stars.

While Red Bull has always had a clear road-map in place regarding its future drivers thanks to its junior academy, Ferrari has not since Bianchi’s death. Raffaele Marciello was dropped from the Ferrari Driver Academy at the end of 2015 after two underwhelming seasons in GP2, and while Charles Leclerc has now joined, he is still a few years off being ready for F1, let alone a seat with Ferrari.

Ferrari hasn’t been a team to hire a driver with just a year or two in mind. Raikkonen’s first spell was three seasons; Fernando Alonso spent five at Maranello; Felipe Massa did eight.

So if anyone was going to replace Raikkonen, they needed to provide a compelling argument. Not only did they need to be a better choice than Raikkonen, but they also had to be the right fit for the next three or four years at a minimum.

While Grosjean’s displays with a brand new team have been hugely impressive, as was much of his spell at Lotus, he still hasn’t won a grand prix. Nor has Perez. Nor has Bottas. Nor has Hulkenberg. There’s nothing that made Ferrari’s decision an easy one as there was in the signing of Vettel or Alonso.

The pressure of racing for Ferrari is also a big consideration. Perez struggled to adapt to life with a big team at McLaren, and one would imagine the pressure would be even greater when donning the scarlet red of F1’s most famous team.

“One thing you need to take into consideration is the pressure that you get at Ferrari,” four-time world champion Alain Prost said last month, having himself raced for Ferrari in 1990 and 1991.

“Sometimes you can see some very good drivers in an average team, and when they go in a top team, they don’t perform the same because they are a little bit different.”

Raikkonen may be mono-syllabic to the media and far from expressive, but he knows how to deal with the pressure of racing for Ferrari. He can get on with the job at hand which – right now – is supporting Vettel.

Vettel and Raikkonen have both expressed their mutual respect for each other in the past, being as close to friends as two private people and fierce competitors can be.

“I’m quite happy with Kimi because there’s no bulls**t as he puts it going on, no funny games or anything like that,” Vettel told NBCSN last month. His opinion would certainly have played a big part in Ferrari’s decision.

While it may be a tad underwhelming and awfully safe, Ferrari’s decision to keep Raikkonen for 2017 is the right one. Currently, there are no drivers out there who scream ‘sign me!’ or would slot straight into the setup at Maranello.

Silly season may now be a damp squib, but fear not: we’ll be having the same debates about Raikkonen’s future this time next year. Bwoah!

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

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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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 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.”