F1 Preview: 2016 Belgian Grand Prix

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After a much-needed summer break, Formula 1 returns this weekend with the Belgian Grand Prix at the iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

From Eau Rouge and Radillon to Pouhons and Blanchimont, Spa features many of motorsport’s most fearsome and favored corners, loved by drivers and fans alike.

The F1 paddock returns from its break refreshed and recharged after a relentless run of four races in July that saw the balance of power change dramatically in the title race.

Lewis Hamilton entered July still trailing Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship, but arrives in Spa with a 19-point lead and on a four-race win streak. Can he keep up his good form at Spa?

Here’s what to watch for this weekend in Belgium.

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Lewis braced for grid penalty

If you following Lewis Hamilton on Snapchat, you’ll know that he’s had quite the summer break, jetting all over the world with his friends and having lots of fun in the process.

But don’t think for a second that Hamilton is distracted. He’s proved time and time again that he can live the high-life off-track and still excel on it. After shutting off from racing for a month, the Briton will be raring to go this weekend at Spa.

Hamilton is expected to take a grid penalty this weekend after taking a sixth component for his power unit, giving Rosberg the chance to cut the gap. However, as we’ve seen before, Lewis is more than capable of scything through the field – let’s see what he can do from the back.

Rosberg’s Spa hoodoo to continue?

Of all the tracks where Nico Rosberg could do with winning at, Spa is perhaps not the best choice. It was arguably where his title run in 2014 was dealt a killer-blow, and is a track where he is yet to win. Hamilton has always enjoyed an edge in Belgium.

The tide turned dramatically in July, leaving Rosberg with a summer break to consider how he can pick himself back up. For all of the claims in interviews that “it is what it is” and that Hamilton’s lead means little, Rosberg must do his talking on-track.

Another defeat to Hamilton – particularly embarrassing if the Briton does start last – could see him slip to more than one race win behind in the standings. If he is to emulate his father and become world champion, a win at Spa this weekend when the cards are stacked in his favor is needed.

A home-from-home race for Verstappen

Max Verstappen’s astonishing rise over the past couple of years is set to reach another high-point this weekend at Spa when an army of Dutch fans make the trip over the border to see their favorite son in action.

In the absence of a Dutch Grand Prix, Belgium offers the next-best-thing for those in the Netherlands. Officials at Spa said earlier this week that they are expecting their best-attended race in years thanks to Verstappen’s success during his relatively short time in F1.

Verstappen has scored three podium finishes in the last four races, and is well in the race for P3 in the drivers’ championship along with Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo and the Ferrari pair. Red Bull was on the ascendance before the summer break – don’t expect some time off to have stunted that.

Ocon ready for F1 debut

Much as Stoffel Vandoorne’s F1 debut in Bahrain will probably be a memorable race in years to come when reflecting on when we first saw one of the sport’s top talents in action, this weekend will see Esteban Ocon enjoy his maiden start with Manor.

Ocon has been given the Manor seat after Rio Haryanto’s management failed to secure enough financial backing for him to see out the season, having spent the first half of 2016 in DTM with Mercedes.

The Frenchman is highly-rated after winning the FIA European F3 and GP3 titles in the past two years, and is being courted by Renault for an F1 seat in 2016. Keep an eye on him at Spa this weekend.

Is Spa really Spa without rain?

This was a question posed over the FIA World Endurance Championship round at Spa earlier this year when the circuit bathed in bright, warm sunshine all weekend long.

Spa is renowned for its unpredictable and dreary weather – yet this weekend, we look set for nothing but sun if the weather forecasts are to be believed.

It should make things easier for the teams when it comes to strategy and gathering data. That said, this is Spa: things could change very, very quickly.

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
Corners: 19
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:47.263 (2009)
Tire Compounds: Medium/Soft/Super-Soft
2015 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:47.197
2015 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:52.416
DRS Zones: T19 to T1, T4 to T5

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 4am ET 8/26
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 8am ET 8/26
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 5am ET 8/27
Qualifying: NBC Sports App 8am ET 8/27 (re-air 1pm ET, NBCSN)
Race: NBCSN 7am ET 8/28

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.”