What to watch for: Belgian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

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Nico Rosberg will know that today’s Belgian Grand Prix is probably the best chance he’ll get to fight back into contention for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship.

After seeing his points advantage over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton disappear through July and turn into a 19-point deficit, the German could move back into the lead on Sunday at Spa.

Hamilton will start the race from the last row of the grid after being hit with a 55-place grid drop for taking three new power units over the weekend, as forced by issues earlier in the season.

Rosberg, meanwhile, had a relatively untroubled run to pole on Saturday, seeing off the challenges from Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen in Q3.

With the Mercedes drivers starting at either end of the grid, the race and title fight are finely-poised, which should make for a thrilling contest.

You can watch the Belgian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race.

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Can Nico handle the pressure?

Rosberg’s title bid in 2016 has largely been built on the run of four race wins at the start of the year, all of which came after calm and well-executed displays. His form since then has been a little more erratic, allowing Hamilton back into the title fight.

Without his biggest rival for company at the front of the grid, Rosberg knows that victory should be his for the taking. Strategy will be key at Spa, and with Rosberg starting on softs as opposed to the quicker super-soft tires, he may struggle early on.

Nevertheless, this really should be Rosberg’s race to lose. And if he leaves Spa more than 19 points behind Hamilton, it would surely be a crushing psychological defeat.

Max Mania set to reach new heights

Spa is expecting its biggest attendance since 2002 on Sunday, bucking the trend of falling crowd figures that most European circuits are experiencing. Much of it is down to the success of Max Verstappen, who hails from the nearby Netherlands and lives in Belgium.

Tens of thousands of fans have made the trip across the border to cheer on Verstappen, turning the grandstands a shade of orange. Their support was rewarded with a charge to second place on the grid in qualifying, making Verstappen F1’s youngest ever front-row starter.

Starting on super-softs, Verstappen should have a pace advantage early on at Spa. Rosberg said that Red Bull’s long-run pace was concerning on Friday – could Verstappen charge to a second F1 victory?

Damage limitation the aim for Hamilton

While the penalty system may have looked somewhat farcical, Lewis Hamilton won’t care much. He now has three new power units that should see him to the end of the season barring any unexpected problems.

Hamilton has fought his way from the back of the grid before, most notably in Germany and Hungary in 2014. This time around though, it may prove more difficult. Mercedes is no longer way off in the distance compared to other teams – as such, it won’t be easy pickings.

Throw in a safety car period or two, and Hamilton could get into contention at the front of the pack. Otherwise, he needs to stay out of trouble and limit the damage of this weekend’s penalty.

All eyes on tires, both strategy and pressures

Tires are always a talking point at Spa, but this year they are proving to be particularly troublesome. Teams have been required to raise their tire pressures to prevent blow-outs, something that Felipe Massa called a “joke” earlier in the week.

That, combined with the variety of strategies on offer, could shake up the pecking order today. A three-stop race is most likely barring any safety car periods, and with temperatures higher than expected (sun at Spa? What is this sorcery?), it’s going to be a tough day for the pit wall. Lots to be lost and gained.

Opportunity knocks for lower midfield

The summer breaks appears to have done wonders for many of the teams in F1’s lower-midfield. Haas, Renault, Sauber and Manor all impressed in qualifying with their pace, and will be hopeful of repeating that kind of display in the race on Sunday.

For Haas, being on the right tire at the right time has been its biggest strength so far this season, making Spa a race where opportunities should be plenty. For Manor, today will see Esteban Ocon make his F1 debut – can he and/or Pascal Wehrlein add to its points haul this year?

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Max Verstappen Red Bull
3. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Sergio Perez Force India
7. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
8. Valtteri Bottas Williams
9. Jenson Button McLaren
10. Felipe Massa Williams
11. Romain Grosjean Haas
12. Kevin Magnussen Renault
13. Jolyon Palmer Renault
14. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
15. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
16. Felipe Nasr Sauber
17. Esteban Ocon Manor
18. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
19. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
20. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
21. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
22. Fernando Alonso McLaren

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.”