F1 Preview: 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix

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Following his third straight victory in Singapore two weeks ago, Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg heads into this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix as the Formula 1 drivers’ championship leader for the first time since the middle of July.

After Lewis Hamilton’s mid-season resurgence, many expected the Briton to sweep through the remainder of the year and pick up his fourth world title.

Rosberg dug deep, though, with his Singapore victory arguably being his most complete thus far in 2016. The eight-point gap to teammate Hamilton may offer some comfort, but the German shan’t rest easy on it.

It feels strange for F1 to be visiting Malaysia so late in the season. The race has traditionally been the second leg on the calendar since 2001, but the decision to shift to the end of the year and form an Asian trifecta of races with Singapore and Japan made complete sense.

Much as Malaysia proved decisive in the title race of 1999, will it do so once again in 2016?

Here’s our full preview of the race weekend at Sepang.

2016 Malaysian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Rosberg’s run to continue?

Rosberg’s bid for a maiden F1 drivers’ title in 2016 may have been kick-started by his string of four wins at the beginning of the year, but it is this current sequence that could seal it. Wins in Belgium, Italy and Singapore vaulted him back into the lead of the drivers’ championship, and a fourth on the bounce this Sunday would see his advantage extend to at least 15 points.

Both Rosberg and Hamilton have fared well in Malaysia in the past, making a winner hard to pick. Hamilton certainly has the ability to pull a victory out of nowhere, yet with Rosberg in his current vein of form, it would be tough to bet against him.

How close can Red Bull or Ferrari get?

Red Bull was expected to impress in Singapore, making Daniel Ricciardo’s run to second not much of a surprise – the fact he got within half a second of victory was perhaps more interesting.

The unique nature of the street course in Singapore means a repeat this weekend is unlikely, though. The Sepang International Circuit is a track that suits a good all-rounder car, pointing towards a Mercedes victory.

That said, the race to be best of the rest is set to rage on between Red Bull and Ferrari. Malaysia was the site of Sebastian Vettel’s shock victory in 2015, yet Ferrari knows a repeat is perhaps unrealistic. Should rain strike, though, we could see Hamilton and Rosberg face a stiffer challenge.

Resurfaced, recambered Sepang to present new challenge

One of the reasons for the date shift for the Malaysian Grand Prix was so that the planned renovations for the Sepang International Circuit could be completed. While the layout itself remains the same, the track has been resurfaced, with a number of corners having their bumps removed as a result.

Perhaps the biggest change comes at the final corner, which has been given a more pronounced camber to aid the removal of water in wet conditions. As a result, the quickest line for drivers to take may have changed, making practice crucial for track acclimatization.

JB hits 300 in Malaysia

Jenson Button will make his 300th grand prix start this weekend in Malaysia, becoming just the third driver in the history of F1 to hit that landmark. Former Honda and Brrawn teammate Rubens Barrichello still holds the record for starts at 326, while Michael Schumacher sits second on 306. Button will sit on 305 come the end of the season if he starts every race.

While McLaren’s hopes of hitting the front of the pack may remain a pipedream in 2016, Button will be aiming to bring home more solid points for the British team on a landmark race in a landmark season for the Briton.

Haas to make points return?

Haas arrived in Singapore two weeks ago hopeful of picking up its first points since Austria thanks to a raft of updates for the VF-16 car, only for the weekend to descend into something of a nightmare.

Romain Grosjean faced a litany of issues that ended with him failing to start the race, while Esteban Gutierrez finished 11th – again – to extend his points drought ever close to the three-year mark.

Alas, it could be in Malaysia where the updates finally bear fruit. Tire strategy will be key, perhaps playing into Grosjean’s hands, while the grunt of the Ferrari power unit should put the team in good shape.

2016 Malaysian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Sepang International Circuit
Corners: 15
Lap Record: Juan Pablo Montoya 1:34.223 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Hard/Medium/Soft
2015 Winner: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
2015 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:49.834
2015 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:42.062
DRS Zones: T15 to T1, T14 to T15

2016 Malaysian Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 10pm ET 9/29
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 2am ET 9/30
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 2am ET 10/1
Qualifying: NBCSN 5am ET 10/1
Race: NBCSN 2am ET 10/2

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.”