F1 Preview: 2016 Japanese Grand Prix

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As the 2016 Formula 1 season approaches its twilight hours and the final run-in to Abu Dhabi commences, the paddock ventures to the Land of the Rising Sun for one of the most exciting and exotic races of the year.

The Japanese Grand Prix has been a mainstay on the F1 calendar since for 30 years now, the race has been held on a handful of occasions at Fuji Speedway, but is most synonymous with Suzuka.

The track has played host to many a title decider throughout its history, most famously between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at the peak of their rivalry in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In more recent years, it has been a race dominated by champions: the last driver to win the race who wasn’t a world champion at the time was Sebastian Vettel in 2009 (he went on to win four titles and four Japanese Grands Prix).

Fast forward to 2016, and another fierce intra-team battle for the world title is set to take center stage once again. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have enjoyed a rivalry likely to go down in the annals of F1 history for a number of years now, but we appear to be on the cusp of one of the most defining moments of their scrap.

Hamilton arrived in Malaysia last weekend trailing Rosberg by eight points in the drivers’ championship, knowing he had to put an end to the German’s streak. Hamilton duly took pole and looked dominant in the race, while Rosberg dropped all the way to the back of the field at Turn 1 after being hit. The momentum looked to have taken a decisive swing in the favor of the Briton, who was on the verge of moving back into a healthy championship lead.

But it wasn’t to be. With a 20-second lead over the pack and the race win all but secured, Hamilton’s engine gave way with 17 laps remaining, forcing him to park up and retire from the race. Rosberg recovered from his setback to finish third, ensuring his points advantage grew to 23 points with five rounds remaining.

Suzuka has seen its fair share of drama throughout its time as an F1 circuit. Will 2016 offer another memorable or poignant grand prix?

2016 Japanese Grand Prix – Talking Points

Hamilton praying for a change in fortune

Lewis Hamilton’s comments in the wake of his retirement in Malaysia once again ignited conspiracy theories concerning Mercedes and its support of his title bid in 2016. Such speculation is, naturally, unreasonable, unfair and unthinkable. That said, Hamilton does have every right to feel irked given that all of the issues on Mercedes power units this year have hit the #44 car.

Alas, motorsport can be a cruel mistress. Such misfortune can strike a driver over and over again. Put simply: these things happen.

For Hamilton, the focus now must be on repeating what he did in Malaysia and put Rosberg in the shade on-track. Up to the moment his power unit went, Hamilton had not put a single step wrong – it was a comfortable display that we hadn’t seen since before the summer break.

Trying your best and not succeeding is, as Coldplay noted, pretty crushing. But it is all Hamilton can do if he is to keep his hopes of a fourth world title in 2016 alive.

Time for Nico to ditch the ‘one race at a time’ mentality

A peer of mine recently joked that you could probably pre-write Nico Rosberg’s comments on the podium after a race and get reasonably close. Phrases to look out for are “great day”, “thank you local fans”, “one race at a time” and something about not thinking about the championship.

It’s time for Rosberg to ditch this. Because with 23 points to his benefit, he is now in the enviable position whereby the title is very nearly his to lose. If he wins in Japan – or, indeed, any of the remaining five races – then finishing second in the remaining four would be enough to give him a maiden world title, regardless of what Hamilton does.

Rosberg may have been second-best to Hamilton in Malaysia, but he was the star for the three races leading up to the Sepang weekend. If he can rekindle that form and dominate at Suzuka, the odds of him winning the title shrink ever more.

Win drought ended, Ricciardo looks to cement third at Suzuka

Daniel Ricciardo’s victory in Malaysia may have been very fortunate, but it was one that was overdue. Monaco was his race to win (or, as it turned out, lose), so Hamilton coming unstuck perhaps balanced things back out.

Ricciardo knows that, as evidenced by both the qualifying and race pace of Mercedes in Malaysia, a win on merit is perhaps out of reach for Red Bull in the remaining races. The next best thing is putting himself in a position to pick up the pieces should a repeat of Hamilton’s Sepang issue crop up.

Ricciardo will also be aiming to cement his grip on third place in the drivers’ championship. Another DNF for Sebastian Vettel meant his hopes of finishing as the best of the rest behind the Mercedes drivers has grown all the slimmer, while Kimi Raikkonen is also a good chunk of points behind. Another podium on Sunday would be very handy for the affable Aussie.

A happier homecoming for McLaren-Honda

The Japanese Grand Prix weekend is arguably the most important of the year for McLaren and its engine supplier Honda, the latter enjoying its home race at Suzuka. With the team now lightyears ahead of where it was at this time last year, there will be a greater sense of optimism and – as is consequential of success – expectations from the fans donned in McLaren-Honda colors in the grandstand.

With no Japanese drivers on the grid, Honda is the big draw for locals making the trip to Suzuka. The track annually welcomes many of F1’s most passionate fans, draped in all kinds of weird and wonderful paraphernalia. The F1 car hats make a regular appearance, but a personal favorite is the fan stall at the track sells sweets that are in the same shape and look like tire marbles – each to their own…

How much longer will silly season drag out?

After the 2017 driver market’s biggest soap opera was finally put to bed last Sunday when Sergio Perez announced that he would be remaining with Force India for 2017, all eyes are now on Williams and Renault to make their next moves as the puzzle pieces for next year’s driver market begin to come together.

Having clinched the FIA F3 title last weekend at Imola, 17-year-old Lance Stroll is widely expected to get the nod at Williams to partner Valtteri Bottas. While he has benefitted from having a billionaire father, his on-track achievements speak greater volumes. Stroll has the makings of something very special indeed.

Then we have Renault, who had been expected to sign Esteban Ocon and then keep either Jolyon Palmer or Kevin Magnussen in its second seat. However, we now know that Renault contacted Red Bull about possibly breaking Carlos Sainz Jr. out of his contract, while Valtteri Bottas and Nico Hulkenberg have also been linked with a seat at Enstone. Perhaps Ocon isn’t as certain to make a step up as many expect…

Let’s see what movement we get over the Suzuka weekend with the driver market.

2016 Japanese Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Suzuka Circuit
Corners: 18
Lap Record: Kimi Raikkonen 1:31.540 (2005)
Tire Compounds: Hard/Medium/Soft
2015 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:32.584
2015 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:36.145
DRS Zones: T18 to T1

2016 Japanese Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 9pm ET 10/6
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 1am ET 10/7
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 11pm ET 10/7
Qualifying: NBCSN 2am ET 10/8
Race: NBCSN 12am ET 10/9

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

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing

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.”