Mercedes Formula 1 technical boss Paddy Lowe is fearful of a repeat of the infamous six-car 2005 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway if pre-season testing is not held in a warm country such as Bahrain in 2017.
Both pre-season tests are currently planned to be held in Barcelona, which is preferred by some teams due to the lower costs in holding testing there and the closer proximity to their European bases than a Middle East venue.
Bahrain hosted two pre-season tests in 2014, with the warmer conditions allowing for more stable running for teams up and down the grid.
For 2017, Pirelli is set to introduce a new specification of tire that is wider and more durable as part of an overhaul of F1’s technical regulations.
As a result, Lowe and Mercedes are part of a group of teams that are pushing to get pre-season testing moved to Bahrain so that the teams and Pirelli can fully evaluate the new tires in hot conditions.
“The situation is that we have the biggest change in tire regulations probably for one or two decades and Pirelli have asked the FIA if they would support testing in Bahrain, which is outside Europe,” Lowe said.
“So by regulation it requires a process to get there. So as I understand, a majority of teams support that request. For me, the important point that Pirelli were asking for is some hot condition testing of the compounds particularly.
“The structure of the tire is created and tested in the lab but the compounds they can only evaluate in real circuit conditions and unfortunately the mule car programme which is running at the moment has delivered three cars which are very helpful to the process but they are not delivering the level of aerodynamic load that will be seen next year.”
Lowe believes that if Pirelli is not able to conduct this testing, F1 runs the risk of a repeat of the 2005 race at IMS where just six cars started after all the Michelin-shod teams withdrew on safety grounds after the parade lap.
“For me it’s a matter of supporting Pirelli’s request to contain the risk of arriving at the first race as being the first event with hot conditions and there’s real risk to the show,” Lowe said.
“We’ve seen what can happen, for example, in Indianapolis 2005. We mustn’t forget that we need to put on a show, we need to run a 300 kilometres race with sensible numbers of tires, so that’s not an inconsiderable risk and should be covered.
“So that’s why we particularly support that request.”
Williams’ Pat Symonds expressed his opposition to Lowe’s view, citing the high costs involved that would impact independent teams more than manufacturers.
“Depending on exactly how you do it and how much you have to ship back to the UK, how much you can ship on to the first race. We’re talking of a minimum of £300,000, probably a maximum of £500,000 so a likely figure sitting in the middle of that,” Symonds said.
“Now to a team like Mercedes, I’m sure that they can put contingencies in their budgets to cover things like that. A team like Williams simply can’t, it’s a significant amount of our budget, it is unaccounted for and therefore I think it is the wrong thing to do.
“Now the rules do have an anomaly in them in that I’m sure everyone knows that at this stage of the year you normally need unanimous agreement to change the rules.
“But there is an anomaly in that there’s just this very one thing where at the moment the rules do not allow you to test outside Europe but there is this anomaly that by majority you can agree to test outside Europe. We are opposed to that.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”