Mark Webber becomes latest legend to sign off on top from WEC

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Top-flight LMP1 level sports car racing is going through an evolution on the driver side of the championship, because the FIA World Endurance Championship has had a legend retire every year since the series relaunch in 2012.

Audi’s flagship trio of Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello, Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen seemed to be an eternal group of drivers, yet one-by-one, they’ve all signed off. Capello was first to leave in 2012, with McNish following in 2013 and Kristensen, “Mr. Le Mans,” doing so in 2014.

Alexander Wurz, still underrated for his career despite winning Le Mans twice in two different decades, then became Toyota’s legend to retire last year.

And now, Mark Webber has done the same – the Australian perhaps moving earlier than expected at age 40, but freeing up a spot for one of Porsche’s younger guns to likely fill the role from a driving standpoint in 2017. From a number of reports and insider sources, it appears as though either Nick Tandy or Earl Bamber, two-thirds of Porsche’s Le Mans-winning lineup in 2015, would be on pole position for the vacated seat.

Webber was undoubtedly the biggest coup for FIA WEC as a driver, when he joined Porsche in 2014. The evolution of top-flight Grand Prix driver to sports car star is a common one, but while the likes of Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and others who never got their proper chance at race-winning machinery in F1 have joined sports cars in top-flight equipment, rare is the moment when a driver leaves F1 at the top of his game, with a championship-winning team, and is expected to match that in a championship-winning sports car outfit.

Initially the learning curve was difficult. Webber had the hype swirling around him most when he returned to Le Mans in 2014, after that 15-year drought since that Mercedes blowover in 1999, in his most recent appearance. But he was always going to be learning the ways of sports car racing rather than leading the charge. In Timo Bernhard, he had the consummate pro who’s been with Porsche for years, and in Brendon Hartley, he had the young upstart overflowing with potential yet to maximize it. And he had to accommodate his driving style to fit in among the trio, rather than drive firmly on his own.

It took time for the trio to mesh, and Webber signed off 2014 in the worst possible way, with a severe accident at the Six Hours of Sao Paulo at nearly the identical spot and in nearly the same fashion as one of his worst crashes of his F1 career, 11 years earlier with Jaguar in 2003. Coincidentally, that race was the first where Porsche won overall with its 919 Hybrid, with the sister trio of Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb.

Last season for Webber was a pivotal one. The loss at Le Mans to the sister car driven by Tandy, Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg stung, and being part of a 1-2 for Porsche was small solace. If anything, it motivated a second-half charge, and from there the Bernhard/Hartley/Webber trio rebounded – all doing their parts well to commence a four-race win streak from the Nürburgring through Shanghai. They captured the title in dramatic fashion despite losing time in the garage in Bahrain.

Three tough races to kick off 2016 have more-or-less ended the trio’s repeat hopes, but with Webber still driving as good as ever, he’s again been part of more wins. Perfect driving and execution – and a lack of mistakes by contrast to their competitors, particularly Audi – has seen Webber, Bernhard and Hartley ride another three-race win streak into Fuji this weekend.

Webber told reporters on site at Fuji this weekend you can’t “race half-hearted” in sports car racing and that he couldn’t continue at the same perfect level he’d showcased over these three years in LMP1. That speaks to the admirable quality of class the Australian has shown throughout his career, first in F1 even when the odds were against him, and also to his adaptation into this world of sports car racing.

Additionally, you always want to leave when there’s more to give, rather than having stuck around a year or two too long.

However, it’s hard not to feel that Webber’s retirement will leave a void from the legendary personality standpoint of the sport. A Jenson Button or Fernando Alonso isn’t walking through that door – yet – as a comparable replacement. Neither does Juan Pablo Montoya appear to be doing.

The current grid of LMP1 stars are all overflowing with talent, and they’re all younger, but it’s hard to say they match the “departed five” in terms of global cache.

Despite three wins at Le Mans, the Andre Lotterer/Benoit Treluyer/Marcel Fassler trio has always felt like Audi’s second act. This sequel of champions are excellent, but have never quite felt the original of a Dindo, an Allan, or a TK – all of whom remain on in ambassadorial and corporate representative roles. They may get there with more time, and perhaps they’re underappreciated simply because of the success laid forth by their forerunners. The trio was also inextricably linked with engineer Leena Gade, a history-maker in her own right, who left Audi earlier this year.

Toyota’s Davidson is arguably the best quote in the championship and is probably the closest to the next legend; he’s a McNish-caliber terrier in terms of his feedback and personality. Buemi is both an WEC and a Formula E champion, yet hasn’t cracked that “cache” ceiling. Gianmaria Bruni, as well, in GTE-Pro has been the star of that class since the series’ inception with AF Corse and Ferrari.

Buemi’s FE sparring partner, Lucas di Grassi, brings a Brazilian flair and determination to his efforts. Along with Loic Duval and Oliver Jarvis, these have been the three drivers who replaced Capello, McNish and Kristensen and are trying to carve their own course in the sports car arena.

The rest of LMP1 drivers remain solid pros through-and-through. There’s plenty of LMP1-caliber talents in LMP2, deserving of a shot as well – just late Friday night, the latest three drivers called up (Pipo Derani, Gustavo Menezes, Antonio Giovinazzi) for the end-of-season Rookie Test were chosen.

The catch for sports car racing, as always, is whether its drivers can match up as legends to the iconic machinery they’re driving.

But none, at the moment, match Webber’s presence and aura. He’ll be missed when he steps out, and won’t be easy to replace.

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.”