This weekend’s United States Grand Prix (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC) may have special meaning for drivers Felipe Massa and Jenson Button.
Massa has already announced that this will be his last drive in the USGP as he’ll retire from F1 at year’s end, while it could well be Button’s last race in the fifth USGP at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
“Of all the newer tracks COTA is the one I enjoy the most,” Massa said in the team’s advance release. “It’s a really nice track to drive because you have everything; high speed corners, low speed corners and the long straight, which is good for overtaking.
“I also really enjoy Austin itself. It’s a very nice city with good restaurants and an amazing atmosphere during the race weekend. I’ve managed to get good results there in the past so hopefully I can enjoy a great race this year.”
Massa has twice finished fourth at COTA (in the inaugural race in 2012 and again in 2014), once apiece with Ferrari and now Williams Martini Racing. He finished 12th in 2013 and was a career-worse 17th in the 2015 race there; failing to finish last year in the rain.
Massa is currently 10th in the 2016 F1 season standings.
As for Button, while he hasn’t formally announced this will be his last time at COTA, it could well be. Stoffel Vandoorne is set to replace him at McLaren next year. Button stays on as McLaren reserve driver for 2017.
“I’m looking forward to heading back to Austin,” Button said. “I’ve been spending more and more time in the States recently and Austin is a city with passionate fans that really love their racing.
“The atmosphere downtown is really relaxed and we usually take the opportunity to sample the famous Texan cuisine in one or two of the restaurants over the course of the weekend. I’ve always liked racing at this circuit and we managed to put up a good fight last year despite not having the best outright pace, so I’m hoping for more of the same and a bit of a boost after the disappointment of our result in Japan.”
Button is coming off an 18th place finish at Suzuka, in what was a tough race weekend for McLaren. He’s also finished 18th or lower in four of his last seven events, leaving him 15th in the F1 standings coming into this weekend.
In the first four F1 races there for McLaren, Button has finished fifth (2012), sixth (2015), 10th (2013) and 12th (2014).
“COTA is one of the few anti-clockwise circuits on the calendar, and has a bit of everything: fast corners, slow corners and heavy braking zones, so you need a car with good balance, which tends to be one of the strengths of our car,” Button said.
“There’s lots of fast, sweeping corners in the first sector, the long straight in the second sector, and then the infield section in the final sector which is tight and twisty with long apexes and high g-forces.
“You really need to prepare the car for everything. For a driver it’s great fun and I hope we enjoy a better result there than in Suzuka.”
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.”