Q&A: Haas’ Santino Ferrucci chats with Will Buxton

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He may have a European sounding name, but Santino Ferrucci is all-American.

And the Woodbury, Connecticut native hopes to one day bring his American heritage and talent to Formula 1.

He’s certainly in the right place: The 18-year-old development driver for the Haas F1 team based in Kannapolis, North Carolina, has had a whirlwind year thus far.

Not only has he had one podium in GP3 competition, he still has one last race (Abu Dhabi) to finish the season in the top 10 (he’s currently 12th).

Ferrucci visited with NBCSN’s Will Buxton during Friday afternoon’s second F1 practice at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Here are some excerpts of that interview:

HOW DID YOUR F1 DRIVER TEST GO EARLIER THIS YEAR (AT SILVERSTONE)?

“It was fantastic. That car, under breaking, is insane, just pulling 5 gs down there and going from 210 to 60 mph in less than 60 feet is pretty radical.”

WHEN IS THERE GOING TO BE A FULL-TIME AMERICAN DRIVER AGAIN IN F1?

“Right now, I’m just taking it slow. I’m still 18, enjoying GP3, looking to go back there for another year, learning, still have a lot to do working with Haas on a day-to-day basis with Haas as a development driver. I’m learning a lot about the car and learning a lot with Romain (Grosjean) and Esteban (Gutierrez). I’m very honored to have an opportunity to drive for an American team.”

DO YOU LISTEN WITH HEADSETS DURING F1 ON-TRACK ACTION?

“Yeah, I’m there in a lot of the sessions. I’m actually standing most of the time next to Esteban’s race engineer, and I’m there in the intercoms listening to the chief engineer make decisions on tire strategy and what they’re going to do throughout the session. As soon as we finish the session, I get to hear the driver’s feedback and what they’re thinking about the car and see the changes they want to do for the next session. Since I drove the car at Silverstone back in July, I can relate to that a little bit of what they’re feeling most of the time. Certain tracks are a different feeling.”

HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO DRIVE THE ESSES AT COTA?

“After you’re on top of the hill on (turn) one – it’s actually a cool view from the cockpit – and go down the hill and go to enter (turn) three and make that left, it’s completely blind and flat. So, when you turn in, you don’t really have a great reference. You also have to hit the apex curve as well. When you get that just right, it’s the greatest feeling in the world because you know you can keep it flat that much more into turn five and that little lift. When you look at it from TV point of view, there’s a hill there, but you just can’t see it.”

HOW HAS CIRCUIT OF THE AMERICAS AGED OVER THE LAST FIVE YEARS?

“I think with water, it’s going under the asphalt a little bit so it’s creating some bumps. I like that. It adds a of character and with those bumps you have to tune the suspension a bit more. In talking to the drivers at Haas, with those grooves, since they’re lined up in the direction of the track, there’s a little bit more locking up going on than normal. So it’s making a difficult to pass and you’ll see a lot more locking up going into turn 11 and 12 area. Obviously, with the grooved pavement, it’s not super flat, either, so it’s going to make for some fun racing.”

DO YOU FIND COTA A FUN TRACK TO DRIVE?

“Yeah, this track is brilliant. Sector one with the esses and then my favorite sector, sector three (turns 16-18). Take it flat, when you’re in there flat, it’s just how long do you want to keep it flat until you laugh. That’s always a little bit of a ballsy turn. So the second you pump the gas a little bit, you wish you would have kept it in just a little bit more.”

THERE IS ONE RACE LEFT IN GP3 SERIES IN 2016. HAS IT BEEN A PRETTY DECENT YEAR FOR YOU?

“Obviously, we’ve had some ups and downs. We’re a brand new team and learning everything about GP3. We’ve been on the back foot but we have great teammates and collected a ton of data. I’m looking forward to Abu Dhabi. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the calendar, some very long straights, some passing zones. To be honest, I like it.”

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

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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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 Racing 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 Formula E 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 team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

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. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

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.”