What to watch for: United States Grand Prix (NBC, NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET)

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Sunday marks one of the biggest dates on the American motorsport calendar as Formula 1 hits the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas for the United States Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton continued his strong record in the U.S. on Saturday in Austin by taking his ninth pole position of the season, edging out Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by two-tenths of a second in the Q3 shootout.

Remarkably, it was Hamilton’s first COTA pole despite being a three-time winner in Texas, giving him a much-needed boost as he looks to get his championship bid back on-track after losing ground on Rosberg in recent weeks.

Rosberg will start alongside his title rival on the grid, setting the stage for another all-Mercedes tussle for the third year in a row at COTA.

With a variety of strategies on offer, Sunday’s race should be full of unpredictability. It may have to go some way to match the madness of the 2015 edition – but at least things should be a little drier for those on the ground at COTA this time around…

You can watch the United States Grand Prix live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here is our complete raceday preview for the United States Grand Prix.

2016 United States Grand Prix – What to watch for

Nothing for Lewis to lose

Lewis Hamilton will know that, even with a clean sweep of victories between now and the end of the season, a fourth world title is by no means guaranteed. The damage to his title bid has already been done, placing it in Nico Rosberg’s hands.

As a result, Hamilton will go into Sunday’s race knowing he has nothing to lose. The first corner squeeze with Rosberg last year stoked tension, so keep an eye out for a similar move this time around from either party.

In reality, this should be Hamilton’s race to lose. His record at COTA is such that, barring another issue, the rest of the pack may not get close. Time for him to rediscover his form and end his win drought.

Tactics from Rosberg?

Rosberg’s ‘one race at a time’ approach to this year’s title may have been somewhat tiresome, but it appears to be doing the trick. 33 points clear with 100 left on the table – this championship is his to lose.

The German has made a habit of impressing at tracks he’d previously struggled at this year. Wins in Australia, Bahrain, China, Russia, Belgium, Italy and Singapore were all ‘firsts’ – and, bar Singapore, all tracks at which Hamilton won in 2015. They’re big gains to have been made in the title battle.

It’s unlikely Rosberg will want to settle for second at COTA, but if he isn’t ahead at the start, it may be the safest thing to do. If, however, he makes a cleaner getaway and is able to throw his car up the inside at Turn 1, he could deal yet another blow to Hamilton’s already-faint title hopes.

Verstappen a contender on strategy?

Red Bull’s long run pace on Friday was, to quote Daniel Ricciardo, “delicious”, stoking hopes that the team may be able to take the fight to Mercedes at COTA.

Realistically, its best chance of doing so lies with Max Verstappen, who followed the Mercedes drivers on strategy and will start the race on the soft compound tire. A one-stop (soft to medium) is definitely possible for the trio – throw in a safety car, and Verstappen may be able to take the fight to Hamilton and Rosberg.

Ricciardo must not be discounted though. We saw in Singapore how effective an extra stop switching to the qualifying tire can be – could he charge through and take a popular COTA victory?

Haas’ homecoming holds little promise

Hopes were high for Haas ahead of its first home grand prix weekend, but it has proven to be something of a disaster thus far. Issues on both Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez’s cars in practice hurt the team before it suffered its worst qualifying display since China on Saturday.

Gutierrez will start 14th with Grosjean 17th, leaving Haas with a mountain to climb in the day. Conditions are set to remain dry, and with the midfield battle being so tight, Haas risks being left behind.

Nevertheless, seeing an American team race on American soil will be a sight to behold.

Austin crowd numbers

Following last night’s successful Taylor Swift concert, attention will now turn to the gate figure coming out of COTA. Circuit CEO Bobby Epstein told me that the track is expecting its second-highest attendance this weekend, adding “if this one doesn’t work, nothing will”. Lofty expectations.

Expect to see an awful lot of red, white and blue – and thankfully no umbrellas – in the grandstands on Sunday. There may be no American drivers, but Americans still love their Formula 1.

2016 United States Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
4. Max Verstappen Red Bull
5. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
6. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
7. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
8. Valtteri Bottas Williams
9. Felipe Massa Williams
10. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
11. Sergio Perez Force India
12. Fernando Alonso McLaren
13. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
14. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
15. Jolyon Palmer Renault
16. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
17. Romain Grosjean Haas
18. Kevin Magnussen Renault
19. Jenson Button McLaren
20. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
21. Felipe Nasr Sauber
22. Esteban Ocon Manor

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.”