Nico Hulkenberg provided one of the biggest upsets in Formula 1 qualifying for the Mexican Grand Prix by beating Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel on Saturday afternoon.
Ferrari looked capable of putting up a fight against Mercedes and Red Bull at the front of the pack after Vettel finished fastest in second practice on Friday afternoon.
Both Ferrari drivers ran well in Q1 and Q2, again pointing to a fight towards the sharp end of the timesheets, only to fade in the closing stages of qualifying on the super-soft tire.
This allowed Force India’s Hulkenberg to squeeze ahead with a stunning lap in Q3, finishing just six-tenths of a second behind pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton’s time to qualify fifth.
“It’s been a very good qualifying session for me and I am very happy with the result,” Hulkenberg said.
“Our car works pretty well on every circuit nowadays, but I felt it just got better and better through qualifying as the track improved.
“My first lap in Q3 was mega, possibly my best qualifying lap of the season, and I don’t think there was anything more I could extract from it.
“We need to keep ourselves out of trouble at the start but I won’t let what happened last week influence me: every time you get to turn one, there is a unique dynamic and you just have to play it by ear.
“We have a good idea of where we are for the race and we’ll get our head down and build on today’s result.”
Raikkonen made no secret of his disappointment after qualifying behind Hulkenberg in P6, citing a straight-line speed deficit as the cause of Ferrari’s setback.
“In Q1 the feeling with the car was good, better than in the morning during P3. Then in Q2 it was quite tricky to get the tires work consistently and to know where the grip was,” Raikkonen said.
“In the last qualifying stint we were getting there again, but in the first run I felt it a bit odd in the last part of the lap and felt I could have gone faster in a few places.
“On the second try, for whatever reason, I had no speed in the straight, something was not right and we could not even try to go faster.
“It’s a pity because I think there was easily quite a lot of speed there today, but we couldn’t use it. Now we have to find out what happened.
“Obviously it’s disappointing where we finished today but tomorrow we’ll see what we can do.”
“I am very disappointed because the car is quick. Our Q2 had been a walk in the park with the soft tires,” an honest Vettel said after qualifying seventh.
“I had a much better feeling, but then with the supersofts we were nowhere. Yesterday we were gaining quite a lot on the supersoft compound and today we didn’t gain anything.
“We tried a couple of things, but in qualifying you can’t turn the world upside down: so now we need to have a look and see why. Everybody improved on the supersofts, more or less half a second – everybody except us.
“The car is quick, there is nothing wrong with it, and we start where the car doesn’t belong. It doesn’t make our race easier to start further back, but I think we still have a chance.”
The Mexican Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday.
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve
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.”