As F1 silly season winds down, who’s in the race for the final four seats?

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The past two weeks have seen the 2017 driver markets for MotorSportsTalk’s two primary series, Formula 1 and IndyCar, develop very, very quickly.

Over in IndyCar, a flurry of confirmations mean that just two seats remain up for grabs: one at Chip Ganassi Racing, filled in 2016 by Max Chilton, and one for the street and road courses at Ed Carpenter Racing.

The F1 driver market was expected to be particularly volatile heading into 2017, but Red Bull’s early promotion of Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s decision to keep Kimi Raikkonen on for another year left it looking pretty stationary.

Things moved along quickly when Nico Hulkenberg decided to leave Force India for Renault, setting off a chain reaction that has seen Esteban Ocon move up as his replacement, Kevin Magnussen move to Haas and leave just four seats up for grabs: two at Sauber and two at Manor.

So who is in the race for the remaining seats? The names to work with here are Felipe Nasr, Marcus Ericsson, Pascal Wehrlein, Esteban Gutierrez, Rio Haryanto and Jordan King. It is likely that four of the six will fill out the grid.

Sauber F1 Team

Sauber’s fortunes for 2017 may remain bleak given the team’s decision to stick with a 2016-spec Ferrari power unit.

Yet with Longbow Finance’s takeover complete, the recruitment drive ongoing and, most importantly, the team poised for a multi-million dollar windfall all thanks to Felipe Nasr’s ninth-place finish in Brazil, things aren’t as bad as they once looked.

The result saw Sauber move above Manor in the constructors’ championship, with the difference between P10 and P11 equating to a reported $15 million in prize money.

Both Nasr and Ericsson pushed to secure a move to Force India, only to lose out to Ocon. Both bring decent financial backing to Sauber, with Ericsson also reportedly enjoying links to Longbow. As a result, it would be a big surprise to see the Swede racing elsewhere in 2017.

The question mark hangs over Nasr. He may have been a step above Ericsson on track, but off it, his reliance on Banco do Brasil and the current financial crisis facing Brazil may be an issue.

A possible option for Sauber is Gutierrez, who spent two years racing with the team in 2013 and 2014. His departure wasn’t on the best of terms, but he was spotted talking to his former boss, Monisha Kaltenborn, in Brazil; no real effort was made to hide that fact, either.

Gutierrez brings decent backing from Mexico, so would definitely be an option, relying the scars of his exit have healed for both sides.

Manor Racing

Just as Nasr’s points in Brazil boost Sauber’s fortunes, they hamper Manor’s. The British minnows will most probably need to secure a pay driver’s services for 2017 as a replacement for the Force India-bound Ocon.

Wehrlein’s debut season in F1 has been an odd one. His charge to P10 in Austria marked just the second points finish in Manor’s seven-season history, yet his failure to outclass early-year teammate Rio Haryanto and subsequent struggles against Ocon, who only made his debut in August, piqued enough concern for Force India to pass on him as Hulkenberg’s replacement.

Wehrlein will be keen to remain with Manor next year, and it could be that the likes of Gutierrez and Nasr push to join him. Both have backing (the latter’s admittedly uncertain), and both will benefit from 2017-spec Mercedes engines. It’s not unthinkable that Manor should run ahead of Sauber in the pecking order next year, making a move to the team desirable.

Haryanto was forced to give up his seat after Germany due to a shortfall in funding, but the Indonesian is apparently back in contention for a seat next year. Another option is Jordan King, who races in GP2 and is Manor’s development driver. He too would bring some backing.

Manor has no shortage of pay drivers to choose from. The big questions that will determine its decision are how crucial keeping Wehrlein is to its relationship with Mercedes, and what level of funding is now required after losing P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Perhaps the oddest thing in all of this is that both F1 and IndyCar look set to have their 2017 grids set before the end of the calendar year. As my colleague Tony DiZinno noted yesterday, Dale Coyne Racing has traditionally left things as late as possible; Manor is perhaps the equivalent in F1.

If things can be firmed up early, though, then the team will surely benefit from the stability that comes with it.

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.”