2017 F1 championship set to showcase young talent

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Next year’s Formula One championship promises to showcase young driving talent keen to emulate 19-year-old rising star Max Verstappen.

Goodbye Felipe Massa, hello Lance Stroll.

So long Jenson Button, welcome Stoffel Vandoorne.

As 30-somethings Massa and Button leave F1 with more than 550 races between them, they will be replaced by the 18-year-old Stroll and the 24-year-old Vandoorne – two of the fresh faces on a new-look grid.

Stroll is taking Massa’s seat at Williams, while Vandoorne is replacing Button at McLaren.

Others, like Frenchman Esteban Ocon, will be keen to make an impression in the way Verstappen has done.

Verstappen, the youngest driver to win an F1 race when he won the Spanish GP in May when still 18, already has seven podium finishes.

But the others are largely untested.

SPA, BELGIUM – AUGUST 25: Stoffel Vandoorne of Belgium and McLaren Honda walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

Vandoorne has raced once this year, as a stand-in for Fernando Alonso at the Bahrain GP in April, while Ocon has nine races after making his F1 debut at the Belgian GP in August.

But it will be new territory for Stroll, the son of Canadian billionaire investor Lawrence Stroll.

Williams announced earlier this month that Stroll would be taking the seat vacated by Massa, who is retiring.

Stroll, who was part of the prestigious Ferrari driver academy, won this year’s European Formula 3 championship by a large margin.

“I want to be a quick driver – maybe the quickest one day,” he said. “If Williams didn’t think that I am ready, I wouldn’t be here.”

Williams’ deputy team principal Claire Williams certainly thinks he is.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – NOVEMBER 24: Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams talks in the Paddock during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 24, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

“He’s absolutely got the talent. We are going to have high expectations of him next year,” she said. “Anyone that has met Lance knows and understands that he deserves that promotion into Formula One. He’s extremely intelligent, a very quick learner.”

Stroll will be the youngest driver on the grid and F1’s youngest since Verstappen made his debut last year at 17.

Stroll, the first Canadian in F1 since 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve, has been financially backed by his father since he was eight.

“Without that (backing) I wouldn’t have been able to move from Canada to Europe and pursue my dream,” he said. “No matter how much money you have, if you are not able to be quicker than the rest you don’t get anywhere.”

His father’s influence helped his son get a taste for the sport.

“I watched F1 races with my dad early on Sunday mornings in Canada when I was very young. Then I got hooked,” Stroll said. “When I look back at those days, it was fantastic sharing this passion for motorsport with my dad. Michael Schumacher was also a huge inspiration for me.”

Vandoorne, meanwhile, won the GP2 series last year, and is so highly rated that Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said in August that McLaren would be “crazy” not to take him.

Filling in for Alonso in Bahrain, the Belgian driver made an immediate impression.

In qualifying, he was actually faster than Button – the 2009 F1 champion – and finished a creditable 10th in the race.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – NOVEMBER 24: Esteban Ocon of France and Manor Racing talks in the Paddock during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 24, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Ocon made his F1 debut a month before his 20th birthday. He began this year racing for Mercedes in Germany’s DTM touring car championship and was a reserve driver for Renault until the Manor F1 team snapped him up.

He will have a quicker car when he joins Force India next season on a multi-year contract, replacing German Nico Hulkenberg, who will drive for Renault.

Ocon has strong credentials, winning the European F3 series in 2014. That year, Verstappen finished third.

“As much as it’s sad to be losing a couple of the Formula One legend drivers, it’s going to be really exciting next year,” Williams said.

The first race of the season is the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 26, where German driver Nico Rosberg will defend his title after clinching it at Sunday’s Abu Dhabi GP.

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.”