What to watch for: Azerbaijan Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 8am ET)

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The momentum that Lewis Hamilton gained with his victory in the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago carried through to qualifying in Baku on Saturday as he swept to his 66th pole position in Formula 1.

One year on from one of the most underwhelming performances of his grand prix career at the Baku City Circuit, Hamilton looked more at ease this time around, producing a stunning late lap in Q3 to bag pole ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

With F1 title rival Sebastian Vettel starting fourth for Ferrari, the odds are stacked in Hamilton’s favor as he bids to reclaim the lead of the drivers’ championship – but as we have seen already this weekend, the Baku track can punish the smallest of errors.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race.

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton, Bottas look to continue Mercedes’ momentum swing

Even after Lewis Hamilton’s convincing victory in Canada two weeks ago, Ferrari entered the Azerbaijan race weekend as the favorite given the SF70H car’s ‘work everywhere’ nature and the mix of high- and slow-speed sections in Baku.

Yet qualifying saw Mercedes deliver a result that was reminiscent of its devastating qualifying form last year when it was regularly gapping the field by a second. 2017 form it ain’t.

So does this point towards a sea change in the pecking order at the top of the field? Maybe. If Mercedes can sweep to another one-two here and convincingly beat Ferrari, it would be more proof that the “diva” W08 car is slowly starting to come good.

Can Red Bull get in the fight?

Red Bull may have been marooned as the third-fastest team for much of the season so far, but the early signs in Baku are that the team could be in the mix to fight with Mercedes and Ferrari at the front of the field.

Max Verstappen led both practice sessions on Friday and nearly outqualified Vettel, pointing to an improved pace in the RB13 car, even if we didn’t see as much from Daniel Ricciardo after his prang in Q3.

While on raw pace Red Bull may struggle to keep up in the race, should things turn in its favor much as it did in Spain and Malaysia last year, Verstappen looks primed and ready to pounce.

Another one-stop race in store

Pirelli’s more conservative tires have certainly been a big talking point so far this season, with one-stop races appearing to become the norm, and you can expect the same in Baku today.

The super-soft tire was holding up so well that drivers were expecting to keep finding time on their starting set in Q3, only for the red flag to prompt a switch, and it is likely the compound will go deep into the race today as well.

While it may not offer many strategy variants, it does mean that teams can push for both the undercut and the overcut, as seen in Russia and Monaco earlier this year. So there are still a few routes to go down and options, particularly with the challenge of negotiating traffic through the tighter sections.

Will Baku madness finally strike?

Last year’s inaugural race in Baku caught many by surprise given its tameness and lack of incidents. No safety cars and no blockages around the circuit despite the earlier madness that had ensued in the GP2 race was not the expectation.

That might be different this year, though. We have already seen two drivers – Sergio Perez and Jolyon Palmer – get caught out at the tight Turn 8 section, while an incident in the Formula 2 feature event on Saturday prompted the race to end under a red flag.

As drivers look to gain positions and fight their way to the front, things could get crazy in Baku today…

McLare- oh you know the rest…

Yep, it’s another one of those days for McLaren. After ailing to its worst qualifying display of the season with a double-Q1 knockout on Saturday, racing director Eric Boullier said it was one of the worst weekends he’s had in racing. And you can understand why.

The Baku circuit’s tighter sections may suit the MCL32 chassis nicely, yet the high-speed stuff – and especially the never-ending home straight – lay the issues with the Honda power unit bare. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne’s trap speeds were over 20 mph down on the leaders in qualifying – it’s a sad state of affairs.

From P18 and P19, McLaren can’t really expect much from its drivers today. That said, with an incident or two, and taking into account Alonso’s knack for dragging a car far beyond its rightful position, points are still a dream that are not totally out of the question…

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

* Sainz received a three-place grid penalty after causing a collision in the Canadian Grand Prix.
** Vandoorne received a 35-place grid penalty for power unit and gearbox changes.
*** Alonso received a 40-place grid penalty for power unit changes.
**** Palmer failed to set a time in qualifying, and starts from last at the discretion of the stewards.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

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.”