F1 Preview: 2017 Belgian Grand Prix

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With its summer break over, Formula 1 bursts back into life this weekend as the Belgian Grand Prix kicks off a run of nine races in the next 14 weeks to take us to the season finale in Abu Dhabi at the end of November.

Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari went into the holiday season on a high after a dominant victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix, taking a one-two finish as the rival Mercedes team was left firmly second best.

Lewis Hamilton sits 14 points back from Vettel in the drivers’ championship after only finishing fourth in Hungary, giving up third place to Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas on the final lap to honor an in-race deal.

With the legendary Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps awaiting the drivers upon their return and the new-style 2017 cars to play with, one of the most spectacular challenges on the calendar should do much to snap them out of their summer slumber.

Here are the main storylines to keep track of in Belgium this weekend.

2017 Belgian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Vettel, Ferrari out to build on Hungary momentum

A four-week gap between races is hardly the ideal way to get momentum going, but after such a convincing win in Hungary, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari will be eager to build quickly and push back Mercedes once again at Spa this weekend.

The Ferrari SF70H car has worked pretty well everywhere, but looks particularly strong on the slower-speed tracks – so, the exact opposite of Spa.

That said, the ebb and flow of this title fight heading into the closing stages of the season will mean the title could be settled by opportunistic smash-and-grab wins. Throw in a smattering of rain, and Ferrari may well be able to push Mercedes all the way at Spa, even if the track should suit the German marque’s W08 runner better.

200 up for Lewis Hamilton at Spa

It may not seem all that long ago that a fresh-faced British kid was getting into his McLaren for the very first time as a rookie, but this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix will, in fact, be Lewis Hamilton’s 200th grand prix start.

Hamilton has fitted an enormous amount into his double-century of races, including three world titles, 57 wins, 110 total podiums and 67 pole positions – the last stat being an important one for this weekend.

Hamilton has the opportunity to draw level with Michael Schumacher for the overall record of 68 F1 poles in Saturday’s qualifying, and given the strengths of the Mercedes W08 around Spa’s high-speed layout, he has a good chance of doing so.

Records aside, the bigger focus for Hamilton will be on beating Vettel and reeling the Ferrari driver back in at the top of the drivers’ championship, having lost ground in Hungary and slipped to 14 points behind in the standings.

“How do you eat your frites?”

This was a question put to Max Verstappen not long into his F1 career by a journalist quizzing him on whether he was Dutch or Belgian. While he races under the Dutch flag, Verstappen was born in Belgium to a Belgian mother, growing up on the border between the two countries.

National questions aside, this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix will feel very much like a home race to Verstappen, whose loyal Dutch fans will make the short trip to turn the grandstands orange. The atmosphere was electric last year, so don’t expect 2017 to be any different.

But also remember there is an actual Belgian driver in the race: Stoffel Vandoorne (the first Belgian in his home race since Jerome d’Ambrosio in 2011 with Virgin). The McLaren youngster was formally confirmed by the team for 2018 yesterday, and will enter his home grand prix for the very first time this weekend – although he is due a hefty grid penalty due to Honda power units changes…

2017 cars come out to play at Spa

The revamped F1 cars for 2017 have received widespread acclaim from drivers and fans alike, thrilled by the added downforce and speed they have boasted so far this season.

But Spa will see the cars take on arguably the most exciting challenge yet, the circuit offering some of F1’s most iconic corners that should only become more spectacular this year.

As has been the case at a number of races this season, the lap record should easily be beaten this weekend – and while Eau Rouge may have been easy flat for a while, it’ll be all the more special with these new cars.

Driver market begins to shape up

The summer break is the perfect time for drivers and teams to begin to try and pin down their 2018 plans, as the market for next year begins to fall into place.

The confirmations of Kimi Raikkonen and Stoffel Vandoorne, while unsurprising, have tipped the dominoes that should help the remainder of the market to firm up.

Sebastian Vettel will likely be the next driver to move, with an extension at Ferrari for at least one more year expected, while Fernando Alonso’s plans remain a hot topic as McLaren considers its engine options.

After three weeks to think about things, will the drivers have any additional news for us this weekend?

2017 Belgian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
Corners: 19
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:47.263 (2009)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:46.744
2016 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:51.583
DRS Zone: T19 to T1, T4 to T5

2017 Belgian Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times

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.”