What to watch for: Italian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

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The Italian Grand Prix may be the home race for Formula 1’s most iconic brand, Ferrari, yet on Saturday at Monza, it was Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes who stole the show.

In a crazy, three-hour long qualifying featuring numerous rain delays and a surprising result for a mixed-up grid, Hamilton swept to the 69th pole position of his F1 career, becoming the outright record holder in the process.

Chief title rival Sebastian Vettel struggled on a rough day for Ferrari, qualifying eighth, although that becomes P6 thanks to penalties for both Red Bull drivers.

With just seven points separating Vettel and Hamilton at the top of the drivers’ championship, today could prove to be an important one in the title race.

You can watch the Italian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

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

2017 Italian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton handed golden chance to take points lead

After a strong showing from Ferrari in Friday’s practice sessions at Monza, Lewis Hamilton was braced for a tight fight similar to the one at Spa one week ago, being hounded by Sebastian Vettel to the checkered flag.

Alas, a wet qualifying shook things up. Ferrari struggled to get to grips with its wet tires in Q3, while Hamilton was at his imperious best. He needn’t have been the fastest man given the penalties for Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, but inheriting the record-breaking pole isn’t his style: he gambled on one late lap, and finished almost a second clear.

With Vettel starting sixth, Hamilton has a huge opportunity to put the title race in his hands today. The Briton has not led the championship at any point this year, but a good start to forge a lead while Vettel tries to pick his way up the order may decide this race early.

How will Ferrari’s 70th anniversary celebrations end?

The Italian Grand Prix is the most important race on Ferrari’s calendar not matter what season we are in, but this year’s running at Monza has been particularly poignant as the manufacturer celebrates its 70th birthday.

Ferrari entered the weekend with its best chance of winning its home race for a number of years, the SF70H car having been the class of the field in the early part of the year and remaining very strong.

But with Kimi Raikkonen and Vettel starting P5 and P6, hopes of a famous home victory and ending a Monza drought dating back to 2010 look to have faded.

In reality, a podium looks to be the best Ferrari can hope for today. If Vettel can somehow leave Monza with his points lead intact, then that would surely be something worth celebrating.

Stroll, Ocon prepare for life at the front

Hamilton’s record-breaking pole may have stolen the headlines in qualifying, yet it was the displays from full-season rookies Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon that had the paddock talking on Saturday evening at Monza.

Stroll, 18, has faced a great deal of criticism through his brief F1 career so far, having arrived thanks to significant financial backing from his billionaire father, Lawrence (oh, and dominating Formula 3 last year, but why would that matter..?)

After a stunning wet lap in the dying moments of Q3, the Canadian made a point by becoming F1’s youngest podium finisher in Baku earlier this year, and will today be the youngest driver to start from the front row of the grid, beating Max Verstappen’s record by three weeks.

Just behind Stroll in P3, Force India’s Ocon is also raring to go and fight for his maiden F1 podium, having been one of the stand-out stars of the 2017 season so far.

Points in all but one race and a fierce rivarly with teammate Sergio Perez have made Ocon one to watch – keep an eye on how he fares from third on the grid today.

Grid penalties, grid penalties everywhere

The penalties applied for changing power units have been silly for well over two years now, but this weekend has seen things get really silly.

With McLaren taking new elements for Stoffel Vandoorne’s Honda power unit on Sunday morning, more than one-third of the grid has taken a penalty for today’s race.

The shake-up has allowed the likes of Stroll and Ocon to rise up the order, and has created a strange grid with a few big names sitting outside of the top 10.

The ones to watch on the charge will be Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, who despite expecting to start at the very back given their penalties will in fact line up 14th and 16th respectively.

Only four drivers will start the race in the position they qualified: Hamilton (P1), Carlos Sainz Jr. (P15), Jolyon Palmer (P17) and Romain Grosjean (P20).

2017 Italian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

* After grid penalties applied
** Permitted to start by the stewards after failing to qualify

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.”