F1: Lewis Hamilton chases history at U.S. Grand Prix

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AUSTIN, Texas — From New York to Texas, Lewis Hamilton returned to the United States this week with yet another Formula One championship ready for the taking.

Finish off Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel once and for all at the U.S. Grand Prix this weekend and the British driver would climb another step among racing’s greatest drivers. A fifth season championship would tie him with Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio for second all-time behind only Germany’s Michael Schumacher, who won seven.

Hamilton storms into what could be a chilly, rainy Texas weekend with a commanding 67-point lead over Vettel heading into the last four races of 2018. If Hamilton wins Sunday, Vettel has to finish no lower than second to keep the championship going another week to Mexico City. Any Hamilton finish that leaves him eight points or more clear of Vettel clinches the title.

Yet facing constant reminders of what’s at stake, Hamilton refused to get dragged into talking about his place in F1 history.

“None of us are saying how cool it would be. We are not focusing on `ifs.’ We are focusing on making sure we deliver,” Hamilton said Thursday. “We expect Ferrari to punch back hard here this weekend.”

Others were happy to do it for him.

McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, sitting next to Hamilton in the drivers’ news conference, ranked Hamilton among his top five champions in F1 history, no small compliment considering Alonso won championships in 2005 and 2006.

“Lewis showed talent from day one fighting for the championship his rookie year, then winning in 2008,” Alonso said. “He was able to win races when the car deserved to win it, but he was able to win races in seasons when the car wasn’t in top form … It’s impressive.”

If he’s feeling any pressure about the weekend, Hamilton isn’t showing it.

He spent the first part of the week in New York with an appearance on “Good Morning America” and a trip to Times Square to see his image on one of the towering video boards. On Thursday, he cracked jokes about fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby from the movie “Talladega Nights,” quipped about his love of American pancakes and talked up a Circuit of the Americas track that brings out his racing instincts.

“They really don’t make tracks like they did in the old days. Some of the new tracks really aren’t that good. This is one that is,” Hamilton said. “You can actually race here. I’ve had the chance to race here. Real races.”

Hamilton has dominated this track since it opened in 2012, winning five times and starting from the pole or second each time he won. He won the inaugural race with McLaren and his victory in the rain with Mercedes in 2015 clinched the season championship (his third). He comes back to Austin having won six of the last seven races this season, a streak interrupted only by Vettel’s victory in Belgium back on Aug. 26.

With 100 points still available, Vettel is still mathematically alive in the championship but would need a run of Ferrari victories and a historic collapse by Hamilton and Mercedes to win it. And it has to start this week.

The German is the only driver to beat Hamilton in Austin. That came in 2013 during his dominant season with Red Bull that won Vettel his fourth championship. Last year, Vettel led after the start but Hamilton easily reeled him in and passed on lap 14 and the Ferrari never threatened an easy Hamilton victory.

The circuit won’t quite be the same. Race officials installed new kerbs on turns 1, 16 and 17 to keep the cars from running off track. Vettel snatched the lead at the start last year when Hamilton forced him left but he was able to cut the corner and head downhill.

The 2017 race ended in controversy when Red Bull’s Max Verstappen passed Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen around turns 16 and 17 on the final lap to finish third. Race officials determined it was an illegal overtake because all four of Verstappen’s wheels left the track and a 5-second penalty knocked him off the podium.

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.”