F1’s ‘Mission Impossible:’ Texas could be Ferrari’s last stand in 2018

Getty Images
3 Comments

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Ferrari team boss Maurizio Arrivabene watched his red cars slip and splash around a wet Circuit of the Americas while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton cut the quickest laps of the U.S. Grand Prix practice session.

A few minutes later, Arrivabene sized up the task in front of Ferrari and driver Sebastian Vettel: Win Sunday or stay close enough to Hamilton to keep alive their rapidly-vanishing hopes of winning the season championship.

“We are here to compete with a mission impossible,” Arrivabene said Friday. “I know the numbers are all against us … our job is to go there to the track without giving up.”

That’s an apt summation of Ferrari’s fading title chances on a Texas racetrack about an hour north of the Alamo.

With a 67-point lead and just four races left, Hamilton can win the championship Sunday with any result that puts him eight points clear of Vettel. If Hamilton wins, which he’s done here five of the previous six years, Vettel must finish no worse than second to extend the championship into next week in Mexico City.

Even that got harder to do Friday when the early practice session produced another Ferrari unforced error in a season full of them. Vettel was given a three-place starting grid penalty for not slowing down quickly enough under a red flag. That means he can start no higher than fourth on Sunday.

“We mustn’t look at the past as we can’t change it,” Vettel said when Ferrari arrived in Texas. “We need to focus and look forward to the next four races. We will still try to do our best and then we’ll see what happens.”

No one at Ferrari wants to look at the past eight months. They would only see another collapse for the most famous team in racing.

Ferrari hasn’t won an F1 driver’s championship since 2007. This season looked like it could be the one to break the drought.

Vettel sparked a potentially delicious duel with Hamilton by winning the first two races. For a few months it was, as the two four-time champions chased a fifth title to tie Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio. Only Germany’s Michael Schumacher has more (seven).

And early on, even Hamilton had to admit Ferrari had the better car.

But Ferrari’s problems began mounting in the form of self-inflicted errors by drivers, crew and management, while Hamilton was sharpening into his typical second-half dominance.

A Ferrari team mechanic’s leg was broken when Kimi Raikkonen’s car was released too early from a pit stop in Bahrain (a race Vettel won). Vettel crashed out from the lead late in the rainy German Grand Prix, allowing Hamilton to win.

A week later in Hungary, Vettel spun out in qualifying. In Japan, a team gamble resulted in a poor tire choice in qualifying that cost Vettel dearly again.

And tragedy struck Ferrari when Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne died in July from complications after surgery.

Vettel’s last win came in Belgium on Aug. 26, and he hasn’t finished better than third since. He didn’t even make the podium in Ferrari’s home race in Italy.

Hamilton won Italy and Vettel fumed about an opening-lap collision between the rivals. Most saw it as a good move by Hamilton in wheel-to-wheel racing.

Vettel has been the target of pointed criticism over his mistakes. Hamilton, who has been steadily choking off the championship with six wins in the last seven races, defended Vettel on social media this week. Hamilton demanded “more respect for Sebastian” from media and fans.

“As a four-time world champion, it is the most intense year that we’ve had,” Hamilton said in Texas. “Every hiccup is magnified … But there have been many, or several, times that I’ve been in the firing range and Seb’s always been really respectful and supported me, so I thought it only just to do the same.”

Arrivabene also defended Vettel.

“Criticism of Sebastian is not coming from the team. I have said many, many times, we are winning and losing together,” Arrivabene said.

Changes are coming in 2019, some for certain, others rumored.

Raikkonen, the last Ferrari driver to win a championship, is leaving. He’ll be replaced by Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. Ironically, Leclerc is the driver whose spin on the track Friday prompted the red flag that led to Vettel’s critical penalty.

Leclerc has shown considerable skill and scored impressive results this season in an overmatched car, leading to speculation he could challenge Vettel once he’s in a Ferrari.

Italian media have linked Arrivabene with a possible move to management in the Juventus soccer club. Arrivabene was appointed team principal at Ferrari by Marchionne in late 2014 with hopes he could deliver an elusive championship.

“I said my future is in Ferrari, but it (is) the top management that have to give me their final blessing,” Arrivabene said.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
0 Comments

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.”