Driving diversity: Lewis Hamilton ready to chase his eighth F1 championship

Lewis Hamilton 2021 eighth
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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PARIS — If Lewis Hamilton wins an eighth Formula One title in 2021, he will stand alone among the sport’s greats. And that might be the perfect time to walk away from the track for good.

Hamilton’s decision to sign a one-year contract with Mercedes sparked speculation he may call it quits when the sun sets on the F1 season at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December.

Hamilton will be nearly 37 by then and, if he does successfully defend his F1 crown, the British driver will move one ahead of fellow great Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton would have nothing left to prove, with the most titles, wins (95 so far) and pole positions (98) all his.

“Of course, it is the ultimate dream, but I don’t think necessarily it will be the deciding factor for if I stay on and keep going,” Hamilton said. “I think it is more when I put that helmet on, I still have that smile when I leave the garage. Will that be the case this year? We shall see. Will I enjoy it as much? We’ll see.”

Formula 1 Testing in Bahrain - Day 3
Lewis Hamilton during a March 14 news conference on the last day of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit (Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images).

The season starts Sunday in Bahrain after the traditional season-opening GP in Melbourne, Australia was postponed until November because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

As brilliant as Hamilton was last year, he ended the season feeling drained after contracting the virus and expending huge energy in the fight against racism, his push for greater diversity in motorsport, and his call for better human rights in some countries where F1 goes.

It helped earn Hamilton recognition as the BBC’s Sports Personality of 2020.

And it all started when Hamilton and most drivers took a knee against racism at the Austrian GP in July, when the delayed 2020 season began. While others appeared to fade in their commitment, Hamilton continued to hammer home the need to fight.

Hamilton, who was knighted in year-end royal honors and also formed his own commission, has the same mindset for the season ahead.

“That’s my driving force this year. To make sure that we continue to push for accountability, and on top of that hopefully I can deliver good performances,” he said.

F1’s `We Race As One’ campaign was among the themes of 2020, he said, “But (more) action is needed this year. We’ve got to make sure that we continue to have that conversation.”

Hamilton said there were positive discussions between drivers at pre-season testing and F1’s president Stefano Domenicali, who “has taken the time to sit with us all and be open.”

On the track, preseason did not go well for Mercedes.

It gave rivals hope that a dominant series of seven straight drivers’ and constructors’ championships may at last be under genuine threat.

Red Bull star Max Verstappen picked up where he left off after winning last year’s final race in Abu Dhabi in style and appeared very confident in testing.

“I’d say Red Bull are ahead on performance. They are the class act. Are we going to have a close season? I would say so,” Mercedes strategy director James Vowles said. “Red Bull are a fierce adversary, they’ve got a strong package and clearly came out of the box very, very quick.”

Red Bull has a stronger lineup, too, with Sergio Perez replacing Alex Albon and bringing with him nearly 200 GPs and 10 podiums, including a second place in Turkey followed by a superb win at the Sakhir GP last year.

Formula 1 Testing in Bahrain - Day 2
Lewis Hamilton’s No. 44 Mercedes landed in a gravel trap on the second day of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit as his championship team struggled throughout the session (Clive Mason/Getty Images).

Hamilton is wary of Red Bull’s threat, saying “It’s going to be a long battle with them.”

Verstappen was Hamilton’s main threat on race days last season, despite having a slower car.

The early signs are that the 23-year-old Verstappen will add to his 10 GP wins.

“It has definitely been the best preseason. The car felt nice to drive, which I think is always very positive,” Verstappen said, referring to Red Bull’s reliability issues last year. “But it doesn’t give you any guarantees. We’ll find out through the first race weekend where we are.”

Valtteri Bottas finished 124 points behind fellow Mercedes driver Hamilton, compared with 87 the season before. The margin of defeat last season was even more emphatic considering there were four fewer races than in 2019.

The 31-year-old Finn also has a one-year deal.

It may prove to be his last chance to topple Hamilton, with Verstappen waiting in the wings for a possible future move to Mercedes.


OLD AND NEW FACES

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso has come out of F1 retirement after missing the past two seasons and returns at the age of 39 – which is still two years younger than Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Raikkonen.

Alonso won titles with Renault in 2005 and ’06. He will be driving for Alpine, which is Renault’s rebranded name. Three drivers will be making their F1 debuts, including Michael Schumacher’s 22-year-old, son Mick, who won the F2 title last season.

He will be joined at Haas by newcomer Nikita Mazepin, while 20-year-old Japanese driver Yuki Tsunoda debuts with AlphaTauri after replacing Daniil Kvyat.

Perez lost his seat to four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel at Racing Point, which became Aston Martin following a takeover.

Vettel’s Ferrari spot has gone to Carlos Sainz Jr. after he left McLaren. Sainz was replaced by Daniel Ricciardo, who quit Renault.


ONE TO WATCH

Williams driver George Russell showed everyone what he can do in a leading car when he replaced Hamilton at the Sakhir GP. A stunning performance almost led to a victory in a chaotic race and highlighted his potential.

The 23-year-old British driver is in his final season with Williams and has been tipped for a Mercedes seat in 2022, possibly replacing Hamilton if he leaves F1.

This season could see history made before a new dawn in F1.

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.”