Lewis Hamilton electric in new F1 sprint qualifying format for Silverstone race

Lewis Hamilton sprint qualifying
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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SILVERSTONE, England — Lewis Hamilton and George Russell thrilled their home crowd Friday night as the British drivers dazzled in Formula One’s first attempt at a new sprint qualifying format.

Hamilton was fastest at Silverstone in a qualifying session that set the grid for F1’s historic debut of a sprint race to determine the starting lineup of the British Grand Prix. The seven-time champion thanked the 90,000 in attendance for energizing him through the session.

“It feels like such a long time since we’ve been able to get anywhere near, so this is incredibly special and obviously to do it on your home turf there’s no greater feeling,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton nipped championship leader Max Verstappen in the session but it does not count as a pole position. That will be determined Saturday when F1 experiments with a new format. The three rounds of qualifying Friday night replaced the traditional second practice, and the sprint race is designed to bring more entertainment to the race weekend.

Russell was first to hear the roar of the British supporters when he advanced into the third round of qualifying for the second consecutive race. The fans were on their feet again when the 23-year-old qualified eighth, two spots behind fellow countryman Lando Norris.

Then it was Hamilton’s turn and despite a slight slip in his Mercedes on his flying lap, he shot to the top of the board. When Verstappen finished his lap 0.075 seconds behind Hamilton, the cheering was deafening.

Hamilton climbed from his Mercedes and congratulated teammate Valtteri Bottas, who qualified third, then turned to the grandstands and pumped his arms in achievement.

“This is down to the fans,” he said. “That first lap was great. The second one was looking even better but just lost the back end in that last corner, so my heart was in my mouth as I crossed the line. But I could see the crowd and it was really reminiscent of my first pole here in 2007.”

Hamilton trails Verstappen by 32 points in the standings. The Dutchman takes a three-race winning streak into Sunday.

“We were still quite close, so it’s alright,” the Red Bull driver said. “It’s a bit of a weird feeling to be honest. You do qualifying, you go flat out and actually it doesn’t really mean anything in terms of pole position. I think we have a strong race car we just need to fix a few issues we had in qualifying. I’m quite confident still.”

F1 is calling its tryout of this qualifying format “The Sprint” and it started Friday night with the three rounds and teams mandated to use soft tires. The actual starting lineup will be determined Saturday over 100 kilometers – or 17 laps – and the top three finishers will receive points toward the championship.

F1 Grand Prix of Great Britain - Practice & Qualifying
Fastest qualifier Lewis Hamilton smiles in parc ferme during qualifying at Silverstone (Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images).

Red Bull holds a five-race winning streak ahead of the British GP, but the crowd seems determined to get Hamilton back on top of the podium. His last victory was May 9 at the Spanish GP.

“We’ve been missing this for a whole year. I’m so grateful to see everyone here,” Hamilton said as the fans chanted his name. “To come to the Silverstone grand prix and have a full crowd like this, to see the energy. … When I was coming into it, I was hopeful that with the great work we’ve done together in the team plus the energy of the fans would get us there.”

Silverstone has long been a Mercedes stronghold and the team has won seven of the past eight races, six of those victories from Hamilton. Race organizers expect 140,000 fans on Sunday and all in attendance had to provide proof of full vaccination or a negative test taken within 48 hours of arrival.

McLaren announced Thursday that its team head Zak Brown and two other team members had tested positive for the coronavirus. The team said Norris and Daniel Ricciardo were unaffected.

F1 Grand Prix of Great Britain - Practice & Qualifying
The crowd salutes Lewis Hamilton at the F1 Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone (Peter Fox/Getty Images).

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.”