McLaren Racing has experienced rapid expansion in recent years, with investments in new facilities for its Formula One team, the acquisition of a majority stake in the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team and now an entry into Extreme E’s second season.
While continued investments in F1 and IndyCar align well with McLaren’s heritage, an expansion into all-electric off-road racing marks a bold departure from McLaren’s roots.
So why join Extreme E now, and how challenging will it be to compete in Season 2 of the Championship when your rivals have already had a learning year?
Ahead of McLaren’s 2022 Extreme E launch, McLaren explained that the reason for its entry is to develop sustainable technology.
Even though the ODYSSEY 21 machine used by the series weighs around 1780kg (roughly double that of an F1 car and far more than road cars like the McLaren 720S), battery technology in the car has great transferrable relevance to future all-electric -Road cars – although SUVs aren’t exactly McLaren’s signature automotive performance.
“The series itself has a pretty strong focus on sustainability,” said Leena Gade, McLaren Extreme E’s senior principal and race engineer.
“It’s a big part of McLaren’s branding. With the nature of the racing, with the technology that goes into the car itself, the battery technology, it all aligns very well with where McLaren stands with its sustainability goals.”
Although Gade – who engineered Audi’s winning entry in the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours – declined to confirm, McLaren’s Extreme E involvement may also have the capacity to help McLaren restructure after the new F1 to help cost caps.
Budget constraints mean many of the larger F1 teams have had to reallocate their staff to other projects to avoid having to leave to meet the new cap.
Sustainability is also a key motivation for McLaren’s two drivers – Emma Gilmour and Tanner Foust – and this goes well beyond mere PR language.
Gilmour, who made two Extreme E appearances with Veloce last year, admitted that she “didn’t really think it was going to be real” when she heard about the concept of the series, but did hear about the advances the championship was making in her Opening had made “really encouraged” was the season.
Her teammate and rallycross legend Foust was inspired by a conversation with 2009 Formula One World Champion Jenson Button, who entered the championship with his own JBXE team and drove on the opening lap before retiring from driver duty thereafter withdrew.
Foust was impressed by the St. Helena ship, which essentially transports the championship and its cars around the globe and contains a number of environmental scientists conducting studies at the race sites.
“I spoke quite a bit to Jenson Button, who enlightened me a lot about the science on the ship and the potential of the series,” explained Foust.
“From the outside, I was quite amazed at how big the crashes were from a driver’s perspective, but it sounded like the series’ potential at a sustainability level and at that global impact level was pretty impressive.
“I’ve been fortunate to have been racing for 25 years and if motorsport in general is to continue there needs to be more series like Extreme E.
“If you want to be a racer or a manufacturer, that’s the future of motorsport, you have to have that kind of attitude when you go racing.”
Foust, who completed a degree in molecular biology before turning to racing full-time, said he was “intrigued” to learn more about the research that’s taking place as his work and educational background combine.
But how competitive can McLaren really be on track when it has a year less Extreme-E experience compared to its rivals, all of whom raced in their inaugural season?
“Certainly part of the technical background that McLaren has in other races is a fresh perspective on the setup and what to do with the Odyssey cars,” said Foust.
“All routes are different [from season one]While some data is collected throughout the year, I feel we are missing the machine’s weak points and how to maximize the car without damaging it.
“From a technical point of view, I think we have as much data as anyone who hasn’t raced before.”
As Foust points out, understanding the unique car will be critical to McLaren’s success, as will finding the right balance between speed and durability – something that became a prerequisite for success for teams in an accident-strewn first year.
McLaren’s completed a shakedown and test last November, putting in many miles at the Jurassic X-Prix circuit in Dorset.
It will compete against nine other teams (until Button’s JBXE team overcomes financial difficulties), including Lewis Hamilton’s X44 team and Nico Rosberg’s championship-defending team Rosberg X Racing.
“We’re dealing with some fantastic competition, X44 and so on,” said team principal and ex-F1 engineer Mark Grain.
“Many world championships are held in this paddock. There is an incredible amount of talent in drivers, engineers and mechanics across the board. We don’t underestimate [the challenge] but I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
While there will be an experience disadvantage, the fact that the Season 2 calendar only features one of the inaugural season tracks will help McLaren’s comeback.
Gilmour has proven effective on her outings with Veloce and rookie Foust’s rallycross experience will certainly count for a lot as other rallycross converts like Johan Kristoffersson and Timmy Hansen showed their skills were transferrable.
A strong midfield in 2022 with a podium or two would be a solid return for a McLaren team serious about transferring its circuit racing success to off-road racing.
And this solid debut season looks doable given their solid testing base, a practical rider line-up, excellent engineers like Grain and Gade and a near-brand new calendar that will ease the catching-up process.