A deal for McLaren to potentially enter the Formula E World Championship is extremely close and would be another piece of good news for the series as it gains momentum in its Gen3 era.
The Race revealed in January that talks between McLaren and what is currently the Mercedes team were accelerating, with a view to McLaren taking over the operation when Mercedes pull out of factory FE involvement this summer.
Since then, an agreement for Nissan customer powertrains for the Gen3 era has been reached.
Mercedes EQ boss Ian James, who is expected to remain at the helm of the new entity, is currently chairing the deal with McLaren CEO Zak Brown and Saudi investors.
James and Brown spoke at length at the opening Extreme E round in Saudi Arabia last month and were also together last week for Formula 1’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah, where James was joined by the manager Mercedes FE team technical Nick Chester.
The Extreme E event was held in the ambitious new NEOM megalopolis being developed in the north of the kingdom.
NEOM has been a main partner of the Mercedes EQ team since its debut in Formula E in 2019. It is believed that NEOM could be an important part of the team’s second iteration which is expected to be confirmed and publicly detailed next month.
The final points of the deal for McLaren to lead the new-look team are believed to be imminent but are yet to be confirmed.
Several key questions that currently remain open are expected to be resolved one way or another in the coming weeks, sticking to Brown’s assertion that “probably late in the first quarter” would be when a possible entry of McLaren in Formula E will be clarified.
Some of these resolutions are very likely to include fundamental points that will impact the short and long term future of the team, which in its Mercedes form has the winning percentage and points per race the most successful in Formula E since officially joining the championship in December. 2019.
Discussions regarding the location of the new-look team’s headquarters would be one of the fundamental points of the agreement.
On the face of it, the current environment at Mercedes’ Brackley base looks strong enough to continue to be the team’s hub.
But the reality is that housing an independent team, and one with at least one co-ownership by one of Mercedes’ F1 rivals, could prove tricky.
Although McLaren is a Mercedes customer in F1 and has enjoyed a strong relationship, there are practical considerations which could make a move from Brackley to the McLaren base in Woking inevitable.
Still, if that happens, where the team will actually be based is debatable. The McLaren Technology Center doesn’t offer a huge amount of office space and if you’ve ever tried to park there, you’ll know that the space outside is just as valuable as inside.
The IndyCar project is still housed in the Schmidt Peterson workshops in Indianapolis, but also has a small engineering cell built into the MTC and this year sent more people to Indy to bolster the team.
McLaren Automotive and McLaren F1 are of course part of the MTC, while McLaren Applied, now a separate company, is run from a new facility in Woking.
The Extreme E team is run next to the former McLaren F1 factory in Woking and additional units are said to be available there.
But would it really be worth moving?
This is believed to be a major deliberation currently being debated between all parties in the near-agreed new entity.
The precise composition of the team is perhaps the biggest unknown in the plans being worked on right now.
Along the same lines as the location issue, existing Mercedes EQ staff will be eagerly awaiting the outcome of the new structure.
It is likely that the vast majority of those currently working there will be offered roles in the continuation of the team whether they move to Woking or not.
Several team members relocated from HWA’s base in Brackley last September as the team concentrated on a key hub after previously splitting the operation between the UK and Germany.
However, not all of the engineering team is based in the UK, as Franco Chiocchetti and two other engineers continue to work at Mercedes through the former Abt Audi engineer’s technical company, RaceOn. GmbH, based in Dietmannsried, Germany.
A potential move to Woking will of course cause disruption, but the technical capabilities are broadly similar, so any significant delay felt would likely be short-lived.
In the end, why meddle with a masterpiece? The Mercedes EQ team runs like clockwork, with an abundance of talented employees who have all mastered the quirky, fast-paced format of a one-day E-Prix over the past year or so.
Much may depend on how well the new structure is funded, but under a cost cap, which will be in place next season, changes should have been made in several areas anyway.
Mercedes EQ has one of the strongest, if not the strongest technical teams in the Formula E paddock. A wealth of experience and engineering aptitude undoubtedly helped to enable its near instant success.
As well as experienced Formula E hands such as Chiocchetti and Chester, the team also has former The Race technical editor Peter McCool on its books.
Former Renault and Williams principal aerodynamicist Jon Tomlinson was also part of the team before being redeployed to a resource role within the Mercedes F1 team’s Applied Science strand.
Several staff have also joined AMG High Performance Powertrains’ Formula E team, including Maarten Youngman, who previously served as head of the F1 engineering program at Brixworth.
Mercedes EQ also invested in experienced race engineers last year, with Stephen Lane joining the Envision team and former Dragon and NIO 333 performance engineer Alan Cocks strengthening the team.
It’s not yet clear whether any specific McLaren engineers will be brought into the existing squad, but with financial regulations coming into force for 2023, any additions would likely be kept to a minimum.
The subject of the 2022/23 drivers is probably quite low on the priority list at Brackley at the moment, but the time is fast approaching when he has to make choices.
Logic would like to keep Stoffel Vandoorne and Nyck de Vries.
The current pair of pilots appear to be prime targets for an adventure in the new Gen3 ruleset.
Continuity in Formula E is a proven asset, but both drivers have cast their nets far in recent months with IndyCar testing and also sports car activity.
Vandoorne particularly enjoys racing in the United States, while De Vries is likely to have a strong possibility of a racing seat with Toyota in the 2023 World Endurance Championship.
With expanded WEC and Formula E schedules likely for 2023, could De Vries, or indeed any driver, consider doing both competitively?
As reigning champion, De Vries will be aiming for a lot more silverware in Formula E, while at least having an eye out for the slightest sniff of pushing the door ajar to F1, as he nearly did last fall.
“I don’t think you can ever relax in this industry, in this world,” De Vries told The Race this week.
“The best proof is probably what I’m going through right now. I moved from Formula 2 to Formula E with Mercedes and I hoped and thought it would be a long term relationship with hopefully a lot of success together in this championship.
“The successes were there, but the future changed quickly, radically.
“It just proves that you can never relax, you always have to perform and deliver.”
De Vries added that he wanted to stay in Formula E and also hinted that he could find a home with another team beyond what the restructured Mercedes EQ team might become.
“At the moment, I really don’t know where this could go,” he added.
“I definitely want to stay in Formula E. So hopefully I will somehow find a new place.”
Among other drivers, Mercedes EQ currently has Van Amersfoort F2 driver Jake Hughes on its books. Hughes’ representative Mark Blundell is known to be keen on Hughes entering Formula E in the future and he would be a fairly smooth fit after soaking up the action as a reserve driver and trial since 2019.
Rene Rast and Antonio Felix da Costa are both held in high regard within the squad and could be useful additions should Vandoorne and De Vries take on new challenges.
But with Rast more likely to consider a top sports car career now, and da Costa in FE talks with Porsche and Maserati, both of those avenues will likely have been closed by the end of next month.
While not the most intriguing areas, sorting out business partners for the team’s post-Mercedes era requires a fine-toothed comb at this time.
NEOM, or at least the Saudi support for the company, is currently the most notable and probably the most influential. But there are also existing partnerships that will need to be either renegotiated, realigned or redistributed.
Some are known to be keen to continue with the new-look team, but others were likely only attracted by the Mercedes name when they joined the mission. These could be drawn to F1 switches to maintain Mercedes and Daimler ties in 2023.
“You have to look at the big picture, you have to look at how it fits in with your trading partners, what’s the fit there, what’s the fit for what we’re using this particular platform with Formula E,” James told The Race during the Diriyah E-Prix in January.
“I think for that reason we’re very conscientious in our approach and making sure we’ve looked at all the different options.
“As I said before, all the ingredients are there now, so I’m confident we’ll have the right strategy in place when the time comes.”
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