In a previous life I worked for the renowned racing car manufacturer Lola. It was a wonderful, multifaceted job spanning IndyCar, Le Mans, Formula 3, A1 GP, Super Formula and many other series.
There is one quality that all these series have in common.
There were late nights, copious amounts of coffee and thousands of take-out pizzas required to meet ridiculous deadlines, and the ticking of customers audible tick-tacking from the buzzing members of the meeting hall.
In 2005 this was scaled up to the level of 50, yes 50, A1 GP cars built in about three months. It was a tense and feverish workplace and it nearly broke people in half.
While that’s ancient history, one gets the impression that similar feats were made when the 22 Gen3 Formula E cars were got going for the season opener, which took place in Mexico City last weekend.
A backdrop to an almost perfect storm The post-COVID disruption, the Russian attack on Ukraine and the ambitious nature of the technology woven into the design would always test everyone involved in the project.
Important hot spots dotted the time frame. Replacing the cells with the spec battery and the delay in delivering a variety of parts and bodywork to the teams were just two.
Though one has been overcome, another is still a thorn in teams’ side. While Mexico’s permanent Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez felt like things were getting away with it, next week’s upcoming Diriyah coaster will be the real test.
Teams were nearly dead on their feet ahead of the test teams in Valencia last month. Herculean tasks were completed only to allow for last-minute shakedown runs. Some teams didn’t make it to this feat.
One that did just that was the new NEOM McLaren team, managing its new Oxfordshire base a few hours from its doorstep in the Bicester Heritage business area.
But what it had to do to get there delighted even veteran members of the racing industry, including former Formula E driver-turned-operations team manager Gary Paffett.
“The key to success was project planning,” Paffett told The Race.
â€œWe have a couple of people who work very hard on project planning, always in touch with suppliers, trying to work out deadlines and figuring out when we can get the parts.
â€œRob Musgrave, our track manager and the person who runs the car build, just wanted to make sure the guys could get the parts they needed, when they needed them.
“Also the commitment of the team, the mechanics, accepting the long nights and long days to get it done when parts arrived was extraordinary.”
Like all other teams, McLaren faced several challenges, but it all came together. That always works somehow.
â€œThe difficulty was obviously all the same parts, the batteries, but also the chassis, the wiring harnesses, the suspension, the bodywork and so on, and all of that came at different times,â€ adds Paffett.
â€œWell, where we were able to have a build plan, it made things difficult.
“We had a shakedown test planned long before Valencia and we had to get that closer and closer to the test three or four times to actually be able to build the cars and strip them down in time for Valencia. We made it anyway.â€
But it was much later than any Formula E team would like and the consequences of having to postpone the shakedown every time were “quite costly,” according to Paffett.
“It’s always a challenge when you build a new car, and even between seasons, but the real lack of parts for that season and the constant changes in battery health based on manufacturer testing meant everything came together very late.”
McLaren enjoyed a strong Valencia Test where progress has been made. While the post-test was an opportunity for the mechanics to take a long-overdue holiday over the Christmas period, the engineering team had no such luxury as they had to navigate an avalanche of data from the new cars.
As soon as the new year dawned, the teams sat on a plane and followed their cargo trucks, which departed from Valencia to Mexico City.
Reliability was good last weekend but not perfect. Maserati, DS and Nissan all had battery problems Jaguar’s hardship was well documented and continued well into Friday night, where serious discussions took place about how things were going to be tackled the next day.
There was no such drama for McLaren, apart from a pre-action conditioning of the RESS, which went smoothly.
In fact, Paffett calls the whole first weekend experience “pretty good to be honest”.
That the season switched from the usual Diriyah opener to Mexico City now looks inspired. The permanent track has lots of space and a wonderful ambience, it was almost the perfect place to start the new era.
But there still remain challenges for the championship. The chronic shortage of spare parts is an urgent concern for teams with another five races in eight weeks looming on the horizon.
Driveshafts and torque sensors at the rear of the car are in short supply but are expected to come into service in the upcoming races.
The race understands the ambition to get replacement cars hasn’t been met for Mexico City but could apply to Diriyah next week.
For the teams, this means that on the way to Riyadh, where there are many high-speed corners and obstacles in close proximity, the slightest graze on a wall could have race-defining consequences.
â€œAll you have to do is rub a wheel against a barrier and you see damage on one of the drive shafts and then you run out of parts faster,â€ certifies Paffett.
That’s especially true with a double-header next weekend where the workload will make Mexico City feel like a walk in a high-altitude park.
â€œThe capacity utilization in Mexico was even better than we thought,â€ estimates Paffett.
“They (the FIA) opened up the lockdown for the build-up days and in fact we never got anywhere close to where the lockdown would have been.
“The workload was pretty good. But obviously there will be a lot of work to do at Diriyah as hopefully the new secondary braking system will arrive and need to be fitted to the cars to ensure it works well.
“In motorsport, everything often comes together in the end, and that’s what happened here.”
There are still concerns about the spare parts and even the batteries, but it’s fair to say that despite months of intense work and frustration, Mexico has injected a much-needed shot of race-related positivity.
â€œI would say we are getting on top of it and have the situation better under control,â€ Paffett sums it up.
â€œOverall I would say that the first race was a success.â€
That alone is a strong endorsement of the dedication and skill of the teams who, along with most of the suppliers, have had an unparalleled challenge to get the Gen3 show on the road.