INSIGHT: Why McLaren's all-in on electric racing

Sam Bloxham/Motorsport Images

INSIGHT: Why McLaren's all-in on electric racing


INSIGHT: Why McLaren's all-in on electric racing


Roll back the clock to the late-1960s and early ’70s and on any given weekend you’d see a McLaren on-track, whether that was in Formula 1, IndyCar, sports car racing, or somewhere else. Fast-forward to the present day and the story is very much the same — but at the same time, hugely different.

McLaren remains part of the furniture in F1. The brand is also back in IndyCar, but its racing activities have diversified substantially beyond that. A key component of that diversification is the founding of NEOM McLaren Electric Racing, an all-new company that encompasses McLaren’s second-year Extreme E effort, as well as its new Formula E program.

The company can trace it’s roots back to Mercedes’ ultra-successful Formula E program, which won two titles in its three years in the category (with Nyck de Vries in 2020-21 and Stoffel Vandoorne in 2021-22). But with the German brand opting to back away after those back-to-back triumphs, and McLaren looking to grow in the electric sphere, the stars began to align for all sides.

“I remember meeting Zak (Brown, McLaren Racing CEO) at the second Diriyah ePrix in Saudi and at the time he was already exploring what they could do to go towards electric racing,” Ian James, former Mercedes Formula E team principal and current McLaren Electric Racing managing director tells RACER. “I think that he felt that it was going to be a really important piece of motorsport’s future … This all became quite an attractive proposition for McLaren.

“As things progressed, we kept contact and through the discussions with McLaren and with (title sponsor) NEOM as well, who were very much a part of this journey, we had an opportunity to transition the Formula E team across to McLaren as well and the company that we set up to run that has now become NEOM McLaren Electric Racing which is fully integrated into the McLaren Racing family.

“If you take a look at the portfolio — with Formula 1, with IndyCar, with Formula E, Extreme E, and Esports as well — it presents this unique proposition for McLaren as a brand. The thing I personally find really exciting about it is that McLaren doesn’t exist for any other purpose than to go racing — that’s our focus 100% — and as long as the series in which we’re racing adds value to that whole portfolio then it makes perfect sense.”

But what is that value? Despite its growing portfolio, McLaren remains first and foremost an F1 team. There may other racing teams now under the McLaren banner and a road car business with the same name in the building next door, but McLaren is still known for one thing above all else.

“We don’t do it for the sake of it, it has to make sense,” James insists. “The automotive world is going through this seismic shift towards electrification. I think motorsport plays a role in that in terms of developing and advancing technologies.

“But at the same time, both in Formula E and Extreme E, we’ve got the sustainability angle on it which is becoming more and more important — and it’s becoming more and more important to not just tick the box, but do something which actually actually has a tangible benefit. That’s what we’re demonstrating through both of those series.”

The decision to expand has clearly been made with the head, but there’s an element of heart to the decision too, and that’s perhaps why we haven’t seen other F1 teams expand in the same way.

McLaren’s Formula E team has its roots in the factory Mercedes program, and is now run by NEOM McLaren Electric Racing – an all-electric racing division that operates under the broader McLaren umbrella. Alastair Staley/Motorsport Images

“A big part of what has happened is because of what Zak wants to do,” Gary Paffett, team manager for McLaren in Formula E and sporting director in Extreme E, tells RACER. “Zak is massively into motorsport as a whole, not into F1 specifically, just motorsport globally, and he just wants McLaren to be out there competing in as many different formulae as is possible, which is fantastic to get the brand out there.

“Other people are more specifically focused towards different formulas, but it’s fantastic to see McLaren in F1, obviously as it always has been, but now competing in Formula E, Extreme E which is a completely different direction to what the team or the brand has always been in. I think the reason for it is just Zak’s passion for motorsport.”

Paffett himself has a long history with McLaren, having been a long-time test driver for the the team in F1. He’s seen first-hand the changes that the company has undergone, but while it might be a world away from the Ron Dennis-led firm that he worked for as a driver, he says there are elements that remain firmly in place.

“When I joined McLaren it was in the days of Ron Dennis and that kind of ruling, and I was there when it started to change as well, when Ron left,” Paffett explains. “It’s gone through a massive change recently, it’s now completely different with regards to the people that are running it and it’s very much gone back to its roots with the Papaya coloring and things like that, which are kind of different to the all-silver and black of when I left it.

“But McLaren is still McLaren. It’s still the same brand, the same ambition and the same goals of winning that it’s always had. It’s still one of the most prestigious brands in motorsport history, and when you go to MTC (McLaren Technology Centre, the F1 team’s HQ) you still get the same feeling — the history is still there as it was before. So although there’s been a big change in personnel, the brand and what it stands for is still very much the same as it always has been.”

Naturally, though, with McLaren’s title drought in F1 stretching back to 2008 (or 1998 in terms of the constructors’ championship), news of McLaren doing other things can tend to invited ill-informed reactions from vocal fans who worry the company is losing focus. But James insists that nothing gets short-changed by McLaren’s additional efforts.

“We’re being very very careful in every aspect — the technical aspect and the commercial aspect as well,” he says. “I don’t see it as a conflict, I don’t see it as cannibalizing anything, it’s very much that they’re complimentary. We’ve deliberately structured things at McLaren Electric Racing so that it is a separate entity. It means that we’re not impinging on the work that’s being done on either IndyCar or F1 so that we can operate as a standalone entity and we can do it without any external influence or taking resource from elsewhere.

“At the moment there’s absolutely no distraction whatsoever across the various different series and I think it’s super-important we keep it working in that direction.”

In fact, if there is to be any impact, it’s a positive one as all branches of the McLaren family tree collaborate and learn from one another.

“Where we feel there is going to be an advantage, then we can have those discussions and make sure that we’re collaborating in a way that benefits each and every series through that,” James says. “It’s something that’s actively encouraged at the moment with Andrea (Stella) now leading the Formula 1 side of things, with Gavin (Ward, Arrow McLaren racing director) on IndyCar, myself on Electric Racing and then Zak overlooking the whole lot, a collection of individuals that are very open to making sure that we leverage those synergies, that we learn from each other as well.

McLaren entered Extreme E with the specific aim of increasing its overall understanding of EV technology. Colin McMaster/Motorsport Images

“First and foremost we need to protect the core of what we’re doing, so we can’t allow that collaboration to be a distraction, but we’ll be utilizing it in the right way to make sure that we can push things forward. I was in Bahrain (at the Grand Prix) observing, taking part in the debriefs and briefings, and just understanding how the Formula 1 side works. We’ll get Andrea at some point out to Extreme E and Formula E to see what can do there, and I look forward to getting out to IndyCar to see how Gavin’s running things.

“Every time you go out there’s something that you pick up, something that you learn and you take back, so that’s something we can implement in our series to drive drive it forward and with that kind of resource on tap, we’d be mad not to do it.”

Those collaborations grow deeper on the electric side — with both Formula E and Extreme E aligned under the same umbrella, it’s actually less about working together, and more about being two sides of the exact same coin.

“What we have done though within Electric Racing is we’ve started to look at how we can really work as efficiently as possible across Formula E and Extreme E,” James explains. “So you’ll see people here, myself included, Sjoerd (van Wijk, communications manager) as well, the mechanics, Gary as well as sporting director, we all have roles within Formula E as well and makes makes perfect sense at the moment.

Paffett adds: “Everybody here is doing multiple things, whereas I think in other worlds of motorsport you’re, to a point, kind of pigeon-holed into a kind of specific role, a very specific job that you do.

“In Formula E and even more in Extreme E, you have a role when you’re here, but that role takes on many different positions and many different tasks in the team which is great; I love it.”

The Extreme E effort in particular was introduced entirely to benefit the wider McLaren organization. At the time McLaren said it was to “accelerate our understanding of EV technology as part of our sustainability journey while reaching a new, more diverse global audience”, and one year in, the benefits are being seen across the board.

“I think sustainability is something that’s often spoken about about but not always put into practice in terms of the right things, and I think what this has given us the opportunity to do is really make an authentic difference going forward,” James says. “When we talk about sustainability, obviously there’s quite rightly a focus on environmental sustainability, but it goes much further beyond that – it includes diversity and inclusion.

“We then talk about the financial sustainability and the business case of the whole thing, at the end of the day we needed to set up something that would stand alone, it would stand on its own two feet and not be a drain on anything else and we’ve achieved that. So you start taking a look at all of those different elements and I think Extreme E, when you look into that rather than it being baffling actually makes perfect sense, and it sets us up very much with a springboard to the future.

“My personal opinion is that we’re actually going to see motorsport moving in this direction where you’re going to have to shift to electrification, that sustainability in its most authentic forms is going to be really crucial, and I think by participating in Extreme E and Formula E as well we put ourselves very much on the front foot and we’ll be ready, however motorsport evolves, over the next five, 10, 15, 20 years. I think we’ll be in a very strong position to tackle that head-on.”