A deal for McLaren to potentially enter the Formula E world championship is tantalisingly close, and would be another good news story for the series as it gathers more momentum into its Gen3 era.
The Race revealed in January that talks between McLaren and what is currently the Mercedes team were gathering pace, with a view to McLaren taking over the operation when Mercedes withdraws from factory FE involvement this summer.
Since then, a deal for Nissan customer powertrains for the Gen3 era has been nailed down.
Mercedes EQ boss Ian James, who is anticipated to stay on as one of the heads of the new entity, is currently presiding over the deal with McLaren CEO, Zak Brown, and Saudi Arabian investors.
James and Brown talked extensively 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 Mercedes FE team’s technical director Nick Chester.
The Extreme E event was held at the ambitious new mega city NEOM being developed in the north of the kingdom.
NEOM has been a primary partner of the Mercedes EQ team since its Formula E debut in 2019. It is believed that NEOM could be a significant part of the second iteration of the team which is likely to be confirmed and detailed publicly next month.
The final points of the deal for McLaren to spearhead the new-look team are believed to be imminent but are not yet confirmed.
Several key questions that currently remain open should be decided one way or another in the following weeks, staying true to Brown’s assertion that “probably late in Q1” would be when a possible McLaren entry into Formula E will be clarified.
Some of those resolutions are highly likely to include fundamental points that will impact the short- and long-term future of the team, which in its Mercedes form has Formula E’s most successful win and points percentage per race since it joined the championship officially in December 2019.
Discussions regarding where the headquarters of the new-look team will be are said to be one of the fundamental points of the deal.
On the face of it, the present environment of Mercedes’ Brackley base looks sound enough to continue as the team’s hub.
But the reality is that housing an independent team, and one with at least a part-ownership by one of Mercedes’ F1 rivals, could prove tricky.
Although McLaren is a customer of Mercedes in F1 and has enjoyed a strong relationship, there are practical considerations that could make a move from Brackley to McLaren’s Woking base inevitable.
Yet should that happen, where the team will actually be specifically based is open to question. The McLaren Technology Centre doesn’t offer a massive amount of office space and if you’ve ever tried to park there, you’ll know that external space is just as much at a premium as internal.
The IndyCar project is still housed at Schmidt Peterson’s workshops at Indianapolis but also has a small cell of engineers embedded in the MTC and this year has sent more people over to Indy to bolster the team.
McLaren Automotive and McLaren F1 are all in the MTC of course, while McLaren Applied, now a separate company, is run from a new facility in Woking.
The Extreme E team is run from next door to the old McLaren F1 factory in Woking and additional units are believed to available there.
But would it be worth the relocation at all?
That is believed to be a major deliberation currently being thrashed out between all parties in the almost agreed new entity.
The precise make-up of the team is perhaps the biggest unknown of the plans being put together right now.
In a similar vein to the location question, there will be current Mercedes EQ staff eagerly awaiting the upshot of the new structure.
The likelihood is that the vast majority of those working there now will be offered roles in the continuation of the squad, whether it moves to Woking or not.
Several members of the team moved from HWA’s base to Brackley last September as the team was condensed to one key hub after previously splitting the operation between the UK and Germany.
However, not all the engineering team is located 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, which is based in Dietmannsried in Germany.
A potential move to Woking will of course cause some disruption but the technical capabilities are broadly similar, so any significant lag felt would probably be shortlived.
Ultimately though, why meddle with a masterpiece? The Mercedes EQ team is run like clockwork, with an abundance of talented staff who have all mastered the quirky and rapid fire one-day E-Prix format in the last year or so especially.
A lot may depend on how well the new structure is financed, yet under a cost cap, which will be in place next season, changes would have had to be 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 writer Peter McCool on its books.
Former Renault and Williams senior aerodynamicist, Jon Tomlinson, was also part of the team before he was redeployed to a resource role at the Applied Science strand of the Mercedes F1 team.
Several staff also joined the Formula E team from the AMG High Performance Powertrains company, including Maarten Youngman, who previously held the role of F1 engineering programme manager at Brixworth.
Mercedes EQ also invested in experienced race engineers last year too, with Stephen Lane joining from the Envision team and ex-Dragon and NIO 333 performance engineer Alan Cocks bolstering the team.
Whether specific McLaren engineers will be meshed with the existing team is not yet known but with financial regulations coming into play for 2023, any additions would likely be kept to a minimum.
The topic of 2022/23 drivers is probably quite low down the list of priorities just now at Brackley, but the time is fast approaching where it must nail down choices.
Logic would indicate keeping Stoffel Vandoorne and Nyck de Vries.
The present pair of drivers would appear to be the primary targets for an adventure into the new Gen3 rules set.
Continuity in Formula E is a proven asset, but both drivers have cast their nets far in recent months with IndyCar tests and also activity in sportscars.
Vandoorne especially loves racing in the US, while De Vries is likely to have a strong possibility of a race seat with Toyota in the 2023 World Endurance Championship.
With expanded calendars in the WEC and Formula E likely for 2023 could De Vries, or indeed any driver, contemplate doing both competitively?
As the reigning champion De Vries will be eyeing much more silverware in Formula E, while also having at least one eye on the faintest sniff of nudging the F1 door ajar, as he came close to doing last autumn.
“I don’t think you can ever relax in this industry, in this world,” De Vries told The Race this week.
“Probably the best proof is what I’m experiencing at the moment. I went from Formula 2 towards Formula E with Mercedes and basically hoping and thinking that would be a long-term relationship with hopefully a lot of successes together in this championship.
“Successes were there, but the future changed quickly, drastically.
“That just proves that you can just never relax, you always need to perform and deliver.”
De Vries added that he wants 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 it could go,” he added.
“I clearly want to stay in Formula E. So, I’m hoping that I somehow find a new place.”
Of other drivers, Mercedes EQ presently has Van Amersfoort F2 driver Jake Hughes on its books. Hughes’ representative Mark Blundell is known to be keen on Hughes breaking into Formula E in the future and he would be a fairly seamless fit after soaking up the action as a reserve and test driver since 2019.
Rene Rast and Antonio Felix da Costa are both held in high regard within the team and could be useful additions should Vandoorne and De Vries take up new challenges.
But with Rast more likely to look at a top-line sportscar career now, and da Costa in FE talks with Porsche and Maserati, both of these avenues are likely to have been closed off by the end of next month.
While not the most intriguing of areas, the sort-out of commercial partners for the post-Mercedes era of the team requires a fine-tooth comb right now.
NEOM, or at least Saudi Arabian backing for the venture, is the most noteworthy right now and likely to be the most influential. But there are also existing partnerships that will have to be either renegotiated, realigned or redistributed.
Some are known to be keen to continue with the new-look team, but others are likely to have been attracted only to the Mercedes name when they joined the mission. These could be attracted to F1 switches to maintain Mercedes and Daimler links in 2023.
“You’ve got to take a look at the big picture, you’ve got to take a look at how it fits in with your commercial partners, what the fit is there, what the fit is for what we’re using this particular platform with Formula E,” James told The Race at the Diriyah E-Prix in January.
“I think for that reason, we’re being very conscientious in our approach and making sure that we’ve taken a look at all the various different options.
“As I said before, the ingredients are all there now, so I’m confident we’ll have the right strategy in place when the time comes.”