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Stepping up a level: Gary Paffett on unlocking the potential of our tight-knit team

Our Extreme E Sporting Director discusses his McLaren return, the new format, and our 2023 targets

When we acquired the Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team, we not only secured the keys to a title-winning organisation, but also the return of some familiar faces.

Former McLaren Test and Reserve Driver Gary Paffett was among them, re-joining us as Team Manager of the NEOM McLaren Formula E Team and Sporting Director of  the NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team.

As Sporting Director, Gary’s expertise will play a crucial role in our Extreme E efforts this season, and the building of the team’s long-term foundations. Ahead of the third and fourth rounds of the season in Scotland, we caught up with the two-time DTM champion to discuss his first few months back in the McLaren.

McLaren is a team that you know well. How did it feel to return to the team as part of our electric racing leadership team?

I had been a driver here for so long, but then moved away from it and was working with the Mercedes-EQ Team. Returning was quite an organic process because of the transition from Mercedes to McLaren, so it wasn’t like I left Mercedes to join McLaren, it was that the team became McLaren. That being said, it certainly feels like I am back at McLaren, which is fantastic. I spent a long time with McLaren as a driver, and so it is fantastic to be back here, working with the brand again.

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Speaking of the Mercedes team, how can your experience with the Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team, as well as your own racing career, help to push on the NEOM McLaren Extreme E team? It is a different discipline, but many of the same principles must apply?

The teams that I have worked with, whether it be Mercedes or McLaren, have been teams who operate at an extremely high level, and are very competitive, and that is something that I try to bring into my role. The competitive spirit and the work ethic that we had at Mercedes-EQ in the Formula E team can now be felt within NEOM McLaren.

We are a very small group of people, and that makes working together and working hard important. It was already there in the team, but we want to step up another level in our second season. We’re still new to Extreme E, and the championship itself is still new, but if we want to succeed, we must ensure we follow those key principles.

Off the back of Rounds 1 and 2, what are your thoughts on where the team and the car is at the moment?

I think we've still got some work to do. The team finished last season with a podium, which was a fantastic result, and fifth in the championship overall. Our ambition is to be more consistently on the podium. In Saudi Arabia, that didn't happen - we looked competitive but didn’t get the results we wanted in the races, so we are still finding our feet in this series. We are still in the process of working out how to win consistently and how to always score good points, but the car is competitive. The data from the sector times shows that the car and the two drivers are competitive.

Winning races and scoring good points in Extreme E is different to most other championships. It is very unique racing on very unique courses, so there is some more understanding that we need to gain, but we do have the tools to go out and succeed. Extreme E is quite unpredictable, so even if you do go out and do a fantastic job, sometimes, things will not go your way, and you have to accept that.

In NEOM, we did leave some points on the table, but in the upcoming round, we need to maximise the opportunities that we get.

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Going off what you saw last season, and the conversations you have had internally, where do you think we've improved since the 2022 season?

I was in Uruguay for the final round of the 2022 season, and so I got first-hand experience of our 2022 campaign before I came in and took over, which was extremely useful. I believe that we have improved our understanding of the car and our knowledge of how to get performance out of the car from an engineering point of view.

The same goes for our drivers, who have looked back on last year and worked on the areas where they can improve, in terms of how they drive the car, which requires a very specific style. The high ground clearance is made for real off-road driving, however, it is effectively being used as more of a rallycross car. So, it is a case of understanding how to get the best performance out of the car and the package.

In terms of what we can affect, it’s all about the setup and trying to maximise that. We can't bring upgrades to the car with regards to components or anything like that, so it's more a case of understanding the setup and understanding the controls and the tools that we have, in order to maximise performance. And then, like I said, from a driving point of view, helping the drivers to understand how to get the best performance out of the car.

We’ve had a few personnel changes in the team this year, some of whom are new to this series, so we needed to get them up to speed, and from there, we all need to improve our understanding of the championship, of car the car and how it works, and get this small, tight-knit group of working to maximise what we have got.

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What are your thoughts on the new format?

It’s more than slightly changed. Last year, in qualifying, you had single-car running where you just went out and set your own times, whereas now, you get two practice sessions on a Friday, and then from Saturday onwards, it’s always multi-car racing. And you do that on Saturday and Sunday now, with the new double-header format, which means you are basically squeezing two weekends into one.

This means that during a weekend, you get a lot of wheel-to-wheel running, and much more actual contact racing than we saw last year. The drivers have had to adapt to that, as there is a lot less driving on their own and setting lap times – now, they have to do it with other cars around them.

With that, the potential for damage increases and the demand for excellence is a lot higher than in the past. And because you’ve got two rounds in one weekend, when you are racing on the Saturday, you’ve got to be thinking of the Sunday, as you can’t afford to not have a car for the Sunday.

In NEOM, the team were extremely busy repairing the cars and making sure they were getting out in every session. By the end of the day on Sunday, everyone was looking fairly tired and worn out. It had been such a busy week. Last year, having a bit of bodywork damage wasn’t really a drama, whereas now, with so many races to do, the drivers have had to change their style a bit to make sure the car is in good shape for the whole weekend.

That is quite a big change. The biggest aim has to be that we get through to the Grand Final, where the big points are awarded. In NEOM, we missed out on this and were in the Redemption Races both days, which was frustrating. Going forwards, we need to work out what is the best way to guarantee a position in the Grand Final.

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What were the benefits of retaining Emma Gilmour and Tanner Foust for 2023?

It's been very useful because we’re still developing as a team. This is only our second season, so the engineers and the mechanics are still getting to grips with the car. Having the same drivers means that it is easy to identify whether the changes we’ve made over winter have been positive or negative. In general, having some stability has been good.

We’ve got two drivers, Emma and Tanner, who know the team, the car and the series. With the experience of last year under their belts, they’ve both gone up a level this year. They both know what to expect from Extreme E, and they've come in with a really determined attitude, which has been good.

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