Ian James on returning to McLAREN, ignoring the noise and his Gen3 expectations
The electric era is upon us: Here's what to expect from the NEOM McLaren Formula E Team
Stepping up onto the stage in the McLaren Technology Centre auditorium and shaking the hand of CEO Zak Brown, Ian James introduced himself to McLaren Racing staff, his career going full circle as he did so.
After beginning his professional life with McLaren Automotive as a Manufacturing Engineer, Ian James returned to the team in September following three years and back-to-back Formula E titles with the Mercedes-EQ team.
As the Team Principal of the NEOM McLaren Formula E Team and Managing Director of NEOM McLaren Electric Racing, Ian will lead the side into Season 9, overseeing the formation of a new team following our acquisition of the Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team.
Following Ian's introduction, we sat down with him for a chat on what we can expect from the upcoming season as FE enters the new Gen3 era, discussing his first few months, his chosen driver pairing and how he wants his team to look.
Firstly, welcome to the McLaren family. How have you found the start of your time with the team?
We've been here for a couple of months now since we transitioned across, and honestly speaking, we couldn't have been made to feel more welcome across the whole organisation. The support that we've had has been fantastic, and thank goodness, because we've had a very short period to get up and running in time to be ready for Gen3 and the new season. For me personally, it's taken me full circle. My career started here some 20-odd years ago, so it's quite special to come back and join the Papaya Army.
Talk to us about these first few months. With Gen3 and the transition of the team in mind, what hurdles have you had to overcome?
It's been quite full-on. Not only have we had the new generation of car coming through, we've transitioned from being a manufacturer to a customer team. We're working very closely together with Nissan as the manufacturer, which is a new relationship to develop to make sure that we're starting on the right foot. At the same time, we've had to go through some structural changes to ensure that we can incorporate into the McLaren Racing family in the right way and leverage the opportunities that we've now got.
We've opened up a new site in Bicester Heritage on an old RAF airfield, which is very different from the McLaren Technology Centre. We've had a lot of help from everyone at the McLaren Technology Centre to make sure that the site at Bicester feels like an extension of McLaren, and it's going to end up being an incredible place to work. I'm excited to grow it as a centre of excellence for electric motorsport within the McLaren portfolio.
How collaborative can you be with the other McLaren Racing teams?
We recognise the expertise and talent that we have across all of the different series. That being said, we need to approach any collaboration with an element of caution because you've got to be careful that you don't become a distraction. Ultimately, we're all in incredibly competitive series and need to be at the top of our game to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. First and foremost, that needs to be protected. Having said that, there are definitely going to be some synergies that we'll want to leverage to ensure that we can maximise our full potential across the board.
With a careful and considered approach, we'll be able to collaborate across those series to learn from one another and thereby ensure that we can maximise our potential across the McLaren Racing Group. That is a really exciting prospect because it doesn't matter whether you've been successful in the past, or whether you've won world championships, you need to continue to improve, and you do that through learning and sharing knowledge. We're in a unique position here, and we'd be crazy not to use that to our advantage. Again, we'll do that in a very considered manner.
What benefits come from McLaren Racing taking over the Mercedes-EQ team and bringing staff like yourself and others you have worked with?
We've got this generational change within Formula E, so what McLaren Racing has acquired through the Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team, isn't so much any assets or physical hardware, it is a team that has the expertise and talent within it to go out and win races and championships. It was essential to keep that team intact as we transitioned across, and for that reason, I'm incredibly grateful for the support that we've had at McLaren so far because that's enabled us to achieve that.
The vast majority of the team, be it engineering, operations, mechanics, commercial, HR, IT, finance and so on and so forth, has very much stayed together, and that's going to provide us with a real springboard as we go into 2023. The measures we have put in place, including opening a site up in Bicester rather than moving everything immediately down to the McLaren Technology Centre, have been crucial. The leadership team was very clear on what they required and very clear that it was important to keep that all in place so that we could hit the ground running in Season 9.
Externally, do you think any pressure comes with the fact that the transition has come from the Mercedes-EQ FE Team?
We've always had external pressure. I remember when we started as Mercedes in Season 6, and because of the success of the Formula 1 team, there was a weight of expectation that we were going to come out of the starting blocks and dominate. But we were coming into something totally different from other series, and we were starting from scratch, learning as we went along. We had to build up that experience and know-how within the team. We have always been very careful that we didn't get distracted internally by external pressure. We only needed to focus on what was within our sphere of influence, and how we could make that as good as it could be.
We'll have a very similar approach now. Of course, we've proven as a team that we've got what it takes before, but we are hitting the reset button. It is a new generation, and we are no longer a manufacturer. There are all sorts of things that are changing, so we need to focus on what we believe was at the core of our success. That is the operational excellence that we brought through as a team, and we'll now be looking to build on that as we move forward, but we'll protect the team from that external pressure as much as we can.
Looking at the driver line-up that you have secured, why was this the right pairing?
With Jake Hughes, I think it is fair to say that he has not always had the best opportunities, but what we've seen and recognised with Jake is that he has the talent and the speed for us to be able to go out and achieve the goals that we're setting. His work with the Mercedes EQ Formula E Team was crucial to the team's success. He did a lot of work in the background through the simulator program and worked very closely with the team, taking part in briefings, debriefs, and at race events. His work was absolutely crucial, and he'll now bring that experience into Gen3 and continue to work with the team.
René Rast is of a very similar mindset. He has a lot of experience and success through DTM, Formula E and other series, but he also has a work ethic that will stand us in very good stead. There's a huge amount of work ahead of us, and we need both drivers to be a part of it as we go forward, but I have no qualms about that. We've got two drivers who are going to be absolute assets to the team, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they hit the ground in Mexico on 14 January.
And what work remains between now and 14 January in Mexico?
We've got a huge amount to do. We've got what they call, the all-team test, coming up in Valencia, which starts on 13 December and runs for three days straight. That is the only opportunity we have to prepare ourselves before the race season starts. We have an incredibly limited amount of testing, especially as a customer team, so we need to ensure every minute counts. We'll ensure that we set ourselves up in the right way to deal with that.
Alongside that, we'll be continuing to develop the tools and systems that we need, the processes, to attack Gen3. We must ensure that we're match fit and working seamlessly together. That's going to keep us very, very busy all the way through to that race in Mexico. From that point onwards, it's ensuring that we have a robust approach to the faults that will inevitably come up, ensuring that we close those down and make sure that we're as clean as we can be from a process perspective. There's a lot to do, but I've got every faith in the team that they've got the necessary ingredients and the tools to tackle it.
What do you want the NEOM McLaren Formula E Team to look like?
That's a very good question. We had an internal workshop a couple of weeks ago where we brought everybody together for the first time and started talking about our aspirations for the upcoming season.
We want to be in a position where we're winning races and championships. In terms of the timeline to achieve that, I'm not going to be absolutely specific because we need to get to Valencia and understand where we are in comparison to other teams. Even then, we cannot be completely sure because everyone is on a different programme, so you cannot get a proper feel for where you stand, but it will give us an initial sighter. It is really from Mexico where we can understand where we are positioned amongst the other teams.
Ultimately, we want to achieve the success that the team has had in its former guise, but we know that we've got a long journey ahead of us before we are at that stage. We are currently focused on ensuring that we execute everything as well as possible, and I believe that the results will come from that.
NEOM McLAREN Formula E team announces its full Season 9 driver line-up
"This pairing will be crucial in helping us hit the ground running"
2023 Formula E calendar confirmed
The NEOM McLaren FE Team will debut in season nine, which is set to be FE's largest-ever calendar
McLAREN Racing and NEOM announce strategic title partnership
The partnership will drive innovation and talent development in electric motorsport
Join the team
McLaren Plus is our free-to-join fan engagement programme, bringing McLaren fans closer to the team with the most inclusive, rewarding and open-to-all fan programmes in motorsport.
Sign up now, or current members can amend their details in the form below if necessary.