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Photo: Matt Ben Stone / courtesy of McLaren Racing

Formula E Spotlight: Jake Hughes & Sam Bird

An Interview with NEOM McLaren Formula E Team Drivers, Jake Hughes & Sam Bird

Formula E was started with a clear mission to address the environmental impact of traditional motorsports and advocate for sustainable practices, to not only move the needle in motorsport but also across the automotive industry. As concerns for climate change and the depletion of fossil fuels gained global attention, the FIA recognized the need for a racing series that aligned with the principles of clean energy and electric mobility. Formula E emerged as the answer, offering a platform for manufacturers and technology innovators to showcase the capabilities of electric vehicles and accelerate the development of eco-friendly transportation solutions.

By organizing exclusively street-circuit races in the heart of major cities worldwide, Formula E sought to bring the excitement of motorsports directly to urban centers, making it more accessible and appealing to urban populations. The championship’s unique blend of high-performance racing, advanced EV technology, and an eco-friendly ethos marked a departure from traditional racing series, positioning Formula E as a catalyst for change in the automotive industry.

McLaren Racing‘s foray into Formula E in 2023 seamlessly aligned with its commitment to innovation– a principle ingrained in the team’s DNA through its rich history in Formula 1. Renowned for pushing the boundaries of automotive technology, NEOM McLaren Formula E Team had recently achieved notable successes in Formula 1, notably with drivers Lando Norris and 2023 rookie, Oscar PiastriThe rising star Lando Norris showcased exceptional skill and consistency in the 2023 season, contributing to McLaren’s resurgence on the Formula 1 grid.

The team’s prowess extended beyond Formula 1, making a significant impact in IndyCar with drivers Pato O’Ward, David Malukas, and Alexander Rossi. McLaren’s successes across multiple fronts underscored its versatility and ability to compete at the highest levels of motorsport, reinforcing its reputation as a powerhouse in the racing world. The decision to enter Formula E further reflected McLaren’s dedication to exploring diverse racing disciplines and playing a pivotal role in shaping the future of sustainability.

As the world prepares for the first E-Prix of the 2024 season in Mexico City, we had an exclusive chat with McLaren’s Season 10 driver line-up, Jake Hughes and Sam Bird. We delved into the drivers’ perspectives on the upcoming season, their strategies for adapting to the unique challenges of Formula E, and their thoughts on the evolving landscape of electric racing. 

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Photo: Matt Ben Stone / courtesy of McLaren Racing

Hey guys, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today, before we go into the harder-hitting stuff– How’d you spend your break?

Jake: I went on holiday two days immediately after London to Crete, Greece for 10 days with my girlfriend. I sat still and did nothing and ate loads of food. Then, came back and played loads of golf for a month, and came back to work in mid-September and did some simulator testing. 

Sam: I haven’t had a holiday yet… *laughs* But it’s fine, I’ve had an enjoyable break.

And I hear you both like unwinding by going to the gym and golfing, tell us a bit more.

Sam: I think I prefer the gym, and Jake likes being outside on his bike, but we both love golf.

Jake: More like love-hate. Sam’s a lot better than me. I kind of only really started in May-June. My bad days are really bad on the course, so I’m still at that stage. Do you play a bit as well?

Just at the driving range and practicing a bit, but my confidence level isn’t quite where it should be to go on the green.

Jake: I actually think since that Netflix documentary came out last year, the amount of people that I know that have taken up golf is crazy, similar to the Drive to Survive show, obviously for Formula 1.

Sam: I think your first time on a course might be a little bit tricky, but once you get the bug of being on the course, that’s the only place you’ll want to be. You’ll find going back to the driving range to be really tough because nothing can replicate the real thing out there. It’s super cool.

Do you see yourself eventually competing in a more professional tournament? Or similar to how Lando Norris recently competed in the Netflix Cup?

Jake: I’d love to be in a place where I could do that, yes, but not in a proper golf tournament. I’d love to play in a pro-am. 

Sam: If you could be paired with any golfer, who would you like?

Jake: Rory, definitely. I went to that tournament in Wentworth just to watch, and it was the first time I’d ever seen Rory McIlroy in person and I nearly cried. He looks so chiseled, he looks like a Greek god, then I saw him hit a golf ball for the first time.

Sam: Tiger, for me.

McLaren made their Formula E debut to add to their portfolio with Formula 1 and IndyCar. Jake, you had your rookie year with them last year, but Sam, you’re just joining for Season 10– how does it feel to be part of the Papaya family?

Sam: It feels really, really cool. It’s something that I’ve spoken to Zak [Brown] about for numerous years, so when the opportunity came up, I grabbed it with both hands. Everybody’s been super welcoming, I’ve loved the first few months of working with NEOM McLaren. 

Working here at the MTC [McLaren Technology Centre], we are pushing extremely hard to ensure NEOM McLaren is higher up the pecking order than where they finished last year. They had a very productive season last year, and Jake especially was super quick out the box. We’re hoping for the same in terms of pace out of the box, but to capitalize and score many more podiums and points hopefully this year. 

Formula E was created to make electric vehicles more accessible to the public, and they’re essentially paving the way for the technology for everyday vehicles on the road. What does sustainability mean to you, and outside of racing, how do you do your part?

Sam: I’ve been involved in Formula E since its inception in 2014. Before, I wasn’t very aware of what I was doing in regard to waste disposal or how I was driving my vehicles on the road. My general awareness of doing my bit for the planet just wasn’t good enough. Over the last decade, I’ve learned that my little contributions might not mean much, but if everybody had the same mindset, it would make a massive difference. Whether it’s walking to the shops up the road and carrying my bags back, buying less red meats, switching the lights off when not in use, or driving a hybrid or electric vehicle whenever possible. I’m just one person, I’m not going to change the world, but if 7 billion people had the opportunity to do the same, we’d make a massive difference.

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Photo: courtesy of McLaren Racing

McLaren saw really strong results in Valencia in pre-season testing. Tell us a bit about how you felt in the car. How are you guys working together to get the best out of the car?

Jake: Especially for our team and our culture, we’re a team. The fact that we’re driving the two race cars for the team is enough for us to know that we have to work together. We want to be better. We also want to improve on what we achieved last year. We won’t be able to do that if we don’t work as teammates, but also work with the engineers, mechanics, and everyone in the background as well. It’s important that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet. Sam’s brought some really good ideas from his previous experience in Formula E, so he’s helping us become better already.

Sam: It’s very refreshing to be working with Jake and within this team. The culture is that we work together for the good of the team. That’s how we’ll extract the best out of each other. When it comes to the races and delivering points for the team, we just want to score as many points as we can for our team. We’re employed by NEOM McLaren, we want to get that team up right at the top.

In pre-season testing, results showed that all the cars were within less than a second of each other, which is insane for competition. How do you feel about the results, and what kind of work are you doing with the pit crews to pull the most out of the cars?

Sam: It was much closer than that, I think if you were just 2/10s off, you were P10. It was very, very close. I think that we have made ground– there are still a couple of teams that look very strong, and we know that– but it will be very tight & very tough this year.

Jake: If you were just missing 1/10th, it felt like you were nowhere in Valencia. I think the interesting thing, moving into Season 10, will be the potential for fast-charging pit stops. The technology sounds really exciting, but in terms of the race weekend and results, and how that will impact the strategy – that’s something every team will have to try and get on top of very quickly.

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Photo: Matt Ben Stone / courtesy of McLaren Racing

What has been your top focus in preparing for Mexico City?

Jake: We identified a few key areas that were within our control to improve upon, or that we feel probably impacted or hurt our results last year. And if we were to do those things better, we would have a better result moving forward into Season 10. We’ve established them and feel like we can be on top of them. The bulk of that revolves around being able to consistently put the car on track lap after lap in qualifying and achieve the same result in the race. We had very strong flashes of that last year, and we’re just trying to be consistent.

What are some things you’re most looking forward to this season?

Sam: Firstly, I’m looking forward to the new race format with fast charging. Secondly, we’re going to some new venues– the one I’m most looking forward to is definitely Tokyo. I think that will be a very cool event. And last, getting used to my new team at NEOM McLaren. Every time I walk through the door, I learn something new. 

Jake: I think every team and driver is really excited for Tokyo. The fact that, as a championship, Formula E can take a world championship to the streets of Tokyo is something to be really proud of. On a personal note, I’m really excited to visit Tokyo, I’ve never been. I’m also really excited to go back to Portland. It’s really important for us, as a championship, to be in America, but I think we all enjoy being there as well. 

Former Formula E champion, Nyck DeVries, is making his return to Formula E this season. How are you feeling about the competition? Are there any other drivers you’re looking forward to competing against again? 

Jake: Having Nyck back is only a good thing for the championship. It all goes to show how strong everyone is in this championship. I don’t think anyone looks and goes “Oh, there’s an extra World Champion on the grid,” or that it makes it harder because it’s always been that difficult, and it’s only getting more challenging.

Sam: You cannot name one weak driver in this championship. There’s no one team that you look at and see the name above the garage, and go, “Hm, not sure about him.” Every team has a world-class driver lineup. When you look at your qualifying group that you’ve got to progress through in your 12 minutes of qualifying. You’re thinking “Oh gosh, you’re up against 11 world-class racing drivers here.”

Jake: Actually I noticed last year, being my first year, we split the drive. We had a Group A and B of two elevens, basically, and sometimes your teammate could be in a different group. And you look at it and think maybe you have the easier group on paper, but actually it’s not really easy at all. It’s one of the hardest grids I’ve gone up against for 12 minutes,  but it’s really rewarding when you come out on top.

Do you have any pre-race rituals?

Jake: I do, which has become quite a meme on the team. I have to have coffee and porridge (or oatmeal) before the race. It’s become such a thing that the team just winded me up. People on X are constantly wanting to see pictures of me with porridge. From a superstitious point, I’m not really one for it, but I always get in from the left-hand side of the car, and get out on the right-hand side of the car.

Sam: You would have been no good in Gen-1 then *laughs*.

Jake: There are some drivers on the grid that are superstitious that I know about. 

Sam: I do like to use the power of music before qualifying and the race. I also like to have a joke & a laugh with my engineer and mechanic beforehand. I like to be relaxed and calm with my heart rate. If I get in the car too early, I’ll begin to overthink things, and that leads to negative thoughts. So I want to get into the car, instead of 10 minutes to go, to get in with 5 minutes to go. I’ll do my radio-check and go through things once with my engineer. They’re not superstitions, but just actions that I do. When I was growing up in racing, I did have the lucky underwear thing. I tried that and then crashed, and they had to be thrown away. I’d try to get in the car from every direction, then you have a bad race and that doesn’t work. None of it helps, so I prefer to use methods that actually help my heart rate.

Jake: It’s when you run out of underwear to use, because you’ve had too many bad results.

What are some playlist must-haves for you?

Jake: Ooh, you’re very opinionated about this. 

Sam: For me, the new Chase & Status album. The new one is getting a lot of airplay in the car & gym. The most recent Skrillex album as well, or I’ll go back to Linkin Park Hybrid Theory, or Foo Fighters and then maybe some Eminem. 

All good hype music!

Sam: Yes, I’m going for that hype music.

Jake: I’m not as opinionated as Sam, but I center more towards British rap and probably Drake as well. Everyone loves Drake, don’t they? I like British rap, I quite like Central Cee at the moment. 

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Photo: Matt Ben Stone / courtesy of McLaren Racing

Jake, you recently set the Guinness World Record for the indoor land speed record in the McLaren GENBETA. How was that experience going toe-to-toe for the record with Lucas Di Grassi?

Jake: It was interesting, actually. I understood what I was going there to do, but I don’t think I found the excitement out of it until I was actually up against Lucas. So, I went first and you know, typical racing driver, you just do your best and you find the limit. I didn’t really get the feeling for the occasion until Lucas jumped in the car after me and tried to beat me. 

Then the typical racing driver competition came to mind. I just wanted to beat Lucas, it wasn’t even about being the world record holder *laughs*. It was a decent-sized event and getting the Guinness World Record guy with the clipboard and getting the certificate handed to me, it was pretty cool. I’ve got it up on my bedroom wall at home. It’s cool if you’re going to be a World Record holder of something that means something.

Sam, you’ve also had a super comprehensive career across most series in motorsport– how have you approached prepping for Formula E differently versus any other series in your career?

Sam: I think Formula E’s the most serious I’ve ever been in my motorsport career. It’s been a decade since I’ve been involved in Formula E, and I’m just as motivated now as I was at the beginning. I still have a burning desire to win races, get podiums, and one day try to bring home a world championship. There’s an awful lot of preparation– whether it’s mental or physical, working in the gym or working to better myself.

What was your experience like racing in Le Mans?

Sam: Le Mans is incredible. I’ve done it in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Being on the podium at Le Mans is a great feeling. To start the race, to be honest, is the least important part of the race. Nobody remembers who leads Lap One. It’s all about where you’re at at the end of the race. The butterflies and the nerves that you get knowing you’re going to take the start of the race when you’ve got a wall of 200,000 people going up the hill towards the Dunlop chicane. It’s a pretty amazing feeling knowing you’ve got the pressure of taking that car out for the start and you don’t dare make a bad move. You just want to make sure you put the car in a reasonable position ready for your teammates.

Outside of racing, how do you like to spend your time?

Jake: My private life is pretty much centered around cycling, golf, and football (soccer). I’m very passionate about all three, so I can talk about them all day. At the moment, my life’s taken over by two kittens that I just got. I spend my time playing with them, or playing golf when I’m away from the race tracks and simulators.

Sam: Are you a dog person? [shows photo of adorable dogs]. I have Buddy, who’s 8, and then Big Bear. They take up a lot of my time. I also enjoy playing golf, and football. My football team is not doing as well as Jake’s for the first time in about 30 years. It’s also been thirty years that they’ve been doing better, but he’s loving it. I enjoy going to the gym, cardiovascular workout & lifting weights as well. We’re quite simple creatures, aren’t we?

What football teams do you support?

Jake: The mighty Aston Villa. Everyone who reads this in America will know Aston Villa. Nobody’s heard of Manchester United.

Sam: I said, it’s the first time in 30 years. Congratulations, we’re on a downward spiral. Manchester United won everything– the end. 

Be sure to catch the start of Formula E’s 10th season, starting with the Mexico City e-Prix on January 13th and 14th.