until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

Breakthrough McLaren ace now faces a dilemma

by Sam Smith
5 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Jake Hughes's breakthrough maiden Formula E podium finish at Shanghai wasn’t so much a eureka moment but more a validation of something that was probably a long time coming.

There have been occasions during his second FE season where Hughes has hustled himself into good positions, but has been knocked off course - literally - for a decent top-six result, at the very least.

One such occasion was at Berlin. Tempelhof was far from McLaren’s strongest track, yet Hughes was in a decent position within the top 10 and rich on energy. But then contact with another car scuppered the possibilities and left Hughes frustrated.

Prior to that, Hughes had shown that the pace, when everything was right, wasn’t just good, it was sensational. Misano proved that with a pole and a top-10 result with eighth. Shanghai was the same, but only on the second day.

“On longer tracks, I would say with a lot more overtaking opportunities that's been the races where I feel like we've been a bit on the backfoot,” Hughes tells The Race.

“I was very, very frustrated with myself, mostly after race one [at Shanghai] and had a big sit down with my engineer Alan [Cox].

“My dad was also at the track, obviously he's not an engineer, he's not a strategist, but it's good sometimes to get the personal side of it, I guess.

He came into the track on day two and with a different mindset of how to approach the carbon-crunching tombola pack races. It showed. 

“I was a lot more aggressive, let's say and it seemed to pay off,” added Hughes.

“So that's the approach I think I'm going to take going forward.”

A surprise Portland package?

It’s forgotten in the mists of the barnstorming first uber-peloton race now just how good the Nissan-powered cars were in last season’s Portland race. 

All four Nissan-powered cars qualified in the top six. But only one, Norman Nato’s works car, finished in the top 10 (in ninth place). The rest got shuffled back in the mayhem and Hughes learned a painful lesson.

They continued to learn this season when similar things happened, especially at Berlin and in the first Shanghai race where he got bullied a bit. Come the second Shanghai race it did indeed feel, as Hughes mentioned, like a slightly different driver was at the wheel.

Although it’s been a month since that moment, Hughes knows that on one-lap performance he’ll be right up there at Portland this weekend.

And if he’s got the aggression/car placement ratio right now for another pack race then he’s likely to be the dark horse that can irritate the title protagonists. 

Less traction-sensitive circuits such as Portland seem to suit the Nissan package. This is evidenced by McLaren absolutely tanking at the Tokyo E-Prix - a track with those traction-sensitive characteristics - which turned its weekend into an absolute write-off.

“The point I made about my own personal learnings, even just from the two races in Shanghai and how to approach these pack races, it's going to be about going down that route again,” reckons Hughes.

“In these [energy-sensitive] races you just can't afford to be in the middle like effectively what a cycling race is, you're either at the front or you're at the back, you're never in the middle.

“In the middle it is dangerous, and in the middle, you are not saving energy. So that's what you need to avoid.”

Underlining all this is the likelihood that Portland is the last true opportunity for the Papayas to get a big result this season. London is traction-sensitive and last season the team came away with two points from two races. But really, performance-wise it was never in the game at any stage. 

Will Hughes stay at McLaren? 

It’s been a tumultuous few months for Hughes. He’s hit 30, proposed to his girlfriend Abby, and watched his beloved Aston Villa football team make it back into the big time with Champions League qualification. But unlike the architect of that last positive achievement, Unai Emery, Hughes has not yet re-signed for his current employer.

That is because Hughes had an initial one-season deal for 2023, which was then extended by another campaign this term via an option on McLaren’s side. Now, a new deal is believed to be needed, so his best-ever result at Shanghai came at a really good time for him, and he knows it.

“To be honest when stuff like that is being talked about, and you're maybe generating interest elsewhere, of course, it's only a good thing,” says Hughes. 

“It only means you're doing the right things. It's a famous saying in this sport, 'you're only as good as your last race'. And I think having a very good last race in Shanghai was perfect timing for me coming into a break with a month off and discussions around next year and contracts, whether at McLaren or elsewhere. 

“I feel like I'm in a good position and I feel like I'm wanting to make sure I take the next step. The best possible next step for my career.

“We're in discussions with McLaren, of course, and I guess we'll just wait and see how these talks play out over the next few weeks.”

It’s a strong position for him to be in and few begrudge him of it. A decade of scrabbling around for programmes constructed a strong character, one that could and should help mould Jake Hughes into the kind of consistent professional force that his team-mate Sam Bird has been over the last decade and more.

Bird had his deserved days in the sun with big manufacturers via Jaguar. Hughes could go a similar route, or he could stick with what he has at a team he enjoys.

Jake Hughes's future appears more in his hands than ever.

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