MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 IndyCar season review, Part 1

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Earlier this year, my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I took a two-part look at the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season. Part one focused on our respective bests/worsts, with the second each of our top five stories.

We’re beginning our comprehensive, full 2013 IndyCar recap this morning with our top five on-track stories this year. You can look forward to a number of posts related to this season over the next several weeks. In the meantime, our first thoughts, without further adieu:

Tony DiZinno’s Top Five:

Dixon and Ganassi’s comeback: You pretty much know the story by now. Down 92 points to Castroneves 10 races into the season, Dixon and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team turned things around thanks to Honda’s updated engine specs and a one-day summer test at Sebring that paid huge setup dividends the rest of the season. The Pocono 1-2-3 sweep was a shock, but it was backed up less than a week later with Dixon delivering a crushing “I’m baaaaack!” blow with a doubleheader sweep in Toronto. That propelled him into title contention and while he had to overcome setbacks in Sonoma and Baltimore, the team went out and won the title and did not luck into it. A thoroughly deserved title for both driver and team.

Another lost title for the Penske file: It was a very good year for Helio Castroneves and Team Penske … but they will have to kick themselves for the mechanical woes back-to-back days in Houston. And the pit road call-in mistake by “the Captain” at Fontana. And the missed opportunities by Will Power in the first half of the year. The team’s still one of IndyCar’s best three, but the lack of a title since 2006 looms large when Ganassi and Andretti Autosport have swept the last seven.

Parity, Pagenaud, and Wilson: Ten different race winners, 20 different podium finishers, and a driver’s and manufacturer’s title that went down to the last race. The parity in IndyCar, 2013 was simply phenomenal. And the two best examples of those who should get a lot more credit than they currently earn are Simon Pagenaud and Justin Wilson. Pagenaud is a beast, a setup demon and emerging superstar in this series who earned his first two wins at Detroit Race 2 and Baltimore and finished third in the championship for a team with fewer resources, Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports. The same holds true for Wilson, who despite not winning this year was once again the thorn in the “big dogs’” side for Dale Coyne Racing. He would have finished fourth had it not been for his Fontana accident.

Mixed family fortunes: Marco Andretti was much improved and Graham Rahal had a season from hell. There’s enough other American stars – 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and emerging talents Charlie Kimball and Josef Newgarden – that could capably carry the banner for Americans in IndyCar if the “anointed ones” fail to live up to their surnames. Andretti took several steps in the right direction this year and it paid dividends; Rahal, despite a homecoming, and the team often missed the setup from the off and left them mired in the field. A midseason engineering change helped but was not a cure-all.

Part-time stars: A year ago, only two drivers – Giorgio Pantano and Bruno Junqueira – were called on as injury replacements to full-season regulars, thus removing one of the best parts of the IndyCar season: the one-off star. This year, with only 23 of 38 drivers doing a full season or close, we were afforded a greater variety of surprises that had a shot to make their mark on the field. The standouts would have to be Mike Conway, Carlos Munoz and Luca Filippi, and there’s a very good chance the latter two will have full season rides next year. AJ Allmendinger brought excitement – good and bad – in his first six open-wheel races since 2006. Others also made their debuts and had their moments. It was a refreshing tonic to break up the monotony of the same lineup in all cars, each race.

Chris Estrada’s Top Five:

Level of competition stands out: The depth of the IZOD IndyCar Series is the one element that stands out to me with 2013 in the books, as 10 different drivers claimed victories over the 19-race season. Yes, the bigger teams eventually took control of the proceedings after smaller squads like A.J. Foyt Racing, KVSH Racing, Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports turned the first half of the year upside-down. But it was still refreshing to see such competitiveness from top to bottom, likely a by-product of teams having a year of experience with the new Dallara DW12 and turbo-charged engines.

Dixon, Ganassi strike again: Even during their first-half struggles, I noted that it would be unwise to count out Target Chip Ganassi Racing. And look what happened in the end. Championships are always tremendous achievements but this one has to mean a little bit more for TCGR and Scott Dixon, who rallied over the second half of the season and survived a season-finale full of incidents in Fontana to pull out another IndyCar title over their arch-rivals from Team Penske. Their rise to the top showcased their skill and tested their fortitude, but once again, “Team Target” reigns supreme. Bow to the kings.

The next generation: Say what you will about IndyCar’s legion of off-track issues, but the series’ crop of young drivers are showing signs that we’ll be in for more tremendous racing in the years to come. The new core is forming nicely around competitors such as Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, and Josef Newgarden. Toss in Carlos Munoz, seemingly bent on following Tomas Scheckter as the “Mr. Excitement” of the series, and other strong Mazda Road to Indy prospects like Indy Lights champ Sage Karam and Pro Mazda champ Matthew Brabham, and open-wheel fans have a lot to look forward to.

“Month of May” returns: This coming May will be a historic one for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as it hosts two IndyCar races during the month. The inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, to be run around a reconfigured IMS road course, will open proceedings and lead into preparations for the 98th Indianapolis 500 on the Brickyard’s beloved oval. It’s certainly not the traditional Month of May but at this point, IndyCar has to find ways to wake up the public that continually sleeps on them despite putting on some of the best racing on the planet.

Will it ever happen for Helio?: In the Houston doubleheader earlier this month, the other shoe finally dropped for Helio Castroneves after he had completed every lap of every race going in. Mechanical problems in both Houston races caused him to go from 49 points ahead of Scott Dixon to 25 points behind him and he was unable to close the gap at Fontana. Once again, the three-time Indy 500 winner has lost out on a championship and with each passing year, the window gets a little bit smaller. It should be noted that, outside of Houston, this was perhaps his most consistent season ever with one win, five podiums, and 16 Top-10s. But the question remains: Will that IndyCar crown ever be his?

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”