Might Panther Racing be the Cleveland Browns of IndyCar?

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Two years ago, Panther Racing were able to run a special one-off paint scheme for the IndyCar Series race at Sonoma Raceway adorned in the red and gold of the San Francisco 49ers.

Today, a Cleveland Browns livery might make more sense.

Because at times, Panther seems to operate about as functionally as the team on the Cuyahoga.

You see, the Browns are in the news today because CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Michael Lombardi left the team, and this comes only a month after the Jimmy Haslam-led organization fired new head coach Rob Chudzinski after less than a calendar year on the job. Haslam later said, also via ProFootballTalk, that the Browns aren’t a dysfunctional franchise.

Most NFL observers would say the Browns… well, are dysfunctional. And shifting back to IndyCar, most observers can see rather plainly that compared to the rest of the field, Panther is too.

It’s a mix of good and bad events that have happened over the last eight or so years with Panther that makes it appear dysfunctional:

  • BAD: There were reports that Vitor Meira and the late Dan Wheldon, who were Panther’s drivers from 2006 through 2010, weren’t paid in full for their efforts.
  • GOOD: In 2008, the team acquired the prestigious National Guard sponsorship and for six years through 2013 it has provided a great service in at-track activation, supporting the Guard heroes at each event.
  • GOOD OR BAD: Wheldon was a fantastic ambassador for the Guard, but like Meira before him, he wasn’t American. That didn’t sit well with some.
  • GOOD: To rectify the non-American situation, Panther hired JR Hildebrand ahead of 2011, and he almost won the Indianapolis 500 … when of course, he famously binned it on the last corner of the last lap and Wheldon swept through to the victory.
  • BAD: In 2013, when the team unceremoniously dumped Hildebrand after an early crash at the 500, the team abandoned its plan altogether. For a couple months after, you had the awkward situation of Hildebrand appearing in Guard-sponsored ads, all while either Ryan Briscoe or Oriol Servia was driving the Guard-sponsored car with no degree of continuity.

And now, we have today’s revelation from RACER.com’s Robin Miller that Panther submitted a $17-plus million proposal to the Guard for continued partnership into 2014, which was rejected.

All of this makes Panther’s future less clear now that at any other point in its history, which dates to its first year in the then-Indy Racing League in 1998.

Panther will still press ahead into 2014 with a single-car effort, albeit one with a significantly reduced operating budget.

It comes after a decade-long run of futility that, like the Cleveland Browns, makes you forget how good it was years ago.

Consider, from 1999 through 2003, Panther Racing won 14 of 63 races in the all-oval IRL (22.2 percent), with back-to-back championships achieved by Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001 and 2002. The latter of the two came in Team Penske’s first year in the series, after switching from the then-rival CART series.

But 2005 marked the team’s last race win, with Tomas Scheckter at Texas Motor Speedway. A year later, 2006, was the last time a driver finished in the top five of the points standings (Meira in fifth).

In subsequent years, the best position a Panther driver has finished in points has been: 12th (2007), 13th (2008), 10th (2009), 9th (2010), 14th (2011), 11th (2012) and 22nd (2013).

The Browns are still more futile, despite occasional flashes of success. Since returning to the National Football League in 1999 (only a year after Panther was launched), the team is 77-163 overall, with only two winning seasons, 9-7 in 2002 and 10-6 in 2007.

The 2002 season – like the last year Panther won a championship – was the only year the Browns have made the playoffs since coming back into the NFL (naturally, they lost to the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers).

It is said that if you don’t consistently adapt or improve your program to match your competition, you get left behind. And it’s not a coincidence that since the IRL fused into IndyCar, when the all-oval era ended and the road-and-street course heavy schedule began starting in 2005, that Panther has gone from lead dog to also-ran with only the occasional big result.

Mind you, this is still a team that finished second at IndyCar’s flagship race, the Indianapolis 500, for four consecutive years from 2008 through 2011. But aside of that, success has been fleeting.

And much like the Cleveland Browns, you wonder if Panther Racing will require a complete reboot to regain the glory of years past.

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.”