I’m not entirely sure how it played out on TV, but from the ground the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis was a decent success.
Once you got the “this is weird” notion out of the way, that allowed you to set into a mindset that there’s some potential here, and this race joins the annals of Indianapolis Motor Speedway lore.
It also could have been the start of a new tradition.
Was it the cleanest Verizon IndyCar Series race ever? Nope.
But give most of the field credit for avoiding stranded polesitter Sebastian Saavedra, who bogged down either due to a stall or a potential ECU issue; the KV/AFS team needs to look at the date to provide official confirmation. It was only when Carlos Munoz made a quick, jerky reaction from the inside to the outside and hit Saavedra that the wreck occurred.
Then, just like a litany of other road or street course races in the past, the race had an early and late rhythm interrupted by a cacophony of carnage, chaos and cautions mid-race (think Long Beach this year or Baltimore last year, for instance).
But the crescendo was an enticing finish, with varying strategies emerging and Simon Pagenaud – usually a speed demon – needing to throttle back and save fuel to score the win. Pagenaud starred in both dry and wet conditions over the weekend and was a deserving winner for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports.
As for the weekend itself, the track and staff deserve plaudits for their efforts to configure a racy, smooth track that provided enough passing and enough spectator areas to make the race feel like an event.
The spectator mounds – I stood in ones at Turns 1, 2 and 7 for instance – were definitely populated and probably better places to watch than the grandstands. You could pick your favorite from watching the Mazda Road to Indy races earlier in the day, and at $25 for GA, it was a great value for fans.
Perhaps the thing I liked most about the weekend, like a lot of IndyCar weekends, was the unpredictability.
The weather shifted from being partly sunny to partly cloudy, to rainy, to torrential downpours, to light rain, to cloudy, and then to rainy again. And that was just on Friday.
Then – with projections hoping to top 40,000 fans, and I think it’s fair to estimate from the ground the number was near the 45,000 range – you couldn’t have really predicted that many fans would attend an IndyCar road course race at IMS.
For those who’ve decried the decline of “tradition” at IMS, that cry ended 20 years ago when NASCAR ran the first Brickyard 400 at the track. Nothing’s been sacred from there, and traditional “tradition” at IMS has slowly eroded ever since.
But what has propped up in the time since 1994 has been a slow series of new traditions.
And those who were at this year’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis can discuss the lore of a crazy start line crash, the Mayor getting hit with debris, the awesome viewing points, and one of the series’ best drivers breaking through to score the victory.
It was a weird weekend, but one that was certainly worth it for the fans, and for IMS.
Now the “proper” rest of the month continues with Indianapolis 500 practice now underway.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”