Exclusive Q&A with GP2’s Conor Daly

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After speaking to Alexander Rossi in Canada, MotorSportsTalk got the chance to speak with the other young American forging a path towards Formula 1 – Conor Daly – in England yesterday.

The son of former F1 driver Derek, Conor rose through the junior ranks in America before moving to Europe to race in GP2 and GP3. Having finished third in GP3 last year, he endured a tough winter as he went in search of a seat, but finally secured a place in GP2 with Venezuela GP Lazarus for 2014.

After a difficult winter and beginning to the year, we sat down with Conor to talk about his season so far, his career, his thoughts on F1’s revival in the USA and the role that his father played in getting him racing.

It’s been a difficult start to the season, but how do you think things have progressed since the beginning of the year and since last winter? 

Conor Daly: I knew it would be a big challenge coming in as a rookie. Fortunately I got to do the first race last year which was kind of cool, and it went really well, so I didn’t think that it would be going as badly as it has gone so far. But you know every team is different and every situation is different so it’s definitely been a challenge, but I feel like we’re definitely improving. To finish 10th in Monaco after qualifying at the back again; to make up so many positions there, I felt, as a driver, satisfied with the racing and the same again in Austria. I got good starts and passed a lot of people, and ended up 11th and right near the top ten again. It’s tough because last year having went so well and being so close to getting a championship and now we’re fighting again just to score points. It’s different but we can only do what we can do so we’re gonna keep trying to work at it and improve.

And you felt that the GP2 race you did in 2013 helped? You sort of knew what you were coming into when you stepped in the car this year?

CD: Well it did help because I knew I could get in the car immediately and be competitive and fight for the top five, so now, as difficult as it has been and as much as we’ve struggled with the car, I’m very confident in the way I’m driving these cars because of that first race. We have to do a lot of work with the car to get it in the game and get it in the zone, get it where we need to be competitive. It’s been a good kind of benchmark, that’s for sure.

How did the deal with Lazarus come about, because you had a really tough winter trying to find seats and it was quite a last minute thing…

CD: Yeah that’s kind of one of the biggest mysteries. It was the worst winter ever. A lot of things I thought I had never happened. This deal with Lazarus came up when they called me up to do the test, and I informed them of our situation, sponsorship-wise and all of that which is basically the main thing that anyone wants to know about. They were passionate to have me in the car and they wanted to get me in and after the first test they wanted to continue to have me there so we just tried to work with their partners, what they have and the Venezuelan partners that they’ve got and some business in America. Obviously Powerful Yogurt is on our car now, which is a business based out of Miami.

I’ve never really been with a European team that’s really worked on the business side to keep a driver in because for me, I still don’t have the sponsorship from my end. There’s a situation where I obviously still have to bring a portion of the budget, combined with what we’ve put together business-wise, and I don’t have what I need. But we’re all still working together constantly, and that’s great, but it’s kind of a shame at the same time because I wish that there was one year in my career where I could have total security. But it is what it is – that’s racing. I’m not fortunate enough to have governments behind me or oil companies, so it is what it is and I’m happy to be here and we’ve done every race so far so all is well. I can’t be more thankful to these guys for the opportunity.

So over the winter, what other avenues did you look at? Did you look at IndyCar or WEC? 

CD: I was actually totally ready for IndyCar. I was focusing on IndyCar because for GP2, I lost my funding, I lost everything. All the teams I’d spoken to are like “here’s how much it is, you have that, or we’re not going racing”. There was no team that was like “well we’ve got a little bit of sponsorship, we could maybe help you out”. It’s like money or nothing. In IndyCar, at least all of the teams know who I am and they’re really helpful in trying to put things together. However, I still didn’t have enough money for there either.

It was just a really sad situation to see rides that I’d been working on going to other people, just because of a money number. It was a difficult winter only because of seeing things that you’re close to going away, but then all of a sudden, a chance came up and I’m in GP2, which of course overall that was my goal. I just kind of put it on the side because I didn’t know exactly where I could find however many millions of dollars that I needed to get here. The right opportunity that I really wanted eventually came up.

So if I right now put an IndyCar contract on the table, would you take it? 

CD: That’s a difficult question. I get a lot of tweets about that. I can’t say yes or no right now, because I’m in the middle of the GP2 season and that’s my focus, and I don’t know what’s happening in Formula 1. Obviously Formula 1 is the dream for anyone, and still for me as an American because we need an American in the sport, but we also need someone to help an American get to the sport, so that’s the difficult thing. I love IndyCar, but right now, my focus is to get through the GP2 season and to finish that and see where that takes me, but I definitely have a love for IndyCar, for sure.

Of course you did the Indy 500 back in 2013, you couldn’t do it this year though. Was it something you were trying to work out? It clashed with Monaco GP2 of course, so was that the only thing in your way?

CD: Monaco was the only thing in the way, but it would have been good to just focus on GP2 as well. I could have got in the 500 at some 33rd entry, but I don’t want to do that again, I already did that with Foyt. That was an interesting deal, and it was awesome, but I’d like to go back there in a position where I’ve got the experience, I’ve got the testing going in, the right way. It was good to just focus on GP2.

Really looking ahead, is the next chance you’re going to have at the 500 going to be if you’re in IndyCar? 

CD: Yeah for sure. The only chance I’d do the 500 is if I’m in there full-time.

Between GP2 and IndyCar, what kind of differences are there between the two cars when you’re behind the wheel? Is there a big change?

CD: Not really actually. The cars are quite similar on road courses. A lot of people say that GP2 cars would be faster around a road course, but I’m not sure I believe that. I know that IndyCars are constantly getting a little bit quicker with a little bit more horsepower. They’re definitely very close. IndyCar is a little bit heavier, GP2 is a little bit lighter and nimbler but the tires are obviously completely different animals. I’d say they’re quite close which is helpful for me if I were to go either way.

Now the big thing everyone is talking about at the moment is Haas Formula coming into F1 as an American team. You must be excited as an American to see this possibly going ahead? 

CD: Yeah it will be really cool. Gene Haas has obviously done a lot in NASCAR which is really cool, and I like the guys that he’s got in NASCAR. Tony Stewart is a good friend of mine, he’s awesome. Kurt Busch is obviously very cool and him doing the 500 was awesome. I didn’t really get to talk to him much but I introduced myself at the banquet and that was cool for me because I’m a racing fan. We’ll see how it plays out.

Obviously it’s a big challenge, it’s a big thing to do, and it was unfortunate to see what happened with USF1 when they obviously tried to do it. I have a lot of confidence in him because he seems to be fairly gung-ho about going after it, so we’ll just see how it plays out. I would love to be a part of it as an American.

Have you spoken to Gene about it?

CD: I haven’t spoken to him personally, no, he’s very hard to get a hold of! I know my Dad met him in Montreal, but it’s gonna take someone else other than my Dad because he doesn’t want to be the one who’s just like “oh he’s just his Dad”, so we’ll have to kind of get in touch with them a different way. At least my Dad met him and said hello. I have to say he’s aware of both me and [Alexander] Rossi.

Yes of course, he has said he wants American drivers involved with the team, that must fill you with confidence?

CD: You know it does, but racing is a weird animal so I just never know what will happen. 

So say in 2016 if they offered you a role as a test driver and you could do that in tandem with GP2, would that work?

CD: That would be something for sure, depending on how it worked out, absolutely. You can be affiliated with a Formula 1 team and have a legitimate shot, not just being a reserve driver but having a legitimate shot at a race seat, that’s alright. But again, we’ll just have to see how it plays out. I’m ready for it if it comes, that’s for sure.

Being an American youngster at this time must be pretty fantastic. We’ve had Austin come back, New Jersey, Long Beach, they all get thrown around. You must be pretty pleased that you’re the ‘right’  nationality at the moment?

CD: People keep saying that but me and Rossi are still here in GP2, and we’re not getting those calls to jump up. I love being American, I happy being American, but we can’t keep seem to generate the support that other nationalities get from their pure countries – not moral support, financial support. I get so many people who are so passionate about seeing us there, it’s so cool, I love seeing all the tweets and messages I get because I love it too, I love what I do, I’m pretty thankful, and I would love to represent the USA in F1 or on a world level, but it’s gonna take a lot to get there.

It’s awesome that we’re in Austin because Austin’s a great race and the possibilities of more races, fantastic. We’ll just have to continue to see how it plays out, and even if it’s Alex and not me, that’s awesome, I’d love to see Alex there. I was just staying at his house over the weekend, so it’s gonna be cool to see how it plays out, but we cannot stress enough that we need help to get there for sure.

On your way up the ladder with racing, was it just a matter of karting and knowing this is what you wanted to do?

CD: Yeah. Through karting, it was like this was just something I was like “yeah we’re doing it”. But then when we got to the really high levels of karting, and then I started getting into cars and I was like “okay this is definitely what I want to do”.

Your Dad, Derek, must have been a huge influence. Were you pushed into racing at all or was it something you found on your own?

CD: Never pushed, that was one thing my Dad never wanted to do is never push me into something I didn’t want to do. It was actually one of our neighbors who wanted to start go kart racing and they obviously called upon the help of my Dad because they knew about him. So I was like “I wanna go too!” and sure enough I got in and I was like “wow!”. Sure enough, I went for it and the rest is history.

And even to this day he must be a huge influence and a huge help?

CD: Yeah, as soon as I got into it, he was a huge supporter, really enjoyed it, but he was very tough on me all the time, making sure this is what I wanted to do. He almost tried to talk me out of it because of how difficult it is, but that was to make sure that this was what I really wanted to do. As difficult as it was growing up, I’m glad I went through it because of how much I love the sport now and how much I love what I do.

If you’ve got a message for the American fans and people watching you race, what would it be?

CD: Just keep waving the flags, keep supporting us. All the tweets, all the messages, and any form of social media, we appreciate everything.

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.”