IndyCar’s offseason may be long, but still should feature a ton of news

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In the week since the checkered flag flew last Saturday night at the MAVTV 500, I’ve read a lot of kvetching both from IndyCar media and fans lamenting the long offseason and questioning what IndyCar could do to stay relevant between now and when its 2015 season opens up.

However, there’s still going to be plenty to talk about this offseason.

So, with that in mind, here’s what you need to look for and keep your eyes on from an IndyCar perspective this fall, winter and into spring:

  • The schedule. It’s the biggest item on the to-do list and should be out mid-September, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Derrick Walker told me at Fontana. Many of the pieces are set but trying to find dates for races given the planned Labor Day end time is proving the biggest hang-up at the moment. If the planned international races come to fruition – which so far have only been spoken about publicly by DHL, which could serve as a logical, logistical partner – you should see the first two races from mid-February to early March before the domestic season opener at St. Petersburg March 29.
  • Champion promotion. Will Power made the rounds in New York last week and is set to go home to Australia before testing resumes, likely in October. Will this be the only major round of promotion for champ? I hope not.
  • Verizon promotion and activation. Guess what IndyCar has this offseason that it didn’t this time last year: a willing and able entitlement sponsor able to hash out a game plan for the offseason and further promotion/activation for the new year. Last year IZOD bailed just before the end of the 2013 season, which was in late September. Now, in early September, Verizon is on board and can work with IndyCar to get the word out. The Verizon deal wasn’t done until late March last year, just before the St.Petersburg opener. Perhaps it’s a fanciful thought, but with Verizon also a key partner for the NFL, could we see some IndyCar ads and signage during this NFL season? We shall see.
  • Silly season. Roughly half the 2015 field is set as of this writing; a fuller “where we stand” post on the grid will come either this week or next week to MotorSportsTalk. Simon Pagenaud is the key domino to the silly season, with drivers like James Hinchcliffe and Justin Wilson potentially on the move if Pagenaud leaves Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with other youngsters trying to break in. Pagenaud expects to reveal his decision later this month.
  • Aero kits. Between October 6 and January 18, the two manufacturers, Chevrolet and Honda, will each have six total days of on-track testing. It’s not much to work with, as HPD’s Steve Eriksen told assembled media at Fontana. But they will be the most interesting six days of the offseason.
  • Cosworth’s decision. MotorSportsTalk has reported extensively on whether Cosworth, led by CEO Hal Reisiger and Kevin Kalkhoven, will be able to re-enter North American open-wheel racing as a third engine manufacturer, if paired with an OEM and an aero kit partner. Reisiger told me heading into Fontana to expect a decision shortly; to plan for 2016, news of a yes/no would realistically need to be reached within the next month.
  • Indy Lights’ new car, and direction. Initial reviews of the new Dallara IL15 Indy Lights chassis, so far tested by Conor Daly, Tristan Vautier, 2014 champion Gabby Chaves and IndyCar stars Scott Dixon and Hinchcliffe, have been positive. But while words and reviews are one thing, action is another. There need to be orders placed on chassis so that the new car isn’t part of an 8-10 car grid, but ideally a 14-16 car grid. Anything above that mid-level target would be outstanding for 2015. Testing continues next weekend with Josef Newgarden behind the wheel of the IL15 at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
  • The kids are alright. Seeing where champions Chaves (Indy Lights), Spencer Pigot (Pro Mazda) and Florian Latorre (USF2000) land on the next step of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder is one thing to watch. Additionally, with the Team USA Scholarship shootout on Monday and Team Canada Scholarship also upcoming, there’s a host of young drivers looking for their next big break.
  • Racing! Just because IndyCar isn’t racing doesn’t mean that its drivers aren’t. Look out for the Dan Wheldon Memorial go-kart race at the RoboPong 200 at New Castle Motorsports Park Sept. 19-21 (event schedule here) as a race where both current and affiliated IndyCar drivers will be in action. Expect a handful of IndyCar drivers in action at Petit Le Mans Oct. 4, reprising their roles as third or fourth drivers from the Rolex 24 at Daytona and/or Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. And there’s also drivers with past IndyCar experience (Oriol Servia, Katherine Legge among others) racing in the new FIA Formula E Championship, which premieres this upcoming weekend in China.
  • Race director replacement. This ideally shouldn’t be news, but due to the departure of Beaux Barfield Friday afternoon for IMSA, IndyCar now has a void to fill in Race Control. While initially, past race director Brian Barnhart would be a logical candidate, it could behoove the series to put in a fresh face with competition experience. Either way, it’s the among the most thankless jobs in racing, so good luck to whoever has to take on this role.
  • TBA. Anything else that could or potentially pop that I’m overlooking. Or, simply, the identity of Dale Coyne’s second car.

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

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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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 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 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 car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

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. – McLaren Racing

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.”