COTA weekend thoughts and observations: FIA WEC

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Earlier today we looked at the weekend for the IMSA series in action in Austin, now here’s thoughts and observations on the FIA World Endurance Championship race at Circuit of the Americas:

  • A marathon six-hour race. Perhaps it was the day-into-night format, perhaps it was the mid-race deluge that caused a near one-hour red flag, or perhaps it was the fact it was the second full-length race of the day, but attempting to stay focused for the Six Hours of the Circuit of The Americas FIA WEC race proved a monumental challenge. In a standard endurance race, your 24 Hours of Le Mans, Rolex 24 at Daytona, or Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring among others, you only have a single focus in terms of following the race. They’re marathon events but you can begin to follow the class battles as the race develops. On Saturday, yes, you had to do this like normal … but you had to do so hours after you’ve already done so once at your peak level of focus. It was a bit like the Toronto two-in-one doubleheader for IndyCar earlier this year, except with seven more classes and six more hours of racing. The red flag and running order changes once everything got sorted out made for a highly disjointed and challenging race to follow, that felt much longer in length than its advertised distance.
  • About the rain, and the red… To put it mildly, I was a tad surprised neither the safety car nor red flag was deployed sooner once it became apparent Circuit of the Americas had gone from the Mojave Desert to the Amazon rainforest in a matter of about 90 seconds. It seemed surreal and preventable to see so many cars all sliding off course at the same corner on a ridiculously slick track. Fortunately there were no retirements or major accidents as a result, and it’s fair to say a bullet was dodged.
  • Night visibility woes. Multiple P1 drivers I spoke to over the weekend – Andre Lotterer, Tom Kristensen, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley primarily – mentioned their concerns about the lighting at COTA for this first ever night race. Webber made an intriguing point when he said he prefers night at Le Mans, because “it’s set up that way,” and the pit lane here is much more difficult to see. Some areas saw too much reflection due to the floodlights; other areas were nearly pitch black save for the headlights, and Kristensen said you almost had to “feel the car” through certain corners of the track. Assuming the FIA WEC day-night six-hour race continues into 2015, enhanced lighting should be something the track should investigate.
  • The P1 battle is still pretty tight. With all of Audi, Toyota and Porsche back on normal setups away from the low downforce Le Mans packages, the battle between the trio remained very close throughout Saturday evening’s race. Where Toyota still has the pace gap, and Porsche the best fuel mileage, Audi splits the difference the best and thus confirmed a 1-2 for the second straight race. Porsche could well win its first race soon once it gets its new high downforce package dialed in.
  • Mixed day for the American guest stars. Extreme Speed was unlucky to finish third in its FIA WEC debut, after falling to fifth early in the race but then rebounding courtesy of a simply stunning stint from Ryan Dalziel mid-race. But the podium was a fair result for Dalziel, team principal Scott Sharp and Patron Spirits CEO Ed Brown. Meanwhile for Corvette Racing, it all went south when the weather did, as through no fault of their own they lost two laps by coming into the pits and changing tires. The regulations were debated on social media in the immediate crosshairs; seventh in the GTE-Pro race for “Team America” of Jordan and Ricky Taylor and Tommy Milner capped a monumentally frustrating weekend for the team.
  • Aston’s GTE edge. A double win for Aston Martin Racing, while Porsche was unable in the FIA WEC to match its level of pace on the TUDOR Championship side, may have the competitors shaking in their boots for the rest of the season. AMR was due to get on the board in GTE-Pro while it continued its season-long GTE-Am success, with its third win in four races.
  • Fan conundrum. On Saturday morning, the autograph sessions for both the FIA WEC and TUDOR Championship were held concurrently, from 9:30 to 10:15 a.m. This essentially meant you had to choose one or the other if you wanted driver autographs, and with this being the FIA WEC’s lone North American stop of 2014, it only made sense that these had bigger crowds. The TUDOR Championship session, save for a couple of teams, had shorter lines on this occasion.

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.”