The Ganassi dilemma for its fourth 2015 IndyCar

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With Team Penske having its four cars locked in for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the onus now falls on Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport to publicly confirm the drivers for their fourth.

Recently, the fourth at CGR is drawing a lot of attention, and it’s been a shift from what had been discussed and projected roughly 11-12 months ago.

At Houston last year, Ganassi made the move to acquire Tony Kanaan, a savvy move that gave the veteran a chance to join the championship team and one more opportunity for the then-38-year-old Brazilian to contend for more wins and titles.

He was meant to be in the fourth car, the No. 8 NTT Data/TNT Energy Drink entry, alongside Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Charlie Kimball – for what would have been a four-car “super team” this year.

Plans changed. Franchitti had his devastating and career-ending accident at Houston, and Ganassi would have an opening once more.

It was highly coveted. Ganassi told this writer at the time, in a conference call, about who he’d pick:

“We’ve always taken the best driver available at the time. That rule, we learned from a great mentor to our guys, Morris Nunn, who used to say that. Morris always said, ‘You need to take the best driver available and don’t think of anything else.’ That’ll be our first procedure to go through. Do you go with a proven talent or young, up-and-comer? That’s the question we’re dealing with now.”

So while the opportunity was there to bring in a young gun – a Sage Karam, Conor Daly, Sam Bird or “pick your other young, talented, guy who deserves a chance but doesn’t bring much cash here” – Ganassi decided to go with Ryan Briscoe in the No. 8, and move Kanaan to the No. 10.

While not the most flashy decision, Briscoe made a lot of sense for Ganassi in a transition year considering Franchitti’s enforced retirement.

You knew Briscoe could be counted on to be dependable, clean, bring the car home in one piece, experiment with setups and more frequently than not hassle the drivers in the Target cars.

So by the end of this year, Briscoe easily ticked four of those five boxes, and really the only area you could critique was that his pace was not fully on par with the Target pairing of Dixon and Kanaan, Kanaan in particular having been a star the second half of the season in the 10 car.

Still, all signs were pointing to Briscoe continuing in the No. 8 for a second season in 2015. Crucially, he’d been under the impression he was on a multiyear deal, and some reports written at the time of signing said the same.

Karam still was able to enter the Ganassi fold, having been signed as a development driver earlier this year. In limited opportunities, he showed flashes of brilliance – both in his Indianapolis 500 debut, where he could have easily captured rookie-of-the-year honors (and I argued, should have), and additionally in his handful of TUDOR Championship starts, most notably at Sebring.

Reports have now come out in the last month or so that Ganassi is planning a change, and Karam could enter into the No. 8 seat.

Ganassi managing director Mike Hull told me at Road Atlanta this weekend, “We’ll have four cars, but really we’re still sorting out budget on the fourth. That’s the holdup at the moment.”

I can’t help but feel this is a dilemma caused by several factors.

For one, the prominence of the super teams – Penske, Ganassi and Andretti are projected to have 12 cars, potentially more than half the field on their own next year – has limited traditional opportunities for young drivers to break into the sport as they used to.

The days of the Dreyer & Reinbolds (Karam’s Indy 500 team), Conquest Racing, HVM or other smaller teams fielding single cars have gone away. Economies of scale are all the rage, and the best business model, and single-car teams are quickly becoming an endangered species.

Alas, when drivers get to the gates of IndyCar, they either need to gather a budget to join one of the remaining squads or hope they’re fortunate enough to latch onto a major team and join in their development program. The latter is where Karam sits with Ganassi and where Matthew Brabham and Zach Veach are for Andretti, as it stands.

Second, if Briscoe was told he had a multiyear deal and under the impression it would be continuing for 2015 regardless, it would be unfortunate to see the rug get pulled out from under him in this fashion. Say what you will about Ryan – he’s not a world-beater and he made a key mistake during his best shot at a title in 2009 – but in a field of 22-24 cars you’d still rate him as one of the 10 best.

He was left high and dry by Team Penske at the end of 2012 despite efforts to continue, got a reprieve, and now could be left in the same position two years later.

In an ideal world, you’d have Karam run with DRR or similar for a full 2015 season, which means more crew would have work and Karam could compete with Briscoe head-to-head to see who gets the Ganassi seat in 2016.

As it stands now, Karam may get the nod for 2015, and Briscoe could be left out. I love seeing new talent break into the sport – it’s one of my favorite parts of my job.

But I can’t help but feel the way that this is playing out, someone will be on the short end of the stick either way.

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.”