With GRC title in hand, what does the future hold for Joni Wiman?

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Joni Wiman celebrates in the wake of winning the 2014 GRC title in Las Vegas. Credit: Olsbergs MSE.

The following is the second of a two-part series involving new Red Bull Global Rallycross champion Joni Wiman. You can check out Part 1 here.

Two years ago, Joni Wiman could have taken a different path.

The young Finn had started out in go-karts at the age of 7, and at 14, he won the European Karting Championship. From there, he continued on into open-wheel competition with runs in the UK and Northern European Cup off-shoots of Formula Renault 2.0.

But in 2012, Wiman found himself on the verge of giving up on the sport – until his mentor, two-time World Rally Champion Marcus Gronholm, stepped in.

“Marcus has been helping me for many years in my career…I was about ready to quit racing and he said to me: ‘Let’s just try one more year and if it’s not working, then we’ll stop,’” the new Red Bull Global Rallycross champion said recently from his home in Finland.

The 2014 Red Bull Global Rallycross season finale from Las Vegas will be broadcast this Sunday, Nov. 16, at 1:30 p.m. ET on your local NBC station. It will also be streamed online and on your mobile device through NBC Sports Live Extra.

Wiman decided to stick it out. And sure enough, he did take a different path after all.

That year, Wiman made his rallycross debut in the FIA European Rallycross Championship round at Belgium, running a two-wheel-drive car in the Super 1600 category.

He finished on the podium with a second-place result. Additional glimpses of Wiman’s potential followed with a pair of pole positions across three more ERC rounds that season.

With Gronholm teaching him a precise and calculated driving technique, Wiman’s rallycross education soon shifted from the Continent to America, where he would compete in Global Rallycross’ newest class for up-and-comers like himself – GRC Lites.

Unlike their Supercar brethren, Lites cars are strictly spec. Able to produce about half the power of the Supercars, the all-wheel drive machines are designed to be more manageable for developing racers.

And even better for Wiman, he would be racing for Olsbergs MSE, the team that was behind the development of the Lites car itself. It was a perfect scenario. So, naturally, Wiman turned in a perfect season – sweeping all six Lites races in 2013 and clinching the Lites title with one race to go.

A promotion to Olsbergs’ Supercar team for this season soon followed, and you know what happened next: A Red Bull GRC crown and history as the first Supercar driver to earn both the series title and rookie of the year honors in the same season.

Wiman owes it all to his initial year in the U.S. with the Lites class.

“Racing in Lites helped to build a foundation for everything I did this year,” he said. “It was invaluable experience for me in getting used to the American style of racing and the tracks that they use in the U.S. In Europe, the tracks are mostly permanent. In the GRC, almost all of them are built into a parking lot and that’s quite a big thing to adjust to.

“It also helped that we had almost the same people on the Olsbergs MSE team as I worked with last year in Lites. It’s always easier to begin a season when you know almost everybody from before, than it is to start with a completely new team.

“Finally, the cars are quite similar. Lites cars have less power, but they give you the basic idea of how to drive a Supercar. And with the tires they’re using this season in Supercars, they’re even more similar. Whether you’re in Lites or Supercars, it’s about driving really smooth and always finding the right line.”

So what’s next for Wiman now? Naturally, he says that he’s fine with winning the Supercar championship without having claimed a single race victory, and indeed, consistency like his remains the essential element in any run to a title. But getting that first Supercar victory is surely on his ‘to-do’ list for 2015.

And as champion, he’ll be called upon to be a good ambassador for a sport that’s still finding its way here in the States. Wiman feels that the current GRC format is essentially a good one that helps keep fans interested. Still, he says he “might like it” if there were more points at stake in the preliminary heats “so we can fight harder from the beginning”; as of now, points are awarded in second and third round heats – three for a win, two for a runner-up, one for the rest.

But after four years, it’s clear that GRC is progressing nicely. This year’s direction toward more urban settings and away from massive NASCAR speedways is one that suits the series better. Multiple manufacturers are all in on full-time programs. Races get regular weekend showings on NBC. And at the center of it all: The almost-but-not-quite forbidden thrill of seeing otherwise humble hatchbacks transformed into 600-horsepower monsters.

Wiman can be the face of all of that. Time will tell if that’s what he becomes. But no matter what, he’s ready to enjoy the ride.

“Red Bull Global Rallycross is the series that really started rallycross for the first time a few years ago, and it’s grown so much since then,” he said. “Even from last year to this year, I feel like rallycross has moved quite a bit forward in the U.S. with Red Bull Global Rallycross and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.”

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.”