What we’re thankful for in the motorsports world, 2014

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First off, a Happy Thanksgiving from us to you here at MotorSportsTalk.

We’re thankful, most of all, for your watching of the first season of NASCAR AMERICA on NBCSN, the home of open-wheel racing with Formula One and IndyCar on NBC, CNBC and NBCSN, and your readership and support of MST throughout our second season.

As to the rest of what we’re thankful for? See below.

NASCAR

  • We’re thankful for an entertaining, dramatic, at-times controversial but ultimately successful first year of NASCAR’s new Chase, where Kevin Harvick emerged as a long overdue, deserved first-time champion over Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.
  • We’re thankful Logano blossomed into the potential megastar Mark Martin and others pegged him to be years ago, and for he and Brad Keselowski delivering Team Penske’s most successful season in terms of race wins.
  • We’re thankful for all the emotion that boiled over surrounding Keselowski this year. Did we know Matt Kenseth had that in him at Charlotte? Or that Brad and Jeff Gordon would be in a dust-up, semi-triggered by Harvick at Texas? No, but we were talking about it for days afterwards.
  • We’re thankful for Dale Earnhardt Jr., in so many ways. We’re thankful for his incredible excitement and emotion after he won the Daytona 500 and his first race ever at Martinsville. We’re thankful he and crew chief Steve Letarte had such a successful final season working together before Letarte joins NBC’s broadcast team. Most of all, we’re thankful Dale Jr. joined Twitter.
  • We’re thankful Gordon had one of his best seasons in years, with four wins and what, in any other year, could have been a championship-winning season. Such was the format structure that Gordon didn’t make it to Homestead with a shot, but at 43, he remained one of NASCAR’s best.
  • We’re thankful for the emerging glut of mega talented young stars, such as Sprint Cup rookie-of-the-year Kyle Larson, Nationwide champ Chase Elliott, Truck stars Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr., and so many more who will feature prominently in NASCAR’s future.
  • And honestly, we’re thankful Jimmie Johnson didn’t win another title (how many more superlatives can we come up with for “six-time?”) and that Ryan Newman didn’t win the title without winning a race (NASCAR likely dodged a bullet there).
source: Getty Images
Hamilton and Rosberg staged a classic. Photo: Getty Images

Formula One

  • We’re thankful Mercedes AMG Petronas, on the strength of an all-conquering W05 chassis, allowed drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to race tooth-and-nail all year for the World Championship. Lewis prevailed, Nico was a close second, and both had everything to be proud of in a year where they delivered Mercedes’ first Constructor’s World Championship.
  • We’re thankful for the emergence of Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas.
  • We’re thankful for Williams’ resurgence in 2014.
  • We’re thankful for Fernando Alonso continuing to outperform his machinery (and Ferrari teammate), even if this year, that wasn’t as noticeable given the lack of wins or podiums.
  • We’re thankful Jenson Button has remained all class until the end, if this was in fact his final season in F1.
  • Most of all, we’re thankful we’re not writing about losing Michael Schumacher and/or Jules Bianchi after their respective devastating accidents in the last 12 months. We continue to wish the best for both the seven-time World Champ and the rising French star in their recoveries.
source: Getty Images
Power and Penske crew on top at last. Photo: Getty Images

IndyCar

ELSEWHERE

  • Although the tragedy involving Kevin Ward Jr.’s death after being struck by Tony Stewart’s car was the racing story of the year, there didn’t seem to be as high a volume and frequency of fatality stories this year compared to 2013, so we can be thankful for that.
  • We’re thankful for Erica Enders-Stevens’ emergence as Pro Stock champion in NHRA after a long career of trying.
  • We’re thankful to have witnessed Tom Kristensen’s racing career. “Mr. Le Mans” hangs up his helmet after nine 24 Hours of Le Mans wins, six 12 Hours of Sebring wins and the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship after this weekend’s season finale in Brazil.
  • We’re thankful that at long last, Indy Lights has a new car to look forward to. Interest is up and many seats remain to be filled as that series looks for a rebirth in 2015, but has more buzz entering the offseason for the first time in years.

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.”