2014 PWC Season Review

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In its 25th anniversary season, the Pirelli World Challenge made significant strides on the North American stage, and also began to reveal itself on a greater scale within the overall, worldwide sports car landscape.

The key to the growth in the series’ marquee GT class was the full-scale adoption of FIA GT3-spec cars for 2014, rather than modified GT3 versions as had been allowed in 2013.

What had been a primarily 8-14 car field grew by leaps and bounds to north of 20 at most events, and is poised for even greater growth in 2015. A new GT-A subcategory for professional businessmen who derive their primary income outside racing also enhanced the field.

The GT class took focus as could be expected, but there were plenty of other battles worth noting in the series’ GTS and Touring Car classes.

GT witnessed a battle between Johnny O’Connell in his venerable Cadillac CTS-V.R and Mike Skeen from CRP Racing in his Audi R8 Ultra. Skeen’s team made a crucial switch from a self-built Nissan GT-R after the first round of the season, which helped propel them into contention.

The Cadillac struggled for outright lap pace and a weight hit BoP adjustment further hampered its chances. Still, the Cadillac had outright and title-winning experience, as well as the already developed launch control that was key for standing starts compared to the rest of the European machinery. O’Connell kept banking the points and key results beyond his early season three wins even as Skeen surged in the second half of the year.

The decisive weekends occurred at Sonoma and Miller. At Sonoma, Skeen won the Saturday round but the two collided on Sunday, and Skeen lost crucial points. A broken axle off the line in the first race at Miller sealed O’Connell’s third straight driver’s championship, with Cadillac beating Audi to the manufacturer’s championship on Sunday courtesy of his teammate Andy Pilgrim.

To say it was just these two overlooks the rest of the field, which featured additional winners Anthony Lazzaro (Ferrari), Andrew Palmer (Audi), Tomas Enge (Reiter Engineering Lamborghini), Ryan Dalziel (Porsche), Nick Tandy (Porsche), Kuno Wittmer (Dodge), Guy Smith (Bentley) and Robert Thorne (McLaren). The variety of driving, team and manufacturer talent was on display throughout 2014 and should only get better with another season.

Michael Mills took the inaugural GT-A title and the B.R.M Chronograph that went with it courtesy of a consistent but still dominant season in his EFFORT Racing Porsche. The Texan won six times in the category. Both Palmer and Nick Mancuso moved up from GT-A into GT courtesy of overall podium finishes as GT-A classified drivers; Mancuso banked Ferrari’s first pole of the year at Barber in April.

GTS saw the same three title protagonists as in 2013, in the form of Lawson Aschenbach (Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro), Jack Baldwin (GTSport Racing with Goldcrest Porsche Cayman S) and Mark Wilkins (Kinetic Kia Optima). If things were purely down to outright Canadian niceness, Wilkins had the title wrapped, but his on-track finish put pause to what had been a title-worthy season.

Aschenbach endured a roller-coaster first half of the year but he and his team never gave up. A crucial weekend sweep in Mid-Ohio – where the defending series champion swept all 304 possible points with two wins and all bonus points – brought him back into title contention after Wilkins’ two wins and run of top-five finishes. Baldwin, too, found himself in with a shot after a great Sonoma weekend where he and Aschenbach took the pair of wins.

Both Wilkins and Kia teammate Nic Jonsson seized up on the first lap in Miller, which opened the door for Aschenbach once more. A second-place finish to Baldwin in the Miller second race was enough to earn the Floridian the title, and Baldwin made it to second. The trio had once again delivered a scintillating battle.

The Touring Car ranks had their moments as well. Michael DiMeo, an up-and-coming Canadian driver, won a series record-tying eight races, including the first six in a row to score the TC title for Karl Thomson’s Compass360 Racing (Honda) program. DiMeo’s lead battle with Adam Poland in the second Mid-Ohio race provided arguably the race of the season in PWC.

The new TCA class, for lesser modified cars, saw Jason Wolfe (Kia) emerge slightly ahead of Shea Holbrook in her family-run Honda effort. Each won five times during the year and Wolfe took the crown in the final weekend. TCB was also fun to watch, with 37-year-old Brian Price (Honda) scoring that title over a trio of youngsters in 14-year-old Nathan Stacy, 20-year-old Tyler Palmer and 17-year-old Paul Holton.

The races and atmosphere from PWC in 2014 brought about renewed excitement and enthusiasm for the future in 2015. The key for the series to maintain its momentum is ensuring the infrastructure and personnel is established to keep up with what is clearly growing demand.

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.”