What to watch for: IndyCar at St. Petersburg

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ST. PETERSBURG – After a seven-month offseason since its last race at Auto Club Speedway on Saturday night, August 30, 2014, the Verizon IndyCar Series finally returns in high gear with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (3 p.m. ET, check local listings) this afternoon.

Defending series champion Will Power is on the pole (Verizon P1 Award) after a record-setting lap, and will lead his three other Team Penske teammates to the green flag.

Here’s what to look for as the curtain comes up on the 2015 season.

THE NEW ERA

New manufacturer aero kits are the major storyline heading into the race, as the 24 cars and drivers entered will race against themselves for the first time. Testing, practice and qualifying are all nice preambles, but today makes the main course.

A SERIES OF FIRSTS

Get your pen and paper ready, because there will be a test on this later… but here’s what’s new on the driver/team/engineer front, year-on-year, heading into this race:

  • New teams: James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Luca Filippi (CFH Racing), Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske), Jack Hawksworth (A.J. Foyt Enterprises)
  • New numbers: Will Power (1), James Hinchcliffe (5), Luca Filippi (20), Simon Pagenaud (22), Carlos Munoz (26), Marco Andretti (27), Jack Hawksworth (41)
  • New/returning drivers: Stefano Coletti (4), James Jakes (7), Sage Karam (8), Francesco Dracone (19), Simona de Silvestro (25), Gabby Chaves (98)
  • Drivers with new engineers: Scott Dixon (Chris Simmons), Tony Kanaan (Todd Malloy), Marco Andretti (Nathan O’Rourke), Jack Hawksworth (Raul Prados), Graham Rahal (Eddie Jones)

DEBRIS FIELDS?

Thus far there has only been one incident of note, contact between Josef Newgarden and Simona de Silvestro in the warmup that meant the drivers required a new front wing and rear wing assembly, respectively.

We figure if there’s contact, there’s going to be debris winglets from all over the cars making an appearance on track. However, polesitter Will Power said Saturday that you can still “rub” in these cars, without too much issue.

TIRE DROPOFF

Firestone has maintained a similar tire compound for 2015, for the opening races, as both Chevrolet and Honda teams dial in the aero kits and their updated engines. However, tire degradation is expected to be a storyline, likely on the right rear, throughout the day.

STRATEGY PLAYS

One of the hallmarks of any IndyCar road or street races is, as Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush would say, “strategery.” It’s in part what aided Mike Conway to two wins a year ago at Long Beach and Toronto race two in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

If or when yellows come, the question becomes who will gamble and try to gain positions? Team Penske has dominated the weekend on paper, but the beauty of IndyCar is its unpredictability.

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.”