DiZinno: Indy 500’s 2015 “Fast Friday” dawns with more questions than answers after spate of crashes

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As the Verizon IndyCar Series prepares for the final day of practice before qualifying, the week has felt like days gone by – not necessarily in a good way, albeit with good endings from a safety standpoint thus far.

It used to be the case going back 20 or 25 years ago, at least, that you’d have both a speed report and an incident report coming out of the day’s practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

What has followed over the last 15 or so years, where more spec parts and spec cars have ruled the way, has been largely incident-free days.

If a big accident or engine failure happened, it wasn’t to the degree or volume of what we’ve seen this week.

“I think it’s too early to say what is happening or if there is anything happening out of the ordinary,” Derrick Walker, INDYCAR’s president of competition and operations, told USA Today Sports.

That may be true, but it’s been a far from ordinary week for the series in comparison to recent practice weeks at IMS the last few years.

Tuesday witnessed Simona de Silvestro’s fuel leak-induced fire, and two further mechanical issues for other Honda-powered cars, driven by James Jakes and Justin Wilson.

On Wednesday, Helio Castroneves’ car went airborne after slight wall contact and turning around completely backwards. He was unharmed, but the mere pictures of flight were enough to put a scare into folks.

Then yesterday, Josef Newgarden’s car also went airborne, following heavier wall contact, the left sidepod digging in (similar to past accidents with the Dallara DW12 chassis from 2012 to 2014) and rolling up on its side, before again going airborne from the rear and rolling over onto the airbox. Like the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion, Newgarden too emerged unscathed.

Not to be overlooked too was another hard impact, this one for Pippa Mann on Wednesday, but a more conventional if you will accident of spinning off Turn 4, into the inside retaining wall and then into the pit lane attenuator at pit-in. And like the other two, she was uninjured if a bit sore following the impacts.

The simple question that must be answered first is what caused the airborne accidents. While some have said it comes down to the new super speedway aero kits – and really the only commonalities between the Castroneves and Newgarden accidents is that both are Chevrolets, and both were on their second laps with the increased side pod ramp in front of the rear wheels (part introduced here) – the greater likelihood is that the giant floor, or underwing, has been a greater cause of the accidents. The cars lift off once that amount of air gets underneath and with the higher surface area, it’s helped propel the cars into the air. This year’s floor features a hole new for this year. How much of a correlation there is between the floor in tandem with the new aero kits is yet to be officially determined.

Beyond that, in the midst of the accidents has come a case of confusion over what has or hasn’t been said, by whom, and to whom.

Thursday seemed a day in sleuthing and as both RACER.com’s Marshall Pruett and Trackside Online’s Steve Wittich discovered on site, it seemed the answers were harder to pursue.

Prior to Newgarden’s accident, INDYCAR released a statement that the centerline wicker would be made an optional part for both manufacturers. Following that, Chevrolet’s Jim Campbell released a statement that phrased it as, “After discussions with the Series, we have decided to remove the centerline wicker on all of our cars.”

What this doesn’t properly answer is whether INDYCAR asked Chevrolet to remove the wicker first – a story which was reported by Motorsport.com’s Anne Proffit – or whether Chevrolet acted on its own accord.

Pruett added to the Chevrolet story with his report on RACER.com that, “According to multiple sources, Chevy teams were given instructions to remove the wickers around 11:30 a.m – 30 minutes before the start of practice – and the directive was made without an explanation as to why they were being removed.”

The next variable comes into play with Wittich’s reporting for Trackside Online on Honda’s status. There, a Honda spokesperson told TSO that the wicker was mandatory ON for Honda cars, but OFF for Chevrolets.

If this is starting to sound like a mystery novel involving 34 cars going over 230 mph … well it kind of is.

Here’s what we know, for sure, so far:

  • Three drivers have escaped three serious, or serious-looking accidents, largely unharmed. For that, we can thank the Dallara DW12 safety cell, which has protected the driver monocoque.
  • Come Fast Friday, today, the boost level will be increased from 130 kPa to 140 kPa for “Fast Friday” practice and this weekend’s qualifications. The change in pressure adds about a 40-horsepower boost to the engines produced by Chevrolet and Honda. The boost level will return to 130 kPa for the remainder of the month starting on Monday.

Beyond those two elements, there needs to be better clarification and communication from the sanctioning body over what was said, what was instructed and how that information was disseminated to teams and manufacturers.

And ideally, today needs to be a trouble-free “Fast Friday” where speeds, not accidents, emerge as the predominant talking point.

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.”