Will young guns buck veteran-dominated trend in Indy 500?

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INDIANAPOLIS – The names Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya are probably first and foremost among the “old guard” in modern day Indianapolis 500 competition.

Each made their maiden appearance on the North American open-wheel scene (all began in CART prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series) between 1998 and 2001, with their Indianapolis 500 debuts coming between 2000 and 2003. Dixon, Kanaan and Castroneves raced in Indy Lights as well, with the first two winning championships.

They’re not Mears, Unser, Foyt, Rutherford or Andretti.

But they’re the modern day veteran heroes that resonate most on the minds of the American public – either to the large number of Indianapolis 500 event-only fans, or the smaller volume of hardcore fans that still follow the series on a week-to-week basis.

They’re also four of the five previous winners starting Sunday’s race, and chances are good that any of them could add to their tally. Defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay is the fifth former winner in this year’s race.

Kanaan and Hunter-Reay have made it back-to-back first-time winners. The previous run of first-time winners occurred annually from 2003 to 2008, when Gil de Ferran, Buddy Rice, the late Dan Wheldon, Sam Hornish Jr., Franchitti and Dixon all bagged their first career ‘500 win.

There’s really three tiers of drivers this year, in terms of experience levels:

  • The ‘500 veterans (10-plus starts): Dixon (13th start Sunday), Kanaan (14), Castroneves (15), Marco Andretti (10), Ed Carpenter (13) and Ryan Briscoe (10)
  • More experienced veterans (6-9 starts): Will Power (8), Justin Wilson (8), Oriol Servia (7), Hunter-Reay (8), Graham Rahal (8), Alex Tagliani (7), Townsend Bell (9) and Takuma Sato (6)
  • Generally younger competitors (1-5 starts): Simon Pagenaud (4), Sebastien Bourdais (5), JR Hildebrand (5), Carlos Munoz (3), Charlie Kimball (5), Montoya (3), Simona de Silvestro (5), James Jakes (3), Sage Karam (2), Conor Daly (2), Pippa Mann (4), Gabby Chaves (rookie), Sebastian Saavedra (5), Jack Hawksworth (2), Stefano Coletti (rookie), Bryan Clauson (2), Tristan Vautier (2) and James Davison (2)

Looking at the field that way, there’s six drivers in that first group, eight in the second and 19 in the third.

Save for Bourdais and Montoya, past ‘500 winners who don’t have as many ‘500 starts due to their other diverging career paths (Formula 1, sports cars and NASCAR), that third group boasts the highest number of drivers who are largely unknown to the American populace outside of the hardcore, full-time series followers.

Through most of this year on the road and street courses, the older, more veteran drivers have seemed to adapt better to the new challenge of the new manufacturer aero kits. The younger drivers – Newgarden at age 24 and Rahal at age 26 excepted – generally have not posed as big of a threat this year.

Of IndyCar’s “next generation,” as you were, Newgarden or Rahal would likely make for a popular winner. Both have the potential to become stars, launched onto the national stage, even more than they have now.

It’s hard to believe this will be Andretti’s 10th Indianapolis 500 start, since making his debut as a then 19-year-old who came within mere feet of winning as a rookie in 2006. He’s traditionally good at Indy and has the name to do it, but does he have the car underneath him this year?

That second group – the “more experienced veterans” list – includes a number of drivers who are decently well-known but not to the same level as that 10-plus start crowd.

It’s unlikely that one of the drivers from the “generally younger competitor” tier is going to win. In many respects those drivers will be biding their time, looking to gain laps and experience throughout the day.

In some respects, it would behoove the race to have a fresher face win the race. The veterans aren’t getting any younger and we generally know them; this is the best chance for any IndyCar driver all year to get noticed beyond the hardcores.

But it’s harder to pick a fresher, younger face – not because they can’t complete it, but it generally takes a perfect set of circumstances to happen.

It also hasn’t happened recently.

A then-27-year-old Dixon, in 2008, is the last driver under age 30 to win the Indianapolis 500. Save for Rahal and Andretti (26 and 28, respectively), all of the two veteran driver tiers mentioned are 30 or older.

There’s a reason the legends at the Speedway are legends: they’re known quantities.

And seeing a younger lion buck that trend isn’t something that happens easily.

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.”