Le Mans: Pre-race post roundup, notes and quick race preview

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LE MANS, France – The week of practice and qualifying is in the books for the 83rd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Here’s links to all the pre-race posts as done on MotorSportsTalk this week:

POSTS

Seven cars handed post-qualifying grid penalties
Ford GT race program confirmed for FIA WEC, TUDOR Championship
Porsche retains pole, while No. 63 Corvette is withdrawn
Jani scores provisional pole with record lap
Audi’s Di Grassi retains Le Mans focus before Formula E finale
Webber protege Mitch Evans adapting well to sports cars
Le Mans 2015 class breakdown by car
GTE stunners and spoilers
Webber, Hulkenberg prepped for week ahead at Le Mans
Bell’s whirlwind tour takes him to Le Mans for the first time
Chilton mulling 2016 options ahead of Le Mans debut with Nissan
Meet the Americans at Le Mans
LMP2 stunners and spoilers
Mikhail Aleshin wants to return to IndyCar one day and “kick some ass”
Briscoe expected to continue in SPM IndyCar for rest of season
F1 veterans in the field
LMP1 stunners and spoilers

NOTES

  • Corvette Racing confirmed it was a piece of debris caught in the throttle mechanism that triggered Jan Magnussen’s accident. The inadvertent and unfortunate side effect of the accident, beyond the fact it’s the first withdrawal for the car in the team’s history at Le Mans, is it will now make a thrash for the crew to repair a second car for Watkins Glen on June 28.
  • Ford was undoubtedly the big talking point today at Le Mans. The program has been in the works for months, but only officially confirmed by the manufacturer this afternoon. Seeing Chip Ganassi in France might take some getting used to, but make no mistake: this is big news as Ganassi continues to expand his motorsports empire.
  • Friday is always a day of rest at the Circuit de la Sarthe in terms of on-track activity, but not in terms of final preparation for Saturday’s race. The field of 55 were still disassembling and reassembling their cars, as throngs of fans looked on from pit lane. Additionally, the parade in downtown Le Mans occurred today, and was a hit.

PREVIEW

Oh yeah, there’s a race this week too.

One of the fascinating elements about Le Mans week is that given the number of industry movers and shakers, events, press conferences and other aspects of the week is the race itself can be sometimes overshadowed going into race day. Regulations talk in the future has dominated the headlines this week.

At the front the story is rather simple: Porsche has a clear pace advantage over one lap. But with drivetrain and powertrain issues looming and having reared their ugly head in the past, will the lone hybrid contender in the 8 MJ subclass be able to avoid the reliability pitfalls that have sabotaged its chances in the past? On the mix of history, reliability and consistency, Audi enters as favorite this year although only by a whisker. Toyota may be laying in the weeds but its outright lack of pace all week means it looks like it will have to play the tortoise, rather than hare game, to have a realistic chance. Nissan must be targeting a finish, first.

In LMP2, the Ligier JS P2 Nissan should be the car to beat, with about four or five cars looming as spoilers and about the other 10 to 12 in class shooting for a podium or top-five. While the Oreca 05 Nissan has the class pole, this will be the car’s 24-hour race debut, and that traditionally doesn’t end in victory.

GTE-Pro will see the same storyline as usual – it’s anyone’s guess of Ferrari, Aston Martin, Porsche and Corvette. Corvette now has the sentimental storyline of the No. 64 Corvette C7.R trying to win as the sole surviving American ground pounder, Ferrari looks for its usual encore and Aston is after its first win in GTE-Pro since the class came into being in 2011.

In GTE-Am, the No. 98 Aston Martin has been the car to beat this season and enters as clear favorite, although this traditionally becomes the hardest class to project beyond a single pace-setter due to the unpredictability of traffic.

It all begins at 3 p.m. local time in France tomorrow, with several options to watch or listen. Radio Le Mans will have radio coverage and the FOX Sports networks, via a mix of FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2 and the FOX Sports Go streaming service, pictures. The FIA WEC app, while you have to pay for it, is also a very good bet.

And speaking of bets, if I were a betting man? I’d go Audi No. 7 again (an easy but safe pick), No. 28 G-Drive Racing Ligier JS P2 Nissan (even with two Le Mans rookies), No. 97 Aston Martin (overdue for a class win at Le Mans) and No. 98 Aston Martin (the clear favorite delivers).

Come Sunday afternoon, I can’t wait to see how on or off the mark those picks are.

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.”