DiZinno: Fatigue, rather than buzz, reigns after IndyCar’s 10 week in a row stretch

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The brutal stretch of 10 weekends of on-track activity in a row for the Verizon IndyCar Series is over, and the series heads into a most needed off weekend this weekend.

Robin Miller, who serves as part of NBCSN’s IndyCar pit reporting crew, wrote a rather important op-ed piece this week for RACER.com, noting the drain this schedule has done to the crew members, many of whom have spent their livelihoods and careers in the business for decades.

If this was used as a test case for future IndyCar schedules, then deal me out.

One of the issues that exists with the schedule now, even more than the logistical headaches posed from going to New Orleans, Long Beach and Birmingham in three consecutive weeks, is more the fact that in mid-June, 10 of 16 races in the 2015 season are complete, and there’s so few events to look forward to the rest of the calendar year.

With 10 of 16 IndyCar races done, that’s 62.5 percent of its season in the books.

Percentage-wise, NASCAR Sprint Cup is through 15 of 36 races, and FIA Formula 1 is through seven of 19. That equates to 41.66 and 36.84 percent of their seasons complete, respectively.

The FIA World Endurance Championship, which is on the rise, is only done with three of eight races, and the burgeoning Red Bull Global Rallycross championship is through one of 12 points races (two in total, counting the non-points X Games).

All four series stretch into late November, while IndyCar ends the last weekend of August – a full three months earlier.

Post-Indianapolis, it felt as though IndyCar was racing just to race, more than to build buzz about another event it had coming up on the schedule. And four races in three weekends after the Indianapolis 500 was arguably a bit too much in the immediate days after IndyCar’s longest race, and longest month of the season.

Detroit is a very well-run event, and the efforts of the Penske organization are second to none. But the weather and the fact it was a doubleheader stretched the limits of most on site to push on.

Texas and Toronto, frankly, were dwarfed on the world stage by other motorsports events. The Canadian Grand Prix is always one of the highlights of the year for F1, even if this year’s race wasn’t an outright classic.

This past weekend, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is getting more headlines around the world rather than IndyCar’s latest showcase at Toronto.

Toronto was a decent enough race with a popular winner, but just another cog in the schedule rather than the marquee event it once was in its usual July date. Attendance, certainly, is a fraction of what it had been a decade or more ago.

Ironically, had the race been held a week later, this upcoming weekend, IndyCar would be racing on a weekend where the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is off, and not directly head-to-head with Le Mans. Unfortunately timing was always going to be tight for IndyCar in Toronto this year, with the Pan-Am Games occurring next month.

As the final six races come up between the end of June to the end of August, traction might be harder to come by – Fontana (August to June), Milwaukee (August to July), Iowa (a week later in July), Pocono (July to August) and Sonoma (a week later in August) have all had date adjustments from their 2014 race dates.

Building buzz around events that are lacking in date equity – particularly the three oval events at Fontana, Milwaukee and Pocono – is going to be a challenge for the organizers. When stories emerge after the events, potentially, about low local crowd numbers, it should not come as a surprise.

Speaking strictly from a Milwaukee perspective, my home race, there has been little promotional buzz barely more than a month out ahead of the race at the venerable one-mile oval.

There have been private concerns expressed from sources within the last month that this may be the last year for the race, and the annual “will Road America come back?” story out this week that Miller also wrote may have more legs this time around. Potentially.

Meanwhile, on the whole, IndyCar teams don’t have the crew depth and strength in numbers as do NASCAR and F1 teams, and the ones they do have have been run ragged and roughshod the last three months.

Without dedicated shop/headquarters crew as NASCAR and F1 teams have, besides the traveling crews, the crews have been working ad nauseum to tear down and build up the cars for each event, and that’s if there haven’t been any accidents. Full rebuilds of wrecked cars only adds to the stress levels and workloads.

The scale of NASCAR and F1 allow for their schedules to run longer, but more importantly, for each race to feel like something of a big deal.

The anticipation for a Grand Prix builds in part because there are so few back-to-backs.

The anticipation for certain NASCAR races builds because of the consistency of date equity – with several exceptions, you generally know when a certain event will come up on the calendar. Sonoma later this month and Daytona to kick off in early July, when NBC makes its return to broadcasting, are but two examples.

Meanwhile IndyCar has had 10 races worth of content, but has it had 10 races worth of buzz? It’s hard to say yes at this 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.”