Graham Rahal looks to finish oval-race trilogy by continuing hot streak

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Graham Rahal isn’t wavering from the belief that he had prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Fontana a few weeks ago.

He believed the three-race stretch at the oval tracks – Fontana, the Milwaukee Mile and this weekend’s at Iowa Speedway – could make or break the season of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s single-car team.

He’s not wavering because nothing’s been broken.

Rahal won his first IndyCar race since 2008 at Fontana and followed it up at Milwaukee with his fifth podium of the year, a career best. Throw in two straight Will Power DNF’s and Rahal now sits tied for third in the driver standings with Helio Castroneves, 69 points behind leader Juan Pablo Montoya.

“I absolutely still think that the biggest thing for us as a team is to try to carry momentum through these races because it’s not only important to us for our season,” Rahal said in a press release. “These are areas where we struggled as a team the past couple of years.”

In his first three starts at Fontana, Rahal’s results were sixth (2012), a DNF and 19th. At Milwaukee, he had not finished better than ninth since earning two top-five finishes in 2009 and 2011. On Sunday, he led his first laps ever at the 1-mile track.

At Iowa, which hosts Saturday’s Iowa Corn 300 at 8 p.m. ET NBCSN, Rahal has yet to finish better than fifth (2013) in seven starts.

“Of all the oval races, I think Iowa has been our strength the last couple of years so I’m pretty excited to get there and see what we can do,” Rahal said of the 0.894-mile track.

“We found some things for our short track setup in Milwaukee that is really going to help us going forward. There is no doubt in my mind that this team will show improvement at Iowa.”

Through 12 of 16 races, Rahal’s No. 15 has been far and away the class of the Honda-powered teams. In addition to his Fontana win, Rahal has been the top-finishing Honda driver in six races, including the last three.

This in a year where Honda has been considered at a competitive disadvantage to Chevrolet, which has won nine of 12 races. In 2014, the two manufacturers each had six wins after race 12. In 2013, Honda had five.

“It’s going to be hard to catch (Juan Pablo) Montoya to win the championship, but I really don’t see why we can’t be right there, right behind them. That’s our goal,” Rahal said. “Everyone from Honda continues to work hard. They have kept their heads down and kept working hard and we are putting ourselves in a place where we can succeed and we will.”

So far Rahal’s confidence hasn’t been misplaced this year, his best since breaking into IndyCar in 2007 at 18.

“I’m proud of the effort they (Honda) have put in,” Rahal continued. “It was apparent from the start that we were a little bit behind and the guys have just kept working hard and we have found ourselves right in the thick of this thing in the championship. We’re going to keep pushing hard to get Honda even further up if we can.

“I’m not worried about the title or standings as much as I am thinking about how we can do the best we can and put ourselves in a great position to compete.”

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.”