Preview: Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio critical in IndyCar title chase

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – The middle of Ohio is smack-dab in the heart of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series championship chase.

Traditionally a mid-to-late race in the schedule, Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (LIVE, 1:30 p.m. ET, CNBC and NBC Sports Live Extra) actually marks the 14th of 16 races this season, so it takes on a more important role in the championship picture.

Mistakes will be magnified and multiplied this weekend. If you miss your mark this weekend, it will be very difficult to claw back the lost points.

It’s also an important strategy race. Over 90 laps, three stops are likely but two is possible.

This weekend’s race marks the first on a road course since the hybrid oval/infield road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, and the first on a permanent road course since Barber Motorsports Park in April.

“The Penskes flew to the front at the Indy road course; it was them and only them,” said KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, a two-time winner this year and the defending Mid-Ohio polesitter. “It was a bad surprise for us.

“For our program, we do understand a lot of things much better now. We hope to give a run to the Penskes, who have been so dominant on that type of track.”

Penskes have been dominant in qualifying this year but at Mid-Ohio, the first task the majority of the field has is stopping the freight train that is Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Dixon has five wins in eight years at the circuit dating to 2007, and Ganassi’s team has won six straight at the track dating to 2007. In fact, since IndyCar’s return in 2007, only Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske has broken up the Ganassi string of dominance in 2008.

Briscoe could again play spoiler this year driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, having been quick but with nothing to lose as he seeks to become the 10th different winner this season.

It’s Penske, though, Briscoe’s former team, that has held the upper hand in qualifying. With eight poles on all eight road and street course races this year, all of Will Power, Helio Castroneves and points leader Juan Pablo Montoya have been forces to be reckoned with on Saturday.

Qualifying is especially crucial at Mid-Ohio and any of those three, plus Simon Pagenaud, who traditionally runs well at Mid-Ohio, will be ones to watch.

The other Ganassi drivers – Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Sage Karam – all have their own points to prove this weekend. Kanaan has struggled in qualifying at Mid-Ohio in recent years, until last year when he started third. Kimball has yet to recapture the magic he found when he won his first and thus far only IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio in 2013, and Karam looks to carry the momentum from Iowa onto a completely different type of circuit.

The career year for Graham Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team rolls into both driver and team’s home race, outside Columbus at the Lexington, Ohio road course. They need a good qualifying run because the run of Harry Houdini recover-from-disaster type performances on race day can’t go on forever.

Andretti Autosport is yet to win at Mid-Ohio since IndyCar’s return. It’s been a tougher track for the team in the past; Ryan Hunter-Reay finally got on the board in Iowa but given Honda’s qualifying struggles on road or street courses this year, it’s hard to see RHR, Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz or even Justin Wilson making too big a dent in the leaderboard this weekend. Munoz, to his credit, did make his first career Firestone Fast Six this race last year, but has yet to provide an encore.

Other Chevy teams – KVSH/KV Racing Technology and CFH Racing – should be good. Bourdais must be considered a Fast Six if not podium contender once again, while Josef Newgarden looks to capture the win that got away from him last year. New father Luca Filippi makes his return to the cockpit after a near two-month hiatus in the second car; Stefano Coletti needs any result of sort.

Of note elsewhere, Takuma Sato makes his 100th career IndyCar start this weekend, and the always exciting-to-watch Japanese driver will look to impress in one of the Honda-sponsored races.

The remaining runners – rookie leader Gabby Chaves, Jack Hawksworth, James Jakes, Tristan Vautier and Rodolfo Gonzalez – likely will need help of some sort to produce a result of note.

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.”