What to watch for: ABC Supply 500 at Pocono (2 pm ET on NBCSN and Live Extra)

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Today’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBC Sports Live Extra) sees the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season enter twilight as the countdown to the season finale at Sonoma next weekend continues.

The penultimate race of the year on Sunday will set the stage for the championship showdown, whittling the number of drivers bidding to follow in Will Power’s footsteps down from its current tally of ten down further.

The Sonoma finale may be worth double points, thus reducing the importance of this weekend’s race, but as the momentum continues to swing between the championship contenders, the pressure will be on the men leading the way.

Juan Pablo Montoya arrived in Pennsylvania with his advantage over Graham Rahal standing at just nine points following a recent dip in form.

The Colombian did his hopes of ending the rut few favors in qualifying on Saturday, finishing down in 19th place. Rahal, meanwhile, qualified fifth, six places ahead of Scott Dixon, currently third in the championship.

As the title fighters failed to seize the initiative at the front, it was Helio Castroneves who stormed to his fourth Verizon P1 Award of the 2015 season on Saturday at Pocono, heading up a Penske 1-2-3 as Simon Pagenaud and Will Power followed him at the top of the timesheets.

However, with 500 miles of racing coming up today, there is still everything to play for. Here are a few things to watch for in today’s ABC Supply 500.

A LITTLE HELP FROM JUAN’S FRIENDS? 

If any silver lining can be taken from Montoya’s 19th-place finish in qualifying on Saturday, it is that his teammates locked out the top three positions, thus creating the opportunity for Castroneves, Pagenaud and Power to get tactical.

If Penske can get some clever team movements working at the head of the field, and if Montoya can rediscover his pre-Iowa form, the Colombian may be able to make up for his qualifying misery.

CASTRONEVES, PAGENAUD, POWER BID TO END PENSKE RUT

That said, Montoya’s own championship aspirations are unlikely to come before those of the team. Despite taking seven pole positions in the nine races since the Indianapolis 500 in May, Penske has not won a race in that period. If there was ever a weekend for the team to get back in the groove, this is it.

Helio Castroneves is also in dear need of a win, given that he is yet to visit victory lane thus far in 2015. Will Power knows that his crown is slipping away, but a perfect finish to the year could give him a glimmer of hope. Pagenaud’s tough first year with Penske could yet be given some joy with a win at Pocono, meaning all three have more than the team game to play for this weekend.

KIMBALL GETS BACK IN THE SADDLE

The stand-out moment of qualifying on Saturday was Charlie Kimball’s terrifying crash at turn three, which despite damaging much of his Ganassi car and the catch fencing left the American driver with nothing more than a cut to his chin.

Kimball was unable to get out for practice later in the day, meaning that he will line up 23rd for the start of today’s race with limited track time. That said, after topping the first practice session of the weekend with some very impressive times, be sure to keep an eye on him fighting from the back.

RAHAL AND DIXON LOOK TO CAPITALIZE

With Montoya starting so far back, a golden opportunity has been handed to championship contenders Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon this weekend. Even though neither could make it into the top four on Saturday, both have won at ovals this year (Rahal in Fontana, Dixon in Texas), and should take heed from their performances there.

For as Dixon proved in Texas that qualifying and the race can be two different stories. He and Ganassi teammate Tony Kanaan could only qualify sixth and seventh at Texas Motor Speedway, yet both were untouchable in the race on the Sunday. Pocono could be where the championship swings into Dixon’s favor, or where Kanaan claims that elusive first win in 2015.

PARTY POOPERS

As with any good drama, there are always villains and spoilers that look to ruin the fun of the main cast (or in our case, the title fighters). Josef Newgarden continued his good run in 2015 to qualify fourth on Saturday, whilst the Andretti trio of Carlos Munoz, Justin Wilson and Ryan Hunter-Reay could be a force to be reckoned with starting sixth to eighth.

Elsewhere, keep an eye out for Takuma Sato (starting P9), Sebastien Bourdais (P10) and even the likes of Ryan Briscoe and Marco Andretti fighting from the back of the pack.

You can watch the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 2 pm ET on Sunday.

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.”