Report: Derrick Walker reflects on IndyCar tenure and future

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The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma marked the end of a brief era in the history of IndyCar. After the last car crossed the finish line, the celebration was over and the doors were shut, Derrick Walker was no longer the president of competition and operations.

Walker, 70, announced his resignation on July 30, which would take effect at the end of the season. Just over a week later, he helped complete the deal that would bring IndyCar back to Road America for the first time in eight years.

Respected racing journalist Gordon Kirby has written a profile on Walker, speaking with the former team owner about his short tenure in position “long considered a poisoned chalice.”

Following two years running Ed Carpenter’s team, Walker said he had two goals entering his time as president of competition and operations.

“I came in with those two ideas. I wanted IndyCar to get out of spec racing and I wanted to change the culture of IndyCar in a new way,” Walker said.

The Scotsman said his first year was “the worst,” with Walker basically using it for “on-the-job training” as his perception of the sport and the “dark side” of the front office changed from his time in the paddock.

“Like many people in the paddock you condition yourself to always look at the front office and say, it’s broken, it doesn’t work,” Walker said. “I always had the impression that the organization needed fairly radical changes. I thought we needed to get some people out of here and get some fresh blood in.”

But after two months Walker realized that the people in the front office were hard workers who often didn’t have the resources they needed.

“I saw them more as a brave bunch that were doing a very good job but they need some overall leadership and, most of all, they needed some support,” Walker said. “They needed to be told they weren’t that bad, that they were good at their jobs. But some changes were needed. Change was necessary.”

Other highlights:

  • On decision to resign: “Sometimes I didn’t agree with it. Sometimes I struggled with the lack of progress. Sometimes I didn’t feel there was enough support. But I kept my head down as a loyal employee and supported the company and did what I thought was best. My contract was up in June of this year and when it came time to consider the renewal of my contract I thought it was time to make a decision as to whether I would stay or seek other employment. I really felt strongly enough about my opinions but the one thing I didn’t want to be was one of those whinging employees in the ranks who are disgruntled with the system.”
  • Lack of performance feedback: “In two and a half years I’ve never actually had anyone sit me down and tell me what I’m doing right or wrong. I’ve never had the team owners sit me down and tell me here’s where we think you’re screwing it up. So I was very disappointed when these people who I have known for many years and many of them I’ve worked really hard to help, thought so ill of me. Quite frankly, I was shocked. But the reality is the reality and you accept it and move on. Cutting a long story short, that’s the way it came about.”
  • A car for the future: “I was planning to show my proposal (a 20-page Powerpoint) at Mid-Ohio for getting to a new car in 2018 or beyond. It depended on if the owners agreed when it would happen. It could be 2018 or it could be 2019 or 2020 but there is going to be a new car. I believed we needed to set a plan and start cracking along towards it to give us enough time to do the job right. But I never made the presentation to them to look at the future. I wanted to have more time for IndyCar and the team owners to plan for the new car and to get the message out to the fans and media. The fans, the manufacturers and the competitors all want to know where we’re going. IndyCar is about the cars and the stars but having a clean sheet of paper for the cars allows you to modify and rub on them, re-think and change.”
  • What’s next: “I’m going to go back to running my (USC GT Le Mans) team and business. I’ve got some good people and they’ve kept the team in good shape over the past two and a half years. I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. I’ve got to get on the treadmill and find the money and look at other programs like Global RallyCross. I’m not restricted to anything. If I can find the money I’d like to continue in the USC and maybe other forms of racing.”

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.”