The best case for a Busch Indy 500 run? A Haas Memorial Day triple

Getty Images
1 Comment

In 2014, Kurt Busch made waves – and headlines – for running the most recent attempt at “the double” between the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.

In 2016, Busch could be the single link that makes “the triple” possible, if his schedule allows.

“The triple” can’t be accomplished by one driver, given the logistics of getting from Monaco, to Indianapolis, and then to Charlotte.

But “the triple” could be accomplished by one sponsor, which already has tentacles and teams established in two of the three and would only need the “Indianapolis as peanut butter” element to complete the other two slices of the sandwich.

Bottom line, Haas Automation has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be present in all three place of racing’s biggest weekend of the year, Memorial Day weekend, and a historical weekend at that.

Haas F1 Team’s going to be making its Monaco Grand Prix bow, with Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez present behind the wheel of the two Dallara chassis with Ferrari engines. Figure that’s going to be its biggest and most incredible Grand Prix to date, in its first few races of the season.

Haas, then, will have its usual end-of-weekend outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600. It’s a race that, surprisingly, has eluded Stewart-Haas Racing even though one of its drivers and past NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Kevin Harvick, is a past winner. But the team’s never won the event; Harvick, Busch and Danica Patrick will hope to do so this year, as would whoever is in the team’s No. 14 car – unlikely but possible to be team co-owner Tony Stewart if he’s recovered, or whoever his injury fill-in may be.

In the middle stands Indianapolis, and not just any Indianapolis 500, but the 100th edition – a race that is almost something of a make-or-break for the Verizon IndyCar Series on both a national and international scale to raise awareness beyond its central Indiana base.

The Indianapolis 500 will need some sort of historical lineage to tie in its past and promote its future, because while the series itself is great on a week-to-week basis and has better stories within its 20-plus car field than you realize, it doesn’t have the same frequency of Formula 1 or NASCAR drivers – or teams – moonlighting in the event anymore.

This is a race that 50 years ago had a Formula 1 World Champion – the late Graham Hill – win the race. The prospect of F1 drivers competing today is limited to those who have been in F1 in the recent past. Max Chilton will be the newest example and with no disrespect to Chilton, who’s an affable, likable and talented enough young Brit who could surprise people this year, he’s no Graham Hill.

What better way for the Indianapolis 500 to stretch its borders and provide an international storyline than seeing Gene Haas’ name and brand stretched from Monaco to Charlotte, through Indianapolis?

It’s realistic because Haas is a smart enough individual to understand the magnitude of what he gets into.

The magnitude of a “Haas Triple Crown” is something that’s sellable not just for Haas Automation as an entity, but also for any sponsors who would theoretically want to leverage their brand across three of racing’s greatest races.

Where Busch fits into the equation is pretty simple. He’s the only NASCAR driver, outside of AJ Allmendinger, with recent IndyCar experience. He’d need to participate in a refresher test – likely to coincide with the Rookie Orientation Program – but wouldn’t need too much time to get back up to speed.

Of course, he’d also need a team landing spot, and that’s where you have to figure Haas wouldn’t back something that doesn’t have a realistic chance of winning.

Since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 base chassis in 2012, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, KVSH Racing, Andretti Autosport and Team Penske have been the four teams to win the Indianapolis 500.

Busch and Penske won’t happen as Penske’s inn is booked at four cars, and there’s the past history there that doesn’t need to be rehashed.

Theoretically, Busch could reunite with Andretti for what would be either a fourth or fifth car, but Honda’s number of engine leases might be closer to its projected number of 17 once all its extras are added than Chevrolet’s (there could be more Chevrolet leases available).

There’d also be the same, not impossible, but still hurdle of a Chevrolet driver in NASCAR running a Honda in IndyCar – and if Haas were to be the one footing the bill, it’s less likely he’d be as amenable to the option.

So when you get to the remaining Chevrolet teams, it leaves just four options: Ganassi, KVSH, Ed Carpenter Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

Ganassi, of those four, would provide Busch the best shot at a win and has experience running five cars, as it has recently.

That’s not to say it will again in 2016, but it could based on past history.

The fifth Ganassi car, each of the last two years, has been part of a technical alliance with another team – Sage Karam was a primarily DRR entry in 2014 but with some Ganassi assistance, while last year’s fifth car for Sebastian Saavedra was primarily Ganassi in partnership with AFS Racing.

Where the fifth Ganassi option fades, potentially, is if the team’s resources are stretched too thin in May. The Chip Ganassi Rallycross effort kicks off on qualifying weekend, May 21 and 22, in Phoenix. Additionally, the team’s two U.S.-based Ford GTs would be in transit to Le Mans ahead of the Le Mans Test Day, which occurs the Sunday of Detroit, June 5. Crews are separate but there’s usually crossover of crews between some of the Ganassi programs – notably IndyCar staffers working on sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona – and such a situation would likely be needed here for an extra car.

KVSH has already announced an extra car – the PIRTEK Team Murray car for Matthew Brabham. Ed Carpenter at IndyCar Media Day said ECR would likely only be two for the Indianapolis 500 (but it could, in theory, add a third as the CFH Racing team did last year) and DRR is Indy-only for Karam again, although a second car is possible.

The bottom line, of course, is that if Haas sees the upside and the opportunity at his – and Haas Automation’s – disposal for this incredible chance, he’s got a driver and a shot to pull off a rare event in motorsports history.

The question now is whether Busch can fit it into his schedule once again, and if there’s a team that can find a way to land a helluva driver and his NASCAR team boss.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
0 Comments

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 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 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 car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

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. – McLaren Racing

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.”