IndyCar teams still full speed ahead on Red Bull GRC prep for 2016

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Most of the Verizon IndyCar Series teams who’ve been in the Red Bull Global Rallycross are in full prep mode ahead of the IndyCar season starting next week in St. Petersburg, but they also aren’t overlooking their respective GRC efforts either.

All of Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, Bryan Herta Rallysport and SH Rallycross are working through their offseason programs ahead of formal team announcements.

Chip Ganassi Racing also stated plans at the end of 2015 to continue into 2016 (team features one and two linked here from November), but is currently focused on all its various other programs in NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA and the FIA WEC. Any announcements of its 2016 program and scale should come later.

Starting with the defending champions, Andretti’s Volkswagen Beetles have gone back to Europe for a tune-up over the winter.

“We haven’t done (testing) any yet,” Andretti Autosport team principal Michael Andretti told NBC Sports.

“We sent the cars back to Europe because they were so beat up from the season. Basically getting back together, and we should be getting going by March sometime.”

Herta, meanwhile, has his Ford Fiesta STs plus a GRC Lites car still in his existing shop.

“We do (the rebuilds) ourselves,” Herta told NBC Sports. “So they’re still going back together in our shop, and the engines are coming back. We’ll start testing there in the next month or so. That season doesn’t start for a while. We have a little bit more time.”

Rather humorously, as Andretti and Herta are partners on the IndyCar side of things, they’ll likely be sworn enemies in the Red Bull GRC paddock.

“That remains separate,” Herta noted. “It’s funny. Michael and I are partners on IndyCar, but we’re mortal enemies in GRC. We’ll hang out together all the time here, but we won’t talk to each other at GRC races!”

Herta said he hopes to have the same format of two Supercars and one Lites car for 2016, although announcements remain a ways off.

“You know me. I tend to hold things back until we’ve got everything in place,” Herta said. “But we’re in good shape for Rallycross.”

James “Sulli” Sullivan of SH Rallycross has confirmed that team’s return for 2016, with further program details likely to come in the next month or so.

“Everything we have going on over there is extremely positive,” Sullivan told NBC Sports. “We will be back 100 percent. It’s a matter of if it’s one car or it’s two.

“Our stance as a team right now, hasn’t changed from where it was last year, we’re only going to do the second car if it is adding value to the overall focus of the organization, which is no longer to win races, but to win a championship.

“We’ve won races there, two years in a row we’ve been in the hunt for the championship and we’ve lost it. So our driver situation is something that’s going to be nailed down and announced in the next 45 days and that’s a good deal. And Jimmy (Vasser) is going to be intimately involved in that program moving forward.”

SH Rallycross has had Nelson Piquet Jr. the last two years, although Andreas Bakkerud filled in for Piquet at last year’s X Games with Piquet unavailable due to his FIA Formula E Championship commitments.

Given there are four IndyCar/GRC weekend conflicts, it’s interesting to see where selected IndyCar personnel will be on those weekends. Andretti noted IndyCar takes precedence, while with multiple team co-owners, Vasser and Sullivan can split races slightly easier.

“IndyCar takes precedence for me because I’m actively involved in the calling of race, so I have to be at them. I fit the other ones in the off weekends,” Andretti said.

“TZ (John Tzouanakis) does a good job. Rob Arnott who does FE, and Roger Griffiths, its in good hands over there. So when I go to those races, I’m not too involved. Here, I directly am.”

“Sulli” added, “The way we’re going into it is we’re going to go wherever we’re needed. But it makes the most sense obviously for us not to both be at one place is the idea.

“So the plan is I’m going to get the KVSH 11 qualified on Saturday (at Indianapolis 500 qualifying, May 21), jump on a plane and get to Phoenix and run the first two rounds there and probably miss the second day of Indy 500 qualifying. As far as the other two (races), we haven’t figured that out yet. That’s as far as we’ve gotten.”

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

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.”