DiZinno: Rossi’s divided focus could hurt, not help, dual program

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With Alexander Rossi’s confirmation as Manor Racing reserve driver for F1 – thus beginning his third separate stint with the team in the last 18 months by my colleague Luke Smith’s unofficial count – he’s in now in the midst of two separate relationships that can best be described by one of Facebook’s relationship statuses:

It’s complicated.

Rossi is an American by birth and by nationality, but has embedded himself within Europe the last seven seasons since 2009, after winning the 2008 Formula BMW Americas championship here Stateside.

As such, his ongoing flirtation with Europe has morphed into a fully fledged relationship, and his pursuit of Formula 1 has been the racing pursuit of a quest to woo the most beautiful girl in the world.

She may be a “perfect 10,” but you assume she could be high maintenance and you have no idea how long your time with her will last. And then, when someone with more money comes along (in this case, Rio Haryanto), you’re left wondering how you lost her.

Back Stateside is IndyCar – the proverbial “solid 7” girl by comparison. You don’t realize how good you could have it with her until you discover her warm and bubbly personality, her wholesome girl-next-door image, maybe not as prestigious on a worldwide stage but someone you know is committed to you, even if you’re not to her.

The problem – invariably – when you try to blend both pursuits is that you’ve divided your focus, your attention and your dreams… and by doing so, it could inevitably bite you in the rear end.

This is the precipice at which Alexander Rossi now stands.

While hailed as the first driver to be able to run simultaneous F1 and IndyCar programs in the same year, this is not necessarily a compliment, nor is it something for Rossi and Manor Racing to be proud of.

Plus, this isn’t something that’s worked well in the past. Nigel Mansell, for example, bailed on F1 for IndyCar after winning the 1992 World Championship. He stormed to victories and the IndyCar title on these shores a year later, helping to raise IndyCar’s profile on the worldwide stage and becoming the first and only driver thus far to hold both titles simultaneously.

A year later, the romantic flame burned out. Mansell got hosed at the 1994 Indianapolis 500 when Dennis Vitolo took him out during a caution flag period. Barely a month later he was in Magny-Cours, making his triumphant return to F1, filling in for David Coulthard in the second Williams Renault during that team – and series’ – most turbulent of years.

By year’s end, Mansell was back in F1 fully and had left IndyCar with a sour taste in his mouth, and IndyCar had more or less said good riddance to him.

If a split has worked, it’s because the entity committing to a split program understands the programs unto which he or she is committing.

A perfect recent example – and perhaps the most successful one – is Englishman Mike Conway.

Conway decided at the end of 2012 he didn’t like racing IndyCars on ovals, and took some heat for it, but made the brave move and stuck to it.

For two years, Conway then became IndyCar’s new Roberto Moreno or Memo Gidley – the de facto road and street course ringer “supersub” – and bagged three wins in the process for Dale Coyne Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing.

He also showcased his ability in sports cars, first in LMP2 with G-Drive Racing and then the following year in limited LMP1 starts with Toyota Gazoo Racing. Conway’s parlayed that into a full-time factory effort with Toyota in the FIA World Endurance Championship, while also keeping his open-wheel chops fresh in the FIA Formula E Championship.

Conway aside, saying you’ve committed to two things usually means you’ve really, properly committed to neither. It’s a bit like the old axiom in professional football that if you have two starting QBs – as the Chicago Bears often do – you don’t really have any. If you have that one starting QB – as the Green Bay Packers have for the better part of nearly 25 years – your chances of longterm success are better.

In Rossi’s case, the split means that while he’ll attend 11 Grands Prix, he may have that take precedence at the forefront of his mind instead of the 16 IndyCar races he’s committed to by confirming his program in the No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda.

An example where this could really impact the IndyCar side is just before his first Grand Prix he’s slated to attend, the Russian Grand Prix at Sochi on May 1.

The Sochi event is a week after Barber Motorsports Park and two weeks before the month of May begins at Indianapolis.

We’ve already seen the issues from a visa standpoint for Mikhail Aleshin trying to get back into the U.S. and while it’s certainly possible Rossi’s trip back-and-forth will go swimmingly, it’s not a guarantee. Ironically, it’s Aleshin – a Russian – keen to race in America while Rossi – an American – would be making his first trip back to Europe to Russia.

Crucically, Rossi would be missing out on at least one week of necessary preparation for Indianapolis – both the Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 – to gel with his team and teammates and be like a sponge in understanding the challenge of his first month of May.

It leaves the impression he’d rather be standing in the garage and perhaps doing an FP1 outing on a track devoid of any history, instead of coming to grips with how Indianapolis gets on.

The other four non-conflicting F1 weekends during the IndyCar season are at Baku, Azerbajian, the week in between Texas and Road America in June, Austria, the week before the Iowa and Toronto weekends in July, Hungary, the week in-between Toronto and Mid-Ohio, and Belgium, the week before Boston.

It could create a nightmare logistical situation and might impact Rossi just from a pure jet lag standpoint. He’s committed to living in Indianapolis this year, but the travel does tend to wear on you.

It doesn’t really help Manor, either, frankly. Rossi can attend 11 Grands Prix but say at one of the 10 he’ll miss, either Pascal Wehrlein or Rio Haryanto falls ill and is unable to take part. Where, then, does Manor turn for a replacement driver? Would Rossi’s reserve role mean on the off chance he could get to a conflicting Grand Prix that he’d give up his IndyCar ride?

In speaking to Bryan Herta at Phoenix for the Test in the West, he spoke highly of Gabby Chaves and said while Rossi was on his radar, it was more the Andretti team that he’d been negotiating with in case his original Manor race program fell through.

“We were very aware of Alexander, yes, but Alexander had been in contact with Michael at various times the last couple years as I understand it,” Herta told NBC Sports.

“When I came to Michael, there were a few other drivers on the list, and it really, Alexander’s management had reached out to Andretti almost coincidentally right in the time frame we started talking. ‘We think the Manor thing is gonna happen but if it doesn’t, is there anything there?’ He very quickly became at the top of the list.

“Gabby is a great race car driver. No doubt about it. That’s why we worked so hard through the winter to put something together with him. I feel terrible for him we don’t have anything.

“But he’s young. He’s got a lot of talent. He showed a lot of promise in our car. It shows that when Sam needed someone for this test, when Aleshin couldn’t get his visa, Gabby was first on the list. He’d be first natural guy on every list.”

The thing about Chaves – or the litany of other drivers who’ve come to America to pursue their IndyCar dreams and yet currently don’t have a ride (Tristan Vautier, JR Hildebrand, Sage Karam, et al) – is that you knew they wanted to be in IndyCar. They came up through the Mazda Road to Indy and viewed IndyCar as a destination, not a stop gap.

Rightly or wrongly, Rossi keeping his foot in the F1 door gives off the impression he doesn’t. Which is all fine and good – he needs to do what’s best for his career – but makes his IndyCar bow seem disingenuous.

In looking through this year’s IndyCar grid, you can’t be half-assing your efforts if you expect to have success.

Speaking from experience both in my college and professional career, when you’re balancing two or more roles simultaneously, inadvertently one gets overlooked or doesn’t receive the same amount of focus and attention.

You can push through, certainly, and get done with all your tasks. But, you could feel terrible because one or the other role did not get the necessary attention, desire or effort it deserved.

In IndyCar, given the depth of field this year from spots 1-22, there are no slouches, no excuses, and no room for error.

I like Alexander Rossi personally, as I’ve known him since he last raced here full-time in 2008. I really do wish him well in both his roles and opportunities this year. And I hope he has the chance to enjoy an In ‘N Out burger not just at Long Beach, but at Phoenix too.

But I hope he embraces and understands the magnitude of what he’s gotten himself into.

And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that upon committing to IndyCar, he seems to already have one foot out the door.

Opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect those of the entity on the whole.

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.”