Scott Dixon reflects on Ford GT debut; looks ahead to Le Mans

Photo: Wes Duenkel/Ford Performance
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One of the greatest drivers of his generation added another piece of machinery to his resume this weekend, as Scott Dixon made his race debut in the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida.

Dixon led 18 laps (from Laps 121 to 138) in the GT Le Mans class in the eighth hour of the race – the first time the No. 67 Ford GT has led laps in IMSA competition – and finished fifth in the car he co-drove with full-season drivers Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe. The sister No. 66 car, driven by Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais finished eighth and continued after Mueller hydroplaned off into Turn 1.

The race marked Dixon’s, the four-time and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, first start in a GT car after all his past sports car starts have come in Prototypes – usually one of Ganassi’s Daytona Prototypes but occasionally an LMP1 car, as was the case with de Ferran Motorsports’ Acuras in the late 2000s.

For Dixon, now 35, he admitted there was a bit of a learning curve even as he had some success during the race, particularly with letting faster prototype class traffic by.

“It’s just very easy to be over cautious. If you see someone coming in the mirror, you want to give them room. But the best thing you can do is race hard and focus on your own issues at hand,” Dixon told NBC Sports post-race.

“It’s definitely a different dynamic. Coming from Barber with a lot more power and a lot more grip in the IndyCar, it was quite a big adjustment for the first session or two. But then I got a rhythm. It’s definitely a learning curve.”

Dixon was off a busy week where he finished seventh at the IndyCar opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, in his usual No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, and then headed with most of the IndyCar teams and drivers to Barber Motorsports Park on Tuesday for a one-day test.

After being home for a day, Dixon headed back to Sebring to be with the No. 67 car on Thursday. Sunny and warm conditions dominated the opening two days of action, before rain swept in on race day – and it was similarly treacherous conditions to the nightmarish Petit Le Mans last October, which rained non-stop all day.

Dixon praised both IMSA Race Control and Michelin for their respective efforts – this was also Dixon’s first start on Michelin tires since the American Le Mans Series days.

“It was pretty tricky. You never want to see a race get red flagged or stopped, but it was definitely the right call there,” Dixon said. “They were gonna wreck a lot of cars. There’s a lot of standing water at this place. Yeah when I got in the car, it was a little bit wet. Rainy a little bit. Then slicks.

“The car performed well in mixed conditions. The TC and stuff worked well. I was very impressed with the Michelin tires. Having done these races in the Prototype with the Continentals, it had been a bit tricky in the wet. So it was good to be on a good tire. I had a lot of fun out there. It was cool.”

Brad Goldberg, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Brad Goldberg, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Dixon is under no illusions that the road to his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut this year, as part of the same lineup but the renumbered No. 69 car for Le Mans, will be an easy one.

He heads to France later this week for simulator work – a requirement for all rookie drivers – and then he’ll have eight IndyCar races in-between (Phoenix, Long Beach, Barber, Indy GP, Indy 500, Detroit twice and Texas) before his next Ford GT start.

He’ll miss out on the Le Mans Test Day on June 5, owing to the second race of the IndyCar weekend at Detroit. He can do so as a Platinum-rated driver by the FIA; rookie drivers who are Platinum-rated can miss that test.

A week later, he’ll need to emulate Briscoe last year in leaving Texas straight after Texas and head straight to Le Mans for scrutineering, the two-day technical inspection in downtown Le Mans open to the public. Problem is, if Dixon wins Texas again like he did last year, it might be a bigger scramble.

But while the logistics might be challenging and the car a new one, Dixon knows most of the crew he’ll be with on the Ford GT program. Brad Goldberg, who had been Charlie Kimball’s engineer in IndyCar, is the engineer on this car and there’s other crew members Dixon has worked with throughout his 14-year tenure with Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Yeah it does, man,” Dixon said when asked if this feels like home. “A lot of these people I’ve worked with many a times, sports car or IndyCar. For me, it’s the best scenario to go with this team to Le Mans. It feels very at home.

“To have the prep here at the 12-hour was important. The next time I’m in the car will be Le Mans. It’s a long break. There’s the simulator work to do, the safety procedures and protocols. I’ll have to learn the track a bit too. Yeah, it’s gonna be fun to appreciate the experience.”

The 1966 win was achieved by two of Dixon’s New Zealander countrymen, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon.

“You couldn’t have it any better with the history and delving into who won in ’66 with two Kiwis,” he said. “And then having it an in-house program with Ganassi, Ford and Multimatic.

“It just fits and it works, and it helps me maybe for later in my career doing some more races at Le Mans. It’s the perfect situation.

“Obviously we have one goal, and that’s to win, man. We have a lot of work to do, a lot to clean up and make it better and with not a lot of time.

“I’m excited to get there and be a part of that program. To be part of the history and what they have to try to do, to repeat the ’66 win.

“For motorsport in general, this is a pretty big deal.”

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

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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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 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.”