Drivers happy for Phoenix return, but seek better package in future

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Compared to my other and current hometown of Milwaukee, my first hometown of Phoenix had its return event tonight – and unlike Milwaukee, the question after Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix wasn’t whether the race would return but how different it would be in 2017.

Drivers weren’t thrilled with the racing product though; a number of drivers opined on how it could be better next year. Passing was made more difficult with the high downforce configuration and there wasn’t enough tire fall off from Firestone, which were durable as ever even though a couple drivers sustained punctures.

“I think we can definitely make a better show,” race winner Scott Dixon said in the post-race press conference. “You know, it’s tough coming back here, yes, we’ve run some test days here, but it’s very hard to make changes when you don’t really know how it’s going to play out in the race.

“I think tonight was maybe a little bit conservative on some sides, and I think that the question is can we make it a better show, and absolutely. I think next year when we come back, it’s going to be bigger and better and in the right direction.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan were about the only two drivers to have made key passing maneuvers. Hunter-Reay vaulted from 12th to seventh in the first two corners and ran as high as third; Kanaan came from a lapped 11th place up to fourth in the final 55 laps to the finish. Hunter-Reay ended 10th after a late mistake when he got loose trying to pass Max Chilton.

But they were the exceptions, not the norm, on this day.

“It was about what I expected. But we need to come back here and next time, we need better racing,” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports.

“I think we need to make this place, to where it is a bit more opened up. We need it where the mechanical balance comes out in the car, where the mechanical handling comes out, where you have tire degradation, and where you have guys moving around. This was just not what we needed.”

Added Kanaan,  “I don’t think anyone passed more cars than I did. But it was more difficult. For some reason we couldn’t work out the second groove. It’s always tough when you only have one race line. I found some, though! Thank goodness we could do it. It wasn’t as good as I’ve had in Phoenix before.”

Simon Pagenaud and Will Power moved from 10th and ninth on the grid to second and third by the finish, primarily via pit work from their Team Penske crews.

“It was exactly as difficult as I thought it was going to be,” Pagenaud said. “It was a great race, very, very difficult to follow people, very difficult to get your balance right on the car, but we started with a lot of oversteer, struggled a little bit the first two stints, were having a lot of tire degradation. We adjusted really well in the race, but then we caught a yellow at the wrong time when pit lane when the yellow came out, so went a lap down, but fortunately my guys were just fantastic in the pits.”

Added Power, “Honestly the guys in the pits were awesome. It was so difficult to pass, we just sat there and saved fuel and kept catching those yellows. They were going long, and kind of saving the tires a bit, too. Just that last start made a mistake.”

Juan Pablo Montoya was less than thrilled after finishing ninth, in what was still a good recovery drive despite a puncture. He and former teammate Jimmy Vasser, now a team co-owner for KVSH Racing, were talking with INDYCAR’s Bill Pappas – Montoya’s former race engineer – post-race about how difficult the racing conditions were on Saturday night.

“It was more about saving tires than anything else,” Montoya told NBC Sports. “We knew it’d be hard to pass. It is what it is.

“My concern, to be honest with you, is that I don’t decide what goes on the cars. They gave us a package and we made the most of it. I feel we had the car to win the race. Just couldn’t use it. Every time you pushed, you’d have a problem with the tires.”

Rookies Max Chilton and Alexander Rossi both drove great races and while Chilton ended seventh, Rossi ended an unrepresentative 14th. They didn’t have a reference point as it was their oval debuts; nonetheless, their thoughts mirrored the veterans in terms of how tough it was to race.

“It was difficult. But the last stint was easier with new tires,” Chilton told NBC Sports. “TK made it look easy. But it wasn’t that easy! I was just happy to get the result. I never did a lap flat, today. I was literally just fuel saving.”

Rossi added, “It was very hard to pass. Restarts were the only opportunity. It was hard to find another line.”

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.”