PWC seeks a rebound on the streets of Long Beach

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If we’re kind, last year at Long Beach marked the single low point in a tumultuous campaign for the Pirelli World Challenge.

A caution-strewn 50-minute race, which was after the IndyCar race, was still headed for a great finish before a controversial three-car accident at Turn 8. Olivier Beretta and Johnny O’Connell sandwiched Kevin Estre, with O’Connell (outside) and Estre (middle) getting the short end of the stick while Beretta bulldozed his way through on the inside; he eventually won the race (2015 results here).

Granted, Beretta didn’t get off for the contact – but he did make the not-so-elusive 19-driver post-race penalty list that dominated headlines and generated controversy in the week after, and in the run up to the next race at Barber Motorsports Park the following week.

Flash forward 12 months later and quite a bit has changed in PWC since as the series heads to Long Beach for the race presented by Cadillac (race airs 2 p.m. ET, Sunday, CBS Sports Network). For Long Beach purposes, we’ll focus solely on what’s changed on the driver front (2016 entry list here):

  • None of the podium finishers return. Olivier Beretta isn’t back after earning a wealth of condemnation after last year; Chris Dyson is focused on other business interests and Ryan Dalziel is in Europe this weekend for the FIA World Endurance Championship opener.
  • Less might be more. Last year, there were 38 starters and a load of accidents. This year, the field is down to 24 cars. As we’ve seen in IMSA on these streets the last couple years, the fewer the cars, the greater the likelihood is that the race could go off with a reduced number of cautions.
  • No Cup cars. The GT Cup class doesn’t race at Long Beach and while this is unfortunate for those competitors who could use another “showcase” event, fact was GT Cup contributed to a bulk of the caution time at St. Petersburg race two. They were also in this race last year; this year, they’re not.
  • Year-on-year changes: OUT: Beretta, Dyson, Dalziel, Mike Hedlund, Eric Lux, Dan Knox, Christina Nielsen, David Welch, Henrique Cisneros, Drew Regitz, Andy Pilgrim, Robert Thorne, Estre, Butch Leitzinger, Bill Ziegler, Mike Skeen and entire GT Cup field minus Colin Thompson. IN: Kyle Marcelli, Austin Cindric, Michael Cooper, Alvaro Parente, Patrick Long, Andrew Davis, Andrew Palmer, Adderly Fong, Jon Fogarty, Jorge de la Torre and Bill Sweedler. Given those additions and with a respectable GTA field this year, it’s hard not to call the 2016 PWC field at Long Beach a stronger overall group than 2015’s.

So what should we be watching for this weekend?

In a word: redemption.

Close backups are “cleanliness” and “survival” with Barber once again a week after.

Fortunately, the PWC race runs several hours earlier this year than it did last year, and that should allow the PWC contingent to get out of California and get on the road to Alabama quite a bit sooner.

Here’s the thing for World Challenge: it desperately needs a showcase race devoid of too much drama, whether it’s on the competition side, the broadcast/stream side or the operational side.

Long Beach last year was the prime example of what could go wrong for this great series. Officiating, cautions and poor driving standards ruled the day, rather than badass competition between nearly 30 GT3 cars from double digit manufacturers.

With a prime race slot now before the IndyCar race on Sunday morning, more fans would be likely to show up because they’ll want to be there for the headliner. In past years, PWC has needed to ensure fans would stay later to watch.

Both race ones this year at COTA and St. Petersburg have been clean, hard-fought affairs. Both race twos have been caution-heavy, and featured a bit of drama – the Long/James Davison contact at COTA forced the EFFORT Racing team into a thrash to even get the same Porsche 911 GT3 R ready for St. Petersburg.

With the Barber doubleheader the following week, this weekend’s Long Beach race is vital for PWC to go off cleanly and without more than one caution to ensure it gets the fans who are on site and able to see the race pumped.

You’re getting way more variety in PWC than you will in the IndyCar race later that day, in terms of different manufacturers.

You also have two cool hometown stories – Long, a veteran Californian and EFFORT teammate Michael Lewis, who swept St. Petersburg – both keen to win on home soil in the series’ first of two visits to the state (season ends at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in October).

Add in additional Californians James Sofronas, Ende, Palmer and Bryan Heitkotter in the GT class, a hungry O’Connell looking for redemption after being taken out last year, Cooper in search of his first GT win and Davison looking for glory on Always Evolving’s home soil and you have no shortage of story lines.

The prayer is that the racing, and not the controversy, emerges strongest at the end of the day.

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.”