PREVIEW: KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

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The return of the Verizon IndyCar Series to Road America to race this weekend is real, and it is spectacular.

There’s a lot of excitement and pontification about the race and naturally there will be more to write and note.

Here’s some of the interesting story lines heading into this weekend’s KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) (full TV schedule linked here).

2016 KOHLER Grand Prix – Talking Points

Corner speed and track physicality

One of the big talking points coming out of the couple tests IndyCar has had at Road America is just how fast the track is, particularly the cornering speeds. In September, Tony Kanaan spoke of cars being about 12 mph faster in the corners than in the supposed “heyday” of speed at Road America from the late 1990s into the early 2000s. Kanaan, driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, has four past starts here from 1999 to 2002.

There’s the three long straights leading into Turns 1, 5 and 12, followed by heavy braking points. Then there’s a bunch of high speed corners and that will be fascinating to watch how drivers handle the track layout.

Josef or JR?

Josef Newgarden was entered on INDYCAR’s initial entry list to drive the No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing, and on Thursday after the Hendersonville, Tenn. native was cleared to drive for practice.

If he doesn’t continue past Friday, JR Hildebrand, who’s at Road America either way on standby, will get the call.

Newgarden sits fourth in the points standings and any hope of contending for his first championship would go by the wayside if he doesn’t race. That being said, given his collarbone and hand injuries sustained at Texas, the fact he’s even considering giving it a go is stunning enough.

How much might past track experience matter?

It might not be that much. Most of the field has past starts here in other disciplines, either in IndyCar or Atlantic, Formula BMW, USF2000 or sports cars. There’s only a handful of drivers who could be making their first starts at Road America this week.

And with the higher downforce levels, lower horsepower and higher cornering speeds, and different tire configuration compared to the past, it’s likely to be a different race.

Pagenaud vs. the field, again

With Texas now on a temporary hold until August 27 after the floods and heavy rain swept through Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago, the points haven’t changed. Simon Pagenaud still leads the points by 80 over Scott Dixon, who is fresh back like several other drivers from the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That list also includes Sebastien Bourdais, who won there in the GTE-Pro class and won the most recent open-wheel Road America race in 2007 in Champ Car, Mikhail Aleshin and NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell, who won the GTE-Am class.

And it was all, yellow…

With Dixon’s usual red No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet shifted to bright yellow Clorox colors, and with Pagenaud back in the bright yellow No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet and Graham Rahal in the No. 15 Gehl/D-A Lubricant Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, there’s a lot more yellow in the 22-car grid than usual.

The final word

From James Hinchcliffe, who freaking loves this place and once made an ode to the track’s bratwursts:

“I’m so excited to go back to Road America. This has been my favorite road course in the country from the moment I first went there in 2004. It’s the kind of track that Indy cars are built for. I hope that it’s a great race and it stays on the calendar for a long time.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, June 24
11 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, NBCSN (Live)
3 – 4:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, June 25
11 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (5:30 p.m. ET, same-day delay)

Sunday, June 26
8 – 8:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
11:32 a.m. – Driver Introductions
12:07 p.m. – Command to Start Engines
12:15 p.m. – KOHLER Grand Prix (50 laps/202.4 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s race’s most recent top 10 (from Champ Car 2007): 

1. Sebastien Bourdais
2. Dan Clarke
3. Graham Rahal
4. Oriol Servia
5. Alex Tagliani
6. Jan Heylen
7. Tristan Gommendy
8. Justin Wilson
9. Bruno Junqueira
10. Neel Jani

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.”