Tight turns, long straights: Road America rewards precision

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) Road America’s unique 14-turn layout requires precision, while providing drivers some fun behind the wheel.

Successful rides around the “Carousel” on Sunday in the 202-mile Kohler Grand Prix could offer handsome rewards. It’s a two-turn twist in the middle of the 4-plus mile road course that leads cars into another slight bend called the “Kink.” A successful maneuver through that stretch shoots cars in the “Kettle Bottoms” straight.

It is one of the best parts of the track for Tony Kanaan.

“I would say the Carousel and the Kink in the backstretch is the most fun on the track because it’s the fastest … I just like that part,” Kanaan said.

But it must be handled with care, as Josef Newgarden learned. He spun out in the Carousel during qualifying on Saturday to push him back to 20th in the 22-car field.

“I made a mistake. I feel pretty silly for doing it, but that happens sometimes,” Newgarden said after qualifying. “You’re going to overstep sometimes, and that’s what I did right there. I got a little bit wide and got too greedy.”

Road America requires drivers to be proficient in a little bit of everything. Elevation changes and three appealing straightaways interspersed among the 14 turns offer unique variety. Some corners are especially fast, with tight braking zones.

“I think the combination of the corners, the undulation in the grounds, the fact that there’s a lot of fast corners,” said retired driver Dario Franchitti, who won at Elkhart Lake in 1998. He got a refresher after walking the track on Thursday.

“It’s a combination of things that makes a great track,” he said Saturday. “It rewards precision.”

The open-wheel series has returned to the rural Wisconsin track for the first time since 2007. There’s a campground-feel at the woodsy venue that creates a fan-friendly atmosphere.

“The race, to be honest – whatever happens, happens – but just to have so many people here, I’m just excited,” Helio Castroneves said. “But at this point I’m just glad we’re back in this beautiful place.”

He was so excited to be back that he joined Scott Dixon in a cruise through the campgrounds on Friday night.

The fans were back on a warm Saturday afternoon to watch qualifying and a day full of lower-series racing.

“I think there (were) a lot of unknowns coming back for the first time,” Dixon said. “It’s so cool to see everybody back here and everybody embracing this race.”

The twists and turns of the track might make it especially appealing. Veteran driver Juan Pablo Montoya said too much attention is paid to the Carousel, and not enough on other tight corners.

Those turns may put passing at a premium on the long straights, which could make the timing of when drivers use their 10 “push-to-pass” boosts especially critical.

“I think it will be tough to pass. The braking zones are unbelievably short,” pole-sitter Will Power said. “It’s just tough to get close, it is. Even in the old cars, it was tough. It’s a narrow place, lower grip.

“‘Push to pass’, a big chunk of speed,” Power said.

In contrast, the Carousel turns cars 180 degrees. But the downforce on cars now allows for higher speeds through the two turns. Sebastien Bourdais, who won the 2007 race, said “maximum commitment” was needed to get through the area, alternating from brake to throttle and throttle to brake.

“It’s really, really committing and demanding,” Bourdais said about the track. “You finish a three-lap, or four-lap run and you’re out of breath.”

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.”