Indy Lights debutantes Grist, French impress at Road America

French (45) and Grist (3) learned and grew this weekend. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Both Garett Grist and James French delivered solid debut weekends in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America, even if both drivers felt they left a bit on the table in the two races.

Grist stepped up from the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires ranks, and took over the No. 3 Team Pelfrey Dallara IL-15 Mazda that had been driven by Scott Hargrove, while French stepped into the renumbered No. 45 Belardi Auto Racing entry usually driven by Felix Rosenqvist.

Grist, the 22-year-old Canadian, had never been to the 4.014-mile permanent road course before and the Gary Neal-led team hadn’t tested, which made it a case where Grist’s eighth place qualifying effort driving the Buy Gap Guard/Lander Property Management/Mac Tools entry in the 14-car field on Friday was particularly impressive.

French hadn’t run an Indy Lights car since a test at Circuit of The Americas in November; however, track experience for the 23-year-old Sheboygan native undoubtedly paid dividends throughout the weekend.

Combined they had four out of a possible four top-10 finishes. Grist was seventh and 10th, with French eighth in both races.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“I ran into the back of the guy ahead of me. I was just so much faster that I didn’t think they’d brake that early,” Grist told NBC Sports Sunday after making a mistake when he damaged his front wing going into Turn 14.

“We were the fastest car on rain tires. (Ed) Jones and (Dean) Stoneman went to dries and then they were first and second quickest. But other than that, I was consistently the fastest car on the track by a lot. I did my best lap without push-to-pass and we were the quickest on wets. So it was just a bad mistake on my part.

“We definitely had a podium car there for sure, coming from eighth, but a silly rookie mistake that I shouldn’t make at this point.

“But I’m really happy with my first weekend. We had so much pace, we were so fast, so that’s a positive. As a first weekend, it was a learning weekend, and I’ll take it.”

French was more methodical in both races and blamed himself for not readjusting the engine mapping on his car back from wet to dry conditions in Sunday’s second races. Otherwise, he said he “had a blast.”

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“When it was consistent, I felt pretty comfortable,” French told NBC Sports. “I knew what to expect from the rain at least, but when it transitioned to dry, I found myself a little lost. I made the mistake of not going back to the dry fuel map, so I lost a little bit of time there.

“It was definitely a big learning curve, but I learned so much throughout the experience. Managing tires I kind of struggled with, when they’re not looking so good. That was definitely the difficult part. In full dry conditions I knew what to do. But finding somewhere in between and following the grip, I kinda struggled. Overall though, I had a blast.”

Grist’s next start will be on home soil in Toronto, as he wasn’t scheduled to race the Iowa Speedway oval.

French hopes to return for at least one and perhaps two more race weekends later this year. Brian Belardi told IndyCar Radio’s Rob Howden this weekend he expects Rosenqvist back for Toronto.

French has race weekends three and four of eight in a row the next two weeks, back in his usual Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09 Prototype Challenge class at Watkins Glen International, then at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

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.”