PREVIEW: Iowa Corn 300

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ longest race in terms of lap count and shortest in terms of racetrack length occurs this weekend, with the 300-lap Iowa Corn 300 at the 0.894-mile Iowa Speedway bullring (Sunday, 5 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Weather pending, it will be the third completed oval race of the year and the first of a back-to-back run of races, and first in a three-in-four-weeks stretch.

Here’s some of the talking points going into the weekend:

2016 Iowa Corn 300 – Talking Points

Track changes 

Iowa Speedway’s notorious bump in Turn 2 has been a big talking point but may have been smoothed out this year. Yet the surface in Turns 3 and 4 could be an issue this year.

“They did a pretty nice job in Turns 1 and 2, shaving some of the bumps, but they are still popping up and now there are bumps in Turns 3 and 4 where they had to patch the surface, so the grip is very uneven,” said Sebastien Bourdais, driver of the No. 11 Team Hydroxycut KVSH Racing Chevrolet.

Added Takuma Sato, driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda, “Iowa is a great track. It is one of the most exciting short ovals and we have such close battles in very tight competition. It’s physical – we pull over 5 Gs – so you can see the cornering speeds are quite impressive. I think Iowa always produces great entertainment because it is a very competitive race. I enjoy driving this challenging track and love the venue.”

Night to day

The big change this year is it moving from a Saturday night race to a Sunday late afternoon race. Traditionally a night race, Iowa has been a day race before, most recently in 2013. With the race occurring in the afternoon it will be a hotter affair and perhaps quite slippery over the course of the race.

Will Power’s roll heads to Iowa

At a track he hasn’t traditionally done well at, Will Power and the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet team seek their third straight victory. His most recent decent finish there was fifth in 2010. But if he can continue his roll of form of late that’s propelled him into championship discussion, look out.

Andretti’s quest for seven straight

As noted separately, Andretti Autosport will look to go for its seventh straight win at Iowa, and eighth overall, having won seven of the first nine Iowa Speedway races. Ryan Hunter-Reay also goes for his third straight Iowa win and fourth in five years, while Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz look to break winless runs. Alexander Rossi makes his Iowa debut, and having impressed at Phoenix before pulling off the upset win at Indianapolis, he could be a good pick this weekend.

Penske’s search for any Iowa result of note

By contrast to Andretti Autosport, Team Penske has never won at Iowa. In fact, the team hasn’t even finished on the podium since 2010, when Helio Castroneves finished second.

The last top fives? That same year. Castroneves was second with Ryan Briscoe fourth and Power fifth. The team has not scored a top-five at Iowa since.

Recent finishes of Penske drivers at Iowa since the Dallara DW12 came into being? Not brilliant. It’s simply bizarre to fathom because the team is so good.

  • Juan Pablo Montoya: 2015 (24th), 2014 (16th)
  • Helio Castroneves: 2015 (11th), 2014 (8th), 2013 (8th), 2012 (6th)
  • Will Power: 2015 (10th), 2014 (14th), 2013 (17th), 2012 (23rd)
  • Simon Pagenaud: 2015 (14th), 2014 (11th, then with Schmidt), 2013 (6th), 2012 (5th)

No pole winners have become race winners

Here’s your Iowa Speedway winners and where they’ve started, and then the pole winners and where they’ve finished:

  • 2007: Dario Franchitti (Started 3rd), Scott Dixon (Pole, Finished 10th)
  • 2008: Dan Wheldon (3rd), Scott Dixon (4th)
  • 2009: Dario Franchitti (4th), Helio Castroneves (7th)
  • 2010: Tony Kanaan (15th), Will Power (5th)
  • 2011: Marco Andretti (17th), Takuma Sato (19th)
  • 2012: Ryan Hunter-Reay (7th), Dario Franchitti (25th)
  • 2013: James Hinchcliffe (2nd), Will Power (17th)
  • 2014: Ryan Hunter-Reay (13th), Scott Dixon (4th)
  • 2015: Ryan Hunter-Reay (9th), Helio Castroneves (11th)

TK’s due

Tony Kanaan has led 317 laps at Iowa Speedway in the last two years – 247 in 2014 and 70 last year. An engine issue took him out last year but prior to that, he’d come third of each the previous three years (2012 to 2014) and second in 2011, after winning in 2010. Needless to say, the driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet is due to break through.

Newgarden’s pain threshold

The Iowa Speedway race will be a tougher test for Josef Newgarden, driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, and he knows it. He’ll be relying on JR Hildebrand’s setup help from last week’s test; Newgarden’s teammate and team owner, Ed Carpenter, traditionally runs well at Iowa and will look for a decent driving result in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. Newgarden has finished second here each of the last two years but this is his biggest test yet.

No Sage; how does Chilton fare?

The kid I dubbed IndyCar’s “new, needed, black hat” last year is arguably the most notable absence year-on-year in Iowa. Sage Karam was the star attraction in last year’s race, even if his driving tactics raised the ire of, most notably Carpenter and Graham Rahal. But he won’t have an encore.

In his place is Max Chilton, who’s in desperate need of a good result himself and could well surprise in the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet this weekend. Chilton scored an emotional win in Indy Lights here a year ago and has strangely fared better on the ovals than road and street courses this year, Phoenix proving his best result to date. He won’t ruffle feathers like Karam did, but will Chilton be able to emulate or exceed the third place that Karam scored here last year?

Old dogs vs. the young chargers

This race has always proven a good test of experience vs. youthful exuberance, with experience usually winning out. Karam and Newgarden’s star turns in recent years aside – and last year had a really forward looking top-five with Ryan Hunter-Reay winning over Newgarden, Karam, Rahal and Carlos Munoz – it’s been the veterans like Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves that have traditionally run the strongest here.

How will, as NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy once called a battle between he and Jimmy Vasser at Milwaukee, the “old, salty sea dogs” fare against the young chargers who are keen to win on Iowa’s shortest track? It’ll be fun to watch.

Pagenaud’s points lead

Simon Pagenaud’s points lead has been a story throughout the year.

After the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and his third straight win, it was 76 points. But that was before finishes of 19th, 13th, second and 13th in the last four completed races – the first of which, the Indianapolis 500, was a double points race.

Yet here’s been his points gap to second:

  • Indianapolis 500: 57 points to Scott Dixon (292-235)
  • Detroit 1: 59 to Helio Castroneves (313-254)
  • Detroit 2: 80 to Dixon (357-277)
  • Road America: 74 to Castroneves (375-301)

Pagenaud is lucky that lead has only gone down a net of two points in the last four races. Any further stumbles though – a la teammate Juan Pablo Montoya in this race last year – will open the door back up for those behind him.

The final word

Scott Dixon has never won at Iowa – a rare track he hasn’t ticked off – but the driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet is good at explaining it:

“Iowa Speedway is such a tough track for racing Indy cars. You have very high g-force loading and there is always a lot of action on that little bullring-style track. You really have to be on your game with traffic and the quick lap times. It’s got a lot more character having weathered in over the past few years and the bumps in Turns 1 and 2. The track grip has come down a little bit as well, which makes it interesting. I really love this event and especially the fans that attend – they really love Indy car racing and show their support.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local and CT):

Saturday, July 9
10 – 11:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single car/two timed laps), NBCSN (Live)
6:15 – 6:45 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Sunday, June 26
1 p.m. – Systems Check
4 p.m. – Driver Introductions
4:35 p.m. – Command to Start Engines
4:40 p.m. – Iowa Corn 300 (300 laps/268.2 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10: 

1. Ryan Hunter-Reay
2. Josef Newgarden
3. Sage Karam
4. Graham Rahal
5. Carlos Munoz
6. Ed Carpenter
7. Marco Andretti
8. Ryan Briscoe
9. Sebastien Bourdais
10. Will Power
11. Helio Castroneves (Pole)

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.”