Mix of IndyCar running, plus Indy Lights drivers, set for key Mid-Ohio test

Enerson (leading) and a number of other Indy Lights drivers set for Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Thursday’s team test at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is set to be one of the most important of the year for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

First, it’s another in-season test to prepare for the upcoming Honda Indy 200 on July 31, the last race before the series’ longest in-season break of the year (albeit with three other test dates scheduled between Mid-Ohio and the Pocono Raceway event on August 21).

And secondly, it’s the first chance of the year for teams to evaluate the next generation of potential IndyCar drivers en masse.

At least four drivers – Felix Rosenqvist (Ganassi), Robin Frijns (Andretti), Zachary Claman De Melo (Schmidt Peterson) and RC Enerson (Coyne) – will be making their IndyCar test debuts.

Meanwhile Jack Harvey will rejoin SPM for his second test, having also tested with the team last year. Harvey and De Melo are testing under a Rookie Evaluation test designation, not Indy Lights Day designation, and that’s important to note as you’ll see further below.

unnamed (42)“I am excited about the test this week with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports,” De Melo (right) said in a release. “We have put a great deal of off-track preparation into my first IndyCar test. Sam Schmidt and his team are meticulous about introducing a driver to IndyCar, from fitting myself into the car, talking to engineers, going over the simulator, down to being physically and mentally fit for the challenge.

“Everyone at SPM is professional and I am thrilled that I have this opportunity with such an elite organization. I would like to thank IndyCar and SPM for believing and trusting in my abilities to perform at this level.”

unnamed (41)Harvey (right), who’s back, added, “It’s been a tough year but that’s what makes the return to driving all the better. Mid-Ohio is a track I’ve done well at before so I’m hopeful that I can help the team with their testing plan moving forward. Thank you to SPM for giving me this opportunity and I can’t wait to get started.”

Rosenqvist and Enerson told NBC Sports they’d be going to both teams’ respective shops this week for seat fits; Enerson is highly probable to then make his IndyCar race debut with Dale Coyne Racing at Mid-Ohio later this month.

It’s a somewhat smaller number of first-timers or Indy Lights drivers, compared to the seven who tested at Sonoma last year (Nelson Piquet Jr., Harvey, Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, Ed Jones, Sean Rayhall and Ryan Phinny), with six different teams.

Note that Team Penske tested both Piquet and Pigot, as both Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power tested two separate cars. The remaining five drivers split their time with a single IndyCar driver.

In this last month, INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has added a clarification to its rulebook, Rule 6.2.3.3.1, which limits teams without an Indy Lights program to just one car for an Indy Lights Day driver test.

The clarification comes because the initial rule, Rule 6.2.3.3, didn’t specify how many cars per team. That initial Rule 6.2.3.3, Indy Lights Series Driver Test, reads as follows:

Team participating with one or more Full Season Entrants is permitted one (1) Team Test Day for the purpose of Testing a Current Indy Lights Series Driver in an IndyCar Series Car. On-Track time may be divided between an IndyCar Series Driver and a Current Indy Lights Series Driver. The IndyCar Series Driver is restricted to matching the lap count of the Indy Lights Series Driver as approved by INDYCAR during the Test.

This rule clarification has reportedly sidelined at least three drivers who were slated to test on Thursday with a team that does not currently have an Indy Lights program.

However, it does not preclude any of them taking part in further series test days later this year – and further days where “Indy Lights driver TBD” are listed at Watkins Glen on August 11, and Sonoma on Sept. 8.

F1 Young Driver Tests - Silverstone: Day TwoRosenqvist is listed to test under the Indy Lights Day descriptor for Ganassi, while the other four – Frijns (right), De Melo, Harvey and Enerson – listed under the Rookie Evaluation designation. Rookie Evaluation is the same designation as what Brad Keselowski was listed under for his surprise Road America test with Team Penske in June.

Jason Penix is Director of Development Series for INDYCAR and explained the clarification process for why the addendum was created.

“The idea there is to protect the guys that have entries in both INDYCAR and Indy Lights. They do that for a reason. So the rule is added for that reason,” Penix said.

Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, understands why the rule change was made. Ganassi does not have a Lights program, although rumors swirled late last year the team was exploring the option for 2016.

“The rules have slightly changed and they limit it to one car per group, so it’s not two,” Hull told NBC Sports. “Each entry – no matter how many cars you run – gets one car. It’s one (car) for IndyCar and Indy Lights like last year.

“I remember (last year) we had separate cars. That doubled the people, the travel. What’s going on here is a much better solution. We’ll go run Felix in the morning and Scott in the afternoon.”

2B3A0678-LHull also extolled Rosenqvist’s (right) ability level, noting he came to the team by way of his Formula 3 teammate of a year ago, Lance Stroll.

“We have a relationship with Lawrence Stroll and he recommended him highly,” Hull said. “Felix was Lance Stroll’s teammate at PREMA Powerteam last year. Lawrence Stroll really talked him about how great he is and what a great teammate he is, and how much he helped Lance. He said to Chip and I, ‘If you have the opportunity to test him, it would be great if you could.’

“Looking at the things he’s doing globally – the success he’s having – you want to see what he’s all about.”

One of the drivers not testing this week but hoping to do so in the future is Zach Veach, who had a bit of a midseason roll going with three straight podiums at Road America and Iowa before a tough Toronto weekend.

04CJ2582-LVeach, who drives for Belardi Auto Racing in Indy Lights, said he’d been approached following Road America and at Iowa to do the test, but the rule change and reduction to just one car only paused his shot for the moment. That said, he understands why INDYCAR made the decision it did.

“As a young driver that’s the happiest day you hear, because you’ve worked so hard to get there,” Veach told NBC Sports. “The celebration of that almost completely outweighed the win. The rule change was then made clear 4-5 days later.

“It was probably done to keep it fair for INDYCAR teams financially. I fully respect their decisions. It’s important to have these test days so that Indy Lights drivers – not just myself, but others as well – get that chance.”

Perhaps ironically, Veach – a Mazda Road to Indy veteran dating to 2010 – will see his Belardi teammate Rosenqvist get a shot in an IndyCar before he does. But Veach said he’s quite happy to see the talented Swede get his shot.

“Felix is a friend first before a competitor,” he said. “I’m extremely happy he’s getting his test with Ganassi. He can show how fast Indy Lights drivers can be. There’s no hard feelings; it’s actually quite the opposite.”

Penix said the goal of this test as well as other future INDYCAR tests featuring Indy Lights drivers is to showcase the next generation of talent, especially given that the Lights field is so strong right now.

“The quality of driver and team in Indy Lights right now is off the charts,” Penix said. “I’ve been around INDYCAR for 10 years… I’m not sure we’ve seen an Indy Lights field this deep in some time. It goes back to Hinch, Newgarden, Kimball, that era.

“As a whole we want as many guys as possible to get a shot. That’s what they’re in this for.”

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.”