IMSA: Road America 2016 thoughts, musings, observations

All photos courtesy of IMSA
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There’s a lot of thoughts to take away from a busy weekend at Road America for IMSA.

The Continental Tire Road Race Showcase itself provided a thrilling conclusion to a weekend jam-packed with news, nuggets and platform decisions.

Here’s some quick thoughts and takeaways:

  • I like IMSA’s 2017 schedule. I think the moves for Circuit of The Americas and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to essentially swap May and September dates gives both a shot at re-establishing themselves as premier events. IMSA felt the undercard on the Lone Star Le Mans weekend at COTA with the FIA World Endurance Championship and legacy-wise, ALMS tended to do better in September or October than the switch to May, which started a few years ago.
  • Both COTA and Mazda Raceway will hope for increased crowds in their new dates, as those two venues have not had huge turnouts in recent years.
  • imsa_28902133And for schedules, kudos to both IMSA’s Scott Atherton and WC Vision’s Greg Gill – the mutual respect and continued dialogue between the two of them have produced two schedules for the different series that have no foreseen conflicts. This will hopefully make it easier for stakeholders to run in one or both series in 2017 if the budget or opportunity allows.
  • Also, kudos to IMSA for a really well-executed presentation of platforms and future plans on Friday (right). The outdoor setting in the new Road America victory lane was a welcome change of pace, and fortunately, there was no encore of the 2015, we’ll call it awkward moment in the room when WeatherTech was announced as the series’ new entitlement partner last year.
  • On the subject of crowds, it felt as though Road America’s IMSA turnout was down this year, albeit through no fault of IMSA, the track, or the weather. Road America did the usual heavy advance promotional blitz, as Dane Cameron was deployed a couple weeks out, and the DeltaWing pair of Sean Rayhall and Katherine Legge were also busy with IMSA advance work. I think simply, more people who opted to go to one weekend at the track this year chose the IndyCar return weekend in June rather than the IMSA weekend in August.
  • And on another WeatherTech note, the last-minute Leh Keen departure from Alex Job Racing’s No. 22 WeatherTech-backed Porsche alongside Cooper MacNeil was a genuine weird one. Few in the paddock seemed to see it coming and fewer still had an answer as to why, particularly given “off the track circumstances” was listed in the departure release. Anyway, the Nos. 22, 23 and 77 AJR cars finished in formation… in 11th, 12th and 13th in the 15-car GT Daytona field. To say the least, it was an odd weekend for the usually dependable team that’s a regular win contender.
  • I think IMSA was caught between a rock and a hard place with regards to LMP3 implementation. You have to view it from all standpoints. I can understand IMSA wanting to simplify WeatherTech Championship classes by moving from four classes to three, and potentially two if GT convergence ever occurs. I can understand the ACO relationship wanting to see LMP3 machinery make its way to the U.S. market. But I also understand the concerns of PC owners who now have to figure out where they can run without LMP3 as a like-for-like replacement for PC at the end of 2017. What will their customers choose to do? It was a hot-button issue this weekend in the paddock, and it will be interesting to see the PC owners’ next moves from here.
  • CpHLV3oXEAEZ-UDQuite honestly, I don’t like the renaming of LMP3 as PC1 in the rebranded Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda series, while calling the now current Prototype Lites car PC2. If you’re going to bring in LMP3, call it LMP3 (pictured right). In 2017, you’ll have the quirky situation of having Prototype Challenge, the class, with PC as shorthand and then Prototype Challenge, the series, with the PC1 and PC2 classes.
  • To those points, I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again – one of the unfortunate parts of sports car racing is how confusing it is, even if you work in it full-time. I put in the below flow chart/class outline below to explain how complicated it is in terms of understanding which class is in which series, as well as which car fits into each equation.
  • Action Express Racing is on a roll with three straight 1-2 finishes and Cameron is driving better than ever – which is saying something considering how good he’s been since the merger. His move on Jordan Taylor, while not for the outright win at the time, was a masterstroke by the 28-year-old. Coupled with co-driver Eric Curran, who’s also driving excellently at the moment, the No. 31 Whelen Engineering pair look determined to topple their teammates.
  • imsa_28903383Mazda’s strategic mistake was an unfortunate misstep while pursuing its elusive first overall win with its Prototype program. Once the Mazda stayed out on Lap 28 while the rest of the field pitted, the car was stuck on a certain strategy and would always be playing catch-up from a time standpoint. It was tough to see the usually clean Tristan Nunez make a couple aggressive maneuvers and hit other cars. And it was tough for the quality of people assembled by Mazda and SpeedSource to watch another pole (Jonathan Bomarito with Mazda Motorsports head John Doonan, right), its third this year, produce a result off the podium. The frustration of this year will only make the first win that much sweeter when it eventually arrives.
  • imsa_28906588The final caution produced quite a championship shakeup. Corvette Racing went from a possible tie in GTLM points to up 13 following Tommy Milner’s late-race heroics. Meanwhile Action Express Racing’s two cars are split by only one point (right), and PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and Riley Motorsports’ pairs of drivers both entered the title fray after their wins in PC and GTD, respectively.
  • How cool was it to see Sean Rayhall drive the radical DeltaWing prototype at Road America, then a 360 Sprint just down the road at Plymouth Speedway, on the same day? Rayhall hightailed it from Road America after qualifying to Plymouth, and it was no issue he missed the driver’s meeting Saturday night. He missed the A-main, but had a blast driving.
  • imsa_28906523Congrats are in order to a pair of Dutchmen – first to Jeroen Bleekemolen on the GTD win and a second place in the Continental Tire race on Saturday, and second to Renger van der Zande (No. 8, right), whose girlfriend is expecting their first child. Van der Zande and Stephen Simpson both clarified there was no contact between them that led to the final yellow.
  • The Radio Show Limited team produced another sterling, wall-to-wall, no breaks effort this weekend on IMSA Radio. That’s not exactly breaking news, but still deserves plaudits all the same.
  • I hadn’t been to an IMSA-only weekend since Sebring, so seeing and hearing the new IMSA announcer for a portion of the pre-race and podium ceremonies, was … let’s call it interesting.
  • There was no shortage of action in Saturday’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race, from the second lap nudge that inadvertently put Paul Holton and Till Bechtolscheimer’s cars on their sides/lids to the fuel mileage gambles in both GS and ST that shook up the podium. It was nice to see the Murillo Racing team rewarded with third in ST for Eric Foss and Jeff Mosing in a rebuilt Porsche Cayman.
  • Ryan Eversley’s last four Road America race results? First in the 2015 ST race, first and first in the two Pirelli World Challenge GT races in June, and now second in the 2016 ST race. All in Hondas (or Acuras). Not bad for the Georgia native who’s quickly adopted Wisconsin as his second home state.
  • A reduction to two hours for Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge main races in 2017 I think will be the right call. The two-hour, 30-minute shows are rarely lacking for action, but they are close if not identical to WeatherTech Championship length. They’ll also fit better into a TV window given that shorter length.
  • Although Jesse Lazare completed a weekend sweep in Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama, the shout out here goes to past Team USA Scholarship winner Jake Eidson, who finished second in both races in his series – and sports car – debut.
  • Prestige Performance swept the weekend in the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America Trent Hindman and Craig Duerson won overall on Saturday before Shinya Michimi took the Sunday win.
  • An unfortunate side effect of Delta’s systemwide computer outage meant a bunch of IMSA folks were left stranded Monday in Milwaukee. Tough travel luck for sure, although I’m sure Sunday night at Siebkens had nothing to do with it…

AN ATTEMPT AT EXPLAINING SERIES CLASSES

WeatherTech: Four classes in 2017 (Prototype, featuring Daytona Prototype international and LMP2-spec cars, Prototype Challenge in its last year, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona) and three in 2018 once PC is eliminated.

Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge: Two classes in 2017, with GS still a mix of GS legacy and GT4-spec cars before a full GT4-only class in 2018, then ST as status quo through 2018 before possible TCR-homologated cars introduction. If TCR arrives, would it be a separate class or an ST replacement? Only time will tell.

Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda: Two classes, with LMP3 cars entered under what’s dubbed the “PC1” class, and a second class called “PC2” for existing Elan DP02 chassis.

And then beyond the “Challenge” series there are the one-make championships from Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini, each of which have their own classes and structure.

Compare this to the FIA World Endurance Championship, which has four classes – LMP1, LMP2, GTE-Pro and GTE-Am – and the European Le Mans Series, which has three – LMP2, LMP3 and GTE. And that’s before you even get into Pirelli World Challenge, which has seven classes (GT, GTA, GT Cup, GTS, TC, TCA, TCB) and two potential race formats (Sprint, Sprint-X).

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.”