PREVIEW: IndyCar Grand Prix at The Glen

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The second-to-last race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, at Watkins Glen International this Sunday (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) is the last in a three-week back-to-back-to-back run of races which have all been a bit abnormal.

Pocono Raceway’s ABC Supply 500 brought the series off a two-week break, yet was delayed to Monday, August 22, due to rain. Texas Motor Speedway’s Firestone 600 occurred but five days later, Saturday, August 27, with the resumption of the rain-delayed-from-June race and a thrilling final 177 laps.

Watkins Glen this Sunday, however, wasn’t even supposed to happen this year. Courtesy of an incredible two-week effort between track president Michael Printup and INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye and their respective staffs, Watkins Glen made the calendar as the eleventh-hour replacement for the canceled street race in Boston.

Here’s what could be some of the key talking points for the penultimate round of the season.

2016 IndyCar Grand Prix at The Glen – Talking Points:

PAGPOWERtmsPagenaud vs. Power, again

Simon Pagenaud’s pivotal drive at Texas on Saturday night may be enough to secure his first title. A fourth place finish to Will Power’s eighth extended his lead to 28 points.

Power has won at Watkins Glen while Pagenaud is yet to race at the track. Still, figure either enters as the pre-weekend favorite.

Here’s a breakdown of their points battle throughout the year to the right, because I got bored and made another line graph in Microsoft Excel.

The desires of those who need or want a win

James Hinchcliffe came up 0.008 of a second short at Texas. Tony Kanaan has been close-but-no-cigar all year. Same for Helio Castroneves. Ryan Hunter-Reay’s been unlucky; Mikhail Aleshin’s been on the doorstep.

These are but five drivers who could use their first win of the year. There are more in that category, as well.

Ludicrous, ludicrous speed

The official track record heading into this weekend is 1:28.1322 (137.657 mph) set in 2009 by Ryan Briscoe at the 3.4-mile road course.

Weather pending, the question isn’t if the track record will be beat at the freshly repaved road course – but by how much.

Unofficial test times from both a Firestone tire test held in June (via IndyCar.com) and a bigger group test in August (full list here, social roundup here) have pegged the cars anywhere from three to four seconds quicker, and the estimates could be in the 1:24 or lower range.

“Everyone is blown away by the speeds. If the fans want to go to any race, go to that place, because it looks like unbelievably fast. It looks crazy from the outside,” said Graham Rahal, the Texas winner who tested at Watkins Glen in the August test, and also watched trackside as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires driver Ed Jones took over his No. 15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda in the morning.

Downforce levels

Watkins Glen combines the elevation, long straights and high-speed corners of Road America, the tight right-handed Turn 1 of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, and flowing back-and-forths of Mid-Ohio and Barber to create its 3.4 miles.

And that’ll make downforce levels a gamble, depending on how much teams want to trim out. As ever, if you go for a higher downforce setting you sacrifice top-end speed but could be quicker through the already ridiculous corners. Going for a lower downforce setting gives more speed for the straights but costs you in the corners.

The repave unknown, vs. the unknown unknown

The repaving of the track presents really the only unknown of the weekend, and nearly three hours of practice time on Friday will ensure the field gets a quality amount of track time.

Comparing that to the other would-be race of the weekend, Boston, presents a more known quantity than what the field and anyone on site would have had to tend to otherwise. Traditionally, first-year street races have hiccups on the first official day of running. And that’s not a knock on them, but more illustrates a point that owing to the complexities of organizing and getting the streets shut down and the course set up, running on schedule becomes a luxury.

Looking at road course performance this year

The four permanent road courses this season have produced these results:

  • Barber: Pole: Simon Pagenaud, Win: Simon Pagenaud
  • Indy GP: Pole: Simon Pagenaud, Win: Simon Pagenaud
  • Road America: Pole: Will Power, Win: Will Power
  • Mid-Ohio: Pole: Simon Pagenaud, Win: Simon Pagenaud

Four permanent road course races. Four Team Penske poles. Four Team Penske race wins. Four wins from pole.

Results don’t always tell the full story, though, and all four wins have featured tight win battles. Pagenaud and Rahal staged an epic bout for the win in the final laps at Barber; Tony Kanaan was coming like a freight train on Power at Road America but came up a lap short; Pagenaud needed to pull off a ballsy, aggressive passing move to pass Power at Mid-Ohio, and that only became the win battle once Mikhail Aleshin fell out of it on a pit stop.

Obviously, the question this weekend will be whether the Penske/pole/win stat rolls on. Overall though it’s been a case where you need to qualify in the Firestone Fast Six to make the podium; only Helio Castroneves at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Carlos Munoz at Mid-Ohio have parlayed off-sequence strategies and good yellow timing into podiums.

Podiums this year on permanent road courses have been this with these starting positions:

  • Barber: 1. Simon Pagenaud (1), 2. Graham Rahal (6), 3. Josef Newgarden (3)
  • Indy GP: 1. Simon Pagenaud (1), 2. Helio Castroneves (13), 3. James Hinchcliffe (3)
  • Road America: 1. Will Power (1), 2. Tony Kanaan (3), 3. Graham Rahal (6)
  • Mid-Ohio: 1. Simon Pagenaud (1), 2. Will Power (2), 3. Carlos Munoz (15)

Pit road drama

There’s been way too much drama in the pit lane this year. Whether it was Aleshin at Mid-Ohio, Alexander Rossi with Charlie Kimball and Helio Castroneves at Pocono or a couple near misses in Texas – plus the obvious one back at the Indianapolis 500 – there’s almost been more intensity in terms of entering and leaving the pit road than on track. At least until the closing laps of Texas, that is.

The final word

From defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, a multiple-time winner at Watkins Glen:

“Watkins Glen is one of those old-school, traditional road courses. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the INDYCAR circuit and we’ve had a lot of success there in the past with Team Target. The layout is really a driver’s track. I think every driver was excited when they announced we were going back. It’s a place where Indy car racing belongs. I’m glad INDYCAR was able to continue this relationship into the future, too, after the recent announcement of the 2017 schedule.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule: 

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, Sept. 2
11 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, NBCSN (Live)
3:30-5:30 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, Sept. 3
11 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying),RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live); TV: NBCSN (Taped, 6 p.m.)

Sunday, Sept. 4
10:30 – 11 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
1:55 p.m. – Driver Introductions
2:30 p.m. – Command to Start Engines
2:37 p.m. – INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (60 laps/202.2 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s race’s most recent top 10 (from 2010)

1. Will Power (pole)
2. Ryan Briscoe
3. Dario Franchitti
4. Raphael Matos
5. Mario Moraes
6. Dan Wheldon
7. Ryan Hunter-Reay
8. Scott Dixon
9. Helio Castroneves
10. Justin Wilson

Here’s race’s most recent Firestone Fast Six: (from 2010):

1. Will Power
2. Helio Castroneves
3. Ryan Briscoe
4. Dario Franchitti
5. Takuma Sato
6. Justin Wilson

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.”