WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Zach Veach went from fifth to first on the opening lap of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race at Watkins Glen International and never looked back en route to his second win of the season on the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.
Meanwhile, behind him, the title chase took a big shakeup going into next week’s season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, with Santiago Urrutia going off course, then puncturing his left front tire, pitting and falling to last place in the 12-car field.
Coupled with Ed Jones (Carlin) finishing second behind Veach (Belardi Auto Racing), and suddenly Urrutia’s points lead that began the day at 17 points is down to one point leaving the day.
Veach’s run from fifth to first on the opening lap was miraculous, and he was by polesitter Urrutia at the Inner Loop (Bus Stop) after picking off three cars by the exit of Turn 1.
Urrutia’s weekend came unglued by way of not having done any long runs in practice. He hadn’t run very many long stints in practice or qualifying – he’d only done a total of 12 practice laps before qualifying in the two official sessions – and his tires went off as the race went on.
He had held off a train of Jones, Andre Negrao and Kyle Kaiser before it all went away on Lap 15. Jones made it past, then Negrao, and then Kaiser within a two-lap period.
While Urrutia was fifth and at least still moderately in play, when he went off on Lap 19 that was the end of his race chances. He needed to pit, and it dropped him to the rear of the field.
Two other title contenders also needed to pit owing to damage, in Felix Serralles and Dean Stoneman. Stoneman made something out of his race by setting fastest race lap but only ended 10th, while Serralles recovered to seventh.
Veach came through to win with a margin of victory of 3.6268 seconds over Jones, who scored his first road course podium since winning the first of two races on the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend back in May.
Negrao, meanwhile, banked his fourth straight podium finish overall. Kaiser was fourth and Neil Alberico a season-best fifth for Carlin.
The result today leaves Urrutia just one point ahead of Jones (319-318), with Stoneman (296), Veach (288), Serralles (281) and Kaiser (279) all with a mathematical possibility and within 40 points going to the final two race weekend doubleheader at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca next weekend.
Said Veach, post-race: “I saw an opportunity and I had to take it. I noticed that the inside lane was moving faster at the start so I knew I would be in a good position. When I found myself beside Negrao going into Turn One, I thought I had a chance. I had to get off the corner well and get into Santi’s draft and I did just that.
“We knew how fast Santi was and I wasn’t sure I had the car to match him, so my goal was to get around him and lead as many laps as I could. My pace stayed the same and I saw him dropping off and then disappear, so I had to work on keeping the gap and just keep going.
“It’s so emotional. This is one of my happiest wins. In all my previous wins, we’ve been fast all weekend and here, we had clutch problems in qualifying, then had a starter problem just before the race and we had to come from fifth to win. I pushed hard to build up a gap and I managed my Cooper tires to the end.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”