Q&A: Always Evolving Nissan’s Bryan Heitkotter after PWC Utah double

Photo: NISMO

Bryan Heitkotter, the 2011 Nissan GT Academy USA winner, took his first two overall wins in Pirelli World Challenge at Utah Motorsports Campus in mid-August. He took five GTA class wins last year before graduating from the amateur class into the full pro ranks in mid-2015.

We caught up with the driver of the No. 05 Always Evolving Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 after his double win at Utah on how he’s advanced throughout his career, what the weekend meant to him and how he’ll look ahead to the final two race weekends of the year at Sonoma Raceway in September and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in October.

MotorSportsTalk: Reflecting back on the wins, what do they mean to you now?

Bryan Heitkotter: “It’s part of what I’ve been wanting to do is prove to myself that I can run with these guys, and earn their respect. That’s been one of my goals since started racing. That felt really good. Rick (Kulach, Nissan North America motorsports manager) said to me after my first win on Saturday, ‘Look at all the guys behind you,’ and that was a pretty special moment. A lot of guys have years or decades of experience on me. So to run up front with these guys and Nissan is a dream come true.”

MST: Either in race one when there was the early race restart or race two when it ran caution-free, how concerned were you about the competition behind? 

BH: “I was actually very concerned when I saw Ryan Eversley in the Acura behind me after the Cooper/Parente incident. He’s made amazing starts all season… particularly this summer. So when he launched as well as he did it was a surprise… and it got me a little bit worried! But it worked out in the end. There’s good power for us in the long straights and it’s one of the rare tracks on the calendar with a long run down to Turn 1. So I was able to get the advantage.

MST: How did the team rally despite the looming suspension assessed to JD Davison going into weekend? 

BH: To be honest it was actually a really good dynamic. James was there for the team all weekend; he came out and did some driver coaching and spotting for us. Everyone was really looking forward to have a good weekend. Good to have Craig Dolby; he has a different perspective in Europe, having driven the 2015 model of these cars (the AE team uses the 2014 model). He brought a fresh perspective.”

MST: Races like Mid-Ohio last year when you podiumed or COTA this year have occurred where you were so close to winning before it went away. How did those fuel you? 

BH: “Those ones I came close, ran up front and couldn’t quite seal the deal just motivated even more. It made me hungrier for a win. When I qualified third for race one, knowing there’s a long run to Turn 1, I thought, ‘This is a really good opportunity to win it if you play it right, play it smart.’ We didn’t know everyone else’s race pace. Last year was pretty solid. This year we’re not too bad.”

MST: Considering the number of overall program cutbacks Nissan had this offseason, did you have any concerns about your own role within the Always Evolving Nissan program?

BH: “The offseason is never a fun time for a driver. You never know… you always have your doubts. You wonder, is the budget gonna be there? Have you done enough as a driver and as a representative? You never know. I never expected such a cut of drivers across the globe as we saw. We figured it could come, but it came massively and suddenly. But it was kind of surprising; I was very pleased to have survived it and keep going with the GT-Rs. It’s the best program I could have imagined.”

MST: Describe a bit how the combination of Always Evolving, AIM Autosport and Nissan all work together to make this program work.

BH: “It’s just one of those situations where everything kind of gels. It was a last-minute deal at the beginning of last year. It came together last minute, but to be honest, I think that started us off on the right foot. We gelled early and it has been a tremendous partnership ever since. The AIM Autosport guys have been together a while. They work together very seamlessly. That helps us get up to speed. Everyone’s been very professional. We work together well; it’s an amazing partnership.”

MST: How have all the different variations of Nissan’s you’ve driven (Altimas, 370Zs, two GT-Rs) helped your annual progression?

BH: “It’s been a pretty good time to get some different experience in different cars. You learn on the fly. I remember one weekend… three or four years ago, I got called up to run a GT-R in World Challenge for CRP Racing at Sonoma. I literally missed all the practice sessions, never drove with any kind of downforce, and got in the car Saturday morning. I qualified 11th and was P5 end of first lap, and then some little custom piece broke in rear suspension. So I lasted a lap and a half.

“But it ended up being a good experience. I think that’s one of my strengths as a driver is get up to speed quickly. The variety of Nissan has only helped. They’re broadly similar, but with unique characteristics.

MST: Two more race weekends to go at Sonoma and Monterey, which don’t quite suit the Nissan as well as Utah did. How do you press forward on those type weekends?

BH: “We do the best we can anyway. You have to look at a season as a whole. Last year Sonoma and Laguna were a bit of a challenge, so we’ll look to do a bit better this year.

“But they’re fun. They’re basically my home races with a lot of friends, family and support. From Fresno, I’m about 3.5 hours from Sonoma, and 2.5 from Laguna.”

MST: You know how far you’ve come since winning GT Academy. Did you envision it becoming this successful, this soon?

BH: “This is what I wanted to do since I was a little kid. I entered the academy – knowing this is my best opportunity –and won that. But it doesn’t guarantee you a whole lot. I’ve always been naturally motivated to make the most of every opportunity. You never know where things will go, but getting here was a natural goal.”

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing

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.”