Bittersweet end in GTD sees Viper win, Magnus lose at Petit Le Mans

Seefried and Lally bounced from win for drive-time mistake. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – A beauty of sports car racing is that there is a lot of variety you can embrace – from different cars, drivers, teams, classes and sounds of pure glory.

A downside of sports car racing is that this mesh of variety also comes together to create what at times can be confusing or perplexing, and controversial, in the moment.

And while both IMSA and Magnus Racing were in agreement – eventually, anyway – about that their race win in GT Daytona in Saturday night’s Petit Le Mans was lost, it doesn’t make it any easier for Magnus to swallow the how.

The No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R of Jeroen Bleekemolen, Ben Keating and Marc Miller emerged with the GTD race win after a review of the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS car’s drive time found the incorrect Silver-rated driver, John Potter, failed to complete his minimum drive time of three hours in the 10-hour race. This moved the No. 44 car to the back of class in results.

Potter, longtime co-driver Andy Lally and ace third driver Marco Seefried, won on the road following a titanic scrap between Lally and Bleekemolen in the final stages of the 10-hour race. And for the fans able to see the race, they’ll have known that both drivers left everything on the line in pursuit of victory.

But in the end, all that amazingness on the track was taken away owing to Magnus’ rule violation, which was its second in the last three GTD races (VIR saw the car excluded for a ride height violation).

The crux of what happened Saturday night actually started one year earlier in the 2015 Petit Le Mans, and the new rule implemented for 2016 was actually created to help avoid situations as happened last year.

At the 2015 race, the trio of Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler and Jeff Segal co-drove the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3. Segal, who like Sweedler was a Silver-rated driver, became the driver to who completed the minimum drive time requirements in the rain for the Silver/Bronze-rated driver to ensure the car was good to the regulations. Sweedler, who was Bell’s full-season co-driver, completed only one lap in the race, which ensured he scored points along with Bell. No provision existed at the time to say that Sweedler had to be the driver to complete the minimum drive time.

As it turned out, that strategic move from Scuderia Corsa helped deliver Bell and Sweedler the GTD championship, over Christina Nielsen in a hard-luck second for TRG-AMR.

This is key background for understanding the rule in play applied here on Saturday night, as IMSA enforced Rule 12.3.3 of the SSR.

Here’s the rule in all its official rulebook glory:

12.3.3.

(SSR)

For PC and GTD, in any two (2) or three (3) Driver combination Car that finishes the Race, one (1) Silver/Bronze rated Driver must individually achieve the minimum drive-time for that Driver or their paired Driver to be eligible for finishing points. The other paired Driver must drive the Car in the Race to be eligible for finishing points. Any third (or unpaired) Driver must individually achieve the minimum drive-time in order for that Driver to be eligible for finishing points regardless of driver rating. If the paired Silver/Bronze rated Driver does not achieve the minimum drive-time, the Car is placed behind all other Cars in that class for the purpose of finishing positions and awarding any finishing points. All other Cars are elevated in the finishing positions and finishing points

In layman’s terms, that means that Potter and Lally – as full-season co-drivers – were considered the paired drivers for Magnus’ No. 44 car in GTD and that Seefried, while also Silver-rated, would not be eligible to register the car for finishing points.

This was instituted by IMSA as a fail-safe so a team couldn’t essentially utilize that loophole as Scuderia Corsa did last year, when Sweedler gave up needing to do the minimum drive time himself so long as he completed just one lap.

Potter started the race and drove the first 53 minutes of the race before handing off to Seefried. Seefried drove from that point until the 2 hour, 23-minute mark, when Lally took over. Seefried was back in at the 4:08 mark, under the yellow flag which actually lasted more than hour from when 4:02 was completed in the race until 5:04 when the green came out, and got out with 5:49 complete to hand back to Lally. Seefried was back in at the 6:55 mark, and in until 8:12, when he handed back to Lally for the duration. The strategic misfire, in hindsight, was not running Potter longer in the earlier stint and then during the hour-plus yellow.

All parties involved were aware of the situation but by the time Magnus Racing realized the gaffe, there was no turning back in terms of getting Potter his drive time. I’d had a weird feeling during the race when during a chance pit lane encounter with Seefried not long after his middle stint – which was great fun to watch – was getting called back into action for another stint relatively soon thereafter, and that raised a bit of a question mark to me at the time.

That’s the micro picture of what happened Saturday night. But the macro picture also needs to be identified here.

With driver ratings even enforced to begin with, that’s what has led to the need for the rule, which then created a bit of confusion in the media center at the time.

Because Seefried completed the minimum drive time of three hours himself as a Silver-rated driver; the problem was, per the latter portion of this rule, he was the incorrect Silver driver to have done so for Magnus.

So the first half of this rule confirms a Silver driver did the minimum drive time, and the second half of the rule confirms the wrong one did so for purposes of pairing.

Keating, Bleekemolen, Miller and Riley. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Keating, Bleekemolen, Miller and Riley. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Secondly, the Viper team led by Bill Riley doesn’t want to win this way. The Viper had the measure of the GTD field on pace all weekend, but still found itself locked in a battle for the win in the later stages.

Bleekemolen’s not going to come out and say “Yeah, we had a great battle, but thanks mainly to Rule 12.3.3 of the SSR for ensuring we won only because Potter didn’t do his drive time.”

No, the Dutchman’s quote in the post-race press conference was more appropriate, because it highlighted the win battle before the regulatory foul:

“I mean a couple of things, great to end the run of the Viper with a win. When I started sports cars in 2001, the first car I drove was a Viper, it gave me my first couple of wins in international sports car racing. I remember my test, I remember every single lap – it was a big powerful car, a great feeling.

“The race, and the fight with Andy (Lally) was unbelievable, I did the last 4 hours, I had no A/C and no drink for the last two. It was the toughest stint of my life. I rate Andy very high, he is always a great fighter, very aggressive but fair. And right on the end, even though it was the last lap of the race, he kept it fair.

“I feel bad about the situation, he crossed the line first, but we saw the numbers, John had to go in for a long time and maybe go back, but in the end, we won. We’ll go out on a high. We couldn’t get the championship, so we wanted the win, and we’ll take it.”

Thirdly, the unknown result for Magnus then has a trigger effect on the rest of the class. Nielsen, who ironically now won her GTD title on Saturday for Scuderia Corsa after completing the first three hours and eight minutes of the race to ensure she and Balzan paired points, and the rest of the team got promoted to a podium in the race only after the Magnus ending. So the ripple effect goes there.

Finally, the end result could alter Magnus Racing’s trajectory as a team going forward. Yes, it’s a case where you have to know the rules going in and which portion of the rule supersedes the others.

But Potter, who’s sunk so much of his own money into sports car racing for nearly a decade, may not feel fussed with doing so in this arena following this bitter blow. If VIR was enough of a setback for the team, quite how they move beyond this one remains a big question mark.

I saw the team on pit lane immediately after the race and the reaction was more of sheer shock than pure anger. Perhaps the anger came earlier.

In brief though, the fact it takes almost 1,500 words to explain a regulatory ending to a great battle for a win on track says all you need to say.

This was a bittersweet ending for the season in class, for the Viper as it won its last race albeit not in the manner they probably would have liked, and for Magnus – who despite the mistake provide crew with jobs, the paddock with humor, and the fans with one hell of a battle for the win.

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.”