Red Bull GRC: LA preview, new drivers and Friday notebook

Picturesque backdrop in LA. Photo: Tony DiZinno
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LOS ANGELES – Red Bull GRC Los Angeles presented by Honda is upon us this weekend, to mark the end of Red Bull Global Rallycross’ 2016 season from the Port of LA.

There’s quite a bit to get to, so we’ll package it all in this post:

Speed wins pole for first race

Scott Speed has won the pole for the first leg of the two races that make up this weekend’s season finale, driving the No. 41 Volkswagen Beetle GRC for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, in qualifying that was just concluded.

These six drivers made it in:

Speed then laid down a fastest time of 43.816 seconds. The rest of the top six: Joni Wiman (44.022), Brian Deegan (44.099), Tanner Foust (44.190), Sebastian Eriksson (44.321) and Patrik Sandell (44.562).

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing teammates Alex Keyes and Cabot Bigham, who turned 20 today, paced the way in GRC Lites qualifying, with Bigham among those in GRC Lites title contention.

PREVIEW: It’s Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross’ pair’s title to lose

Separate breakouts are linked here on Tanner Foust and Scott Speed, with the pair of Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammates separated by only 13 points (465-452) for the championship going into this weekend’s pair of races.

Still, five drivers are mathematically eligible this weekend. The pair of Chip Ganassi Rallycross Ford teammates, Steve Arpin and Brian Deegan, and Bryan Herta Rallysport’s Patrik Sandell are also alive with 399, 373 and 357 points, respectively.

It’s going to take the pair of Beetle GRCs – both of which are adorned in separate #PinkBeetle liveries this weekend – having some trouble to open it up to the rest of the pack. But it remains a possibility.

In terms of the rest of the 13-car Supercars field, the full-season pair of Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE drivers, Sebastian Eriksson and Joni Wiman, look to be the first to deliver the new Honda Civic Coupe its first final round win. The two drivers both finished on the podium last time out in Seattle. Austin Dyne is the last of the eight drivers entered this weekend who’s been in every race, and he’ll look to better a best finish of fifth in either of the two races.

Copy. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Higgins (DirtFish) and Whitten (WIX) among those in the Supercars field. Photo: Tony DiZinno

The five remaining drivers in Supercars have intriguing subplots heading into the weekend. Subaru Rally Team USA fields a three-car lineup for the second time in three races, now with Chris Atkinson and David Higgins installed in the two primary entries with a third car added for Japanese rally ace Toshihiro Arai.

Two youngsters making their series debut round out the field, in the form of GRC Lites graduates Mitchell DeJong and Tanner Whitten with Honda Red Bull OMSE and SH Rallycross/DRR, respectively. DeJong waltzed to the 2014 GRC Lites title having won all but two races; Whitten has been a regular winner in GRC Lites competition and this year split time with Alex Keyes in one of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Lites cars.

On The Debutantes

DeJong rolls out. Photo: Tony DiZinno
DeJong rolls out. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Owing to the limited number of spaces on the grid and the deep talent pool that fills them, there haven’t been many opportunities for GRC Lites drivers to step up into Supercars. So getting two in one weekend isn’t just rare, but also matches how many have done so in the last two years combined!

Both Honda drivers, Wiman and Eriksson, debuted in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Wiman promptly won the Supercars title as a rookie even without winning a race, while Eriksson won a race and came second in points last year. Eriksson, incidentally, took over in the second then-Ford for OMSE in 2015 after DeJong had been announced first.

With the thinking it’s better late than never, and with DeJong still only 19 years old and Whitten 23, both drivers get their shot this weekend after successful tests in the last couple weeks. If both drivers can make the main event final in either or both races, it’ll have been a good first weekend for them in the Supercars division.

“I’m really excited being able to finally make my first Supercar start!” DeJong said. “This is kind of a home race for me, there’s nice weather, and I have a lot of friends and family coming out, so it’ll be a nice hometown crowd. It’ll be nice to finally race a Supercar—it’s been a long time, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m just going to take it as a learning experience, do the best I can, not put too much pressure on myself, and see what we can do with it.”

“This is extremely special,” Whitten added. “It’s one of the moments that I’ve been looking forward to and praying about. I’ve been working for it ever since I had the opportunity to drive the Lites car back in 2012. It’s been great to have the opportunity—it’s the last event of the year and it’s been a big deal for the last couple days to get this program put together. I’m really excited for the finale in LA.”

GRC LITES: Four drivers with realistic title hopes

Five drivers have mathematical title hopes in Supercars, while in GRC Lites, the title battle is much closer.

Oliver Eriksson (Olsbergs MSE X Forces) is in search of his second straight title, and enters with a 25-point lead 378-353 over Cabot Bigham of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Eriksson’s teammate Miki Weckstrom and DirtFish Motorsports’ Conner Martell sit third and fourth at 349 and 327 points, respectively.

The rest of this division’s 13-car field is fairly similar, with Alex Keyes back in DRR’s No. 24 car and Colin Braun back in CORE autosport’s No. 54 car, rather than team principal Jon Bennett, who is on site this weekend but not driving. Scott Anderson continues in CORE’s No. 56 car for a second straight weekend.

K1 Karting Event Kicks Off The Weekend

Prior to the weekend kicking off in earnest, most of Red Bull GRC’s 2016 competitors gathered at K1 Speed in Gardena for a go-kart race. Despite local driver Tony Chen setting the fastest time in preliminary runs – the inside joke being that my presence has affected things – Wiman upheld the glory for Red Bull GRC’s drivers in the race itself with a dominant victory.

A few pics from the evening, via @RedBullGRC’s Twitter, are below.

The Port Of LA Event Site Itself Rocks

Panoramic view from the stands. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Panoramic view from the stands. Photo: Tony DiZinno

As a sidebar, having been at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach more than 10 times, it’s weird being in Long Beach/Los Angeles in October since the Grand Prix runs in April. But nonetheless, it’s quickly apparent even from just the first day how much this event means to Red Bull GRC.

The views are majestic, with the backdrop of water at the Port of LA sun-drenched and without any chance of rain – a welcome deviation from a number of Red Bull GRC events this year. For those fans who will be in attendance this weekend, you can see the entirety of the 0.699-mile track from either the preferred or GA grandstands and it will look festive.

Honda Presence is Profound

Hopefully we’ll have more on this to come later this weekend, but with this race being a race featuring a presenting sponsor in Honda, there’s increased Honda signage and presence than normal. From a display tent on the way into the event site through to the Joker Lap being called the Honda Joker Lap, there’s a good amount of Honda presence.

And The Hot Lap, Courtesy of Mr. Speed

Speed's #PinkBeetle. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Speed’s #PinkBeetle. Photo: Tony DiZinno

I’ve written before about hot laps in Red Bull GRC and how they’re generally unlike anything else in racing, and so was fortunate enough to be treated to another one today with Scott Speed in the No. 41 Oberto #PinkBeetle for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross. Not bad when you can say you’ve taken a couple laps with the reigning and still defending champion.

The track here is such where straightline speed isn’t so much a thing as cornering ability. From the launch point, where again, you get thrown back in the seat of the Beetle GRC, you’re immediately concerned with how the BFGoodrich tires will grip as you go uphill, then down the road, leaning on both right sides as you’re sliding through the first couple turns and into the left-hander.

There’s a slight kick on the throttle before going into another left-hand hairpin, of which the Honda Joker Lap is on the inside. You accelerate out, briefly, into the right-hander and then still on the pavement before another right-hand hairpin leads into the dirt, and a left-hand hairpin before the jump. All the while, you have a fantastic view of the port and water, so it’s impressive these guys don’t get distracted.

Once over the jump, it’s back to another left, hard on the power before launching back and into the front straight – straight is used loosely here because it’s all a left-hand turn – and that’s a quick lap of the circuit. Speed spent most of it between 2nd and 3rd gear – there’s not a ton of high-gear areas and laps will click off fairly quickly.

More to come tomorrow, including a note on the IndyCar presence – seemingly – that always seems to pop up around Red Bull GRC races.

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.”