INDYCAR asks what’s ‘NEXT’ in 2017 promotional video

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One of the great elements in the Verizon IndyCar Series is the competing dynamic between the established veterans who’ve been around pushing two decades – Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan immediately come to mind – versus the more up-and-coming younger drivers such as Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud.

The latter three are among those featured in INDYCAR (sanctioning body here, not the series) releasing its new-for-2017 promotional video called “NEXT,” which follows past season concepts “RIVALS,” “SPEED” and “LEGENDS.” INDYCAR worked with brand agency partner Johnston & Wolverton to create this ad.

“We’re confident and focused on INDYCAR’s future,” C.J. O’Donnell, chief marketing officer of INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said in a release. “The theme ‘NEXT’ will effectively deliver our message of continued growth and expresses the momentum our sport has experienced the last three seasons.”

The aforementioned growth expresses INDYCAR’s 55 percent increase in overall TV viewership since 2013 combined between ABC and NBCSN. IndyCar’s 2017 schedule is out but TV times and start times are yet to be released; that information should be out fairly shortly.

Going back to the the “NEXT” idea is an interesting choice, and seems to forecast several “next” elements.

For one, the immediate “next” is INDYCAR’s new-for-2018 spec aero kit bodywork, which figures to be revealed in the next month. The “next” there will need to be a transformative bodywork that makes the cars look cooler than they are now and can generate buzz beyond the oft-Indiana-only bubble that frequently permeates the atmosphere. The manufacturer aero kits from Chevrolet and Honda are frozen for 2017, as they enter their second year since changes were made to the 2016 kits, and third overall since the 2015 aero kit introduction.

The next “next” is that of picking which “next” drivers to highlight. The six drivers identified in the video are Newgarden, Will Power, Pagenaud, Rossi, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

This is an intriguing mix of “next” choices because Hunter-Reay (debuted in 2003), Power (2005), Pagenaud (2007) and Rahal (2007) all debuted in IndyCar at least a decade ago, and among them, Hunter-Reay has both a championship and an Indianapolis 500 win, while Power and Pagenaud have won two of the last three championships.

It’s fair to say that of that six-pack only Newgarden, who debuted in 2012 and Rossi, in 2016, would more appropriately figure into the true “next” discussion since they have more of their careers ahead of them behind them, while the others – Rahal excepted, as he turns 28 on Wednesday – are 32 or older. It’s great to see Pagenaud being featured here strongly after winning his first title.

Interestingly, James Hinchcliffe is not among the “next” drivers chosen here, even though the “next” step for him would be breaking out into a bona fide title contender and multiple race winner after his star turn in the national spotlight on “Dancing with the Stars.” Nor is Carlos Munoz, who has almost won Indy twice, Conor Daly, who’s got enough potential to surprise, and JR Hildebrand, back for a full-time season after several years plugging away part-time. This is before you get into the other “nexts” who are currently talented enough to have a full-time ride, but are without one for 2017.

Another portion of “next” to consider – is the “next” brand choice here meant to usher out the veterans sooner rather than later? IndyCar’s true changing of the guard will come once Dixon, Kanaan and Castroneves eventually retire, but their performances the last few years give no indication that’s imminent, or that they’re waning.

Dixon’s 10-year run of finishing in the top-three in points snapped only this year, while Castroneves banked his 13th career top-five finish in points, and Kanaan was destined for a potential top-three or four finish this year before faltering. These drivers are peppered in the video but not featured prominently.

The most important “next “- arguably – is discovering what is IndyCar’s next big selling point. The 100th Indianapolis 500 has come and gone and lived up to the hype, but the 101st is, by no fault of its own, unlikely to carry the same weight and stature. The aero kits served their purpose for the manufacturers – particularly Chevrolet, which backed up its on-track success with a wealth of technology transfer – but were otherwise, largely, a heavy spending exercise that the teams incurred.

In a crowded marketplace both in racing and in sports, finding that key “next” is a stratospheric and/or polarizing star that can generate huge discussion beyond the racing itself.

That’s the first step in what this ad hopes to do, because the next “next” among drivers can only be as big or heralded as the product itself.

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.”