PREVIEW: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – After a three-week break since the season opener, the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to sunny, Southern California for Round 2 of the 2017 season, one of the series’ flagship events in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The break in the schedule hasn’t been devoid of news, with a flurry of testing and other promotional efforts occurring before the schedule really kicks into high gear. Starting this week, there will be three races in four weeks – all on NBCSN (Long Beach times linked here) – in the buildup to the month of May at Indianapolis.

Passing is difficult and cautions are few here, which always places a premium on qualifying. In fact last year, the race ran caution-free. We’ve also had five different winners here in the last five years, with Will Power, Takuma Sato, Mike Conway, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud winning here since 2012. Dixon and Pagenaud have promptly gone on to win the championship later in the same year.

With that as a backdrop, here’s the talking points heading into Long Beach:

2017 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – Talking Points

A longer race, so no fuel saving in theory

Last year’s race was a two-stopper for everyone at 80 laps. This year, the race has been expanded five laps back to 85, which opens it back up to a three-stop potential with one short run.

The 2012 race showcased how good a strategic battle could be here at the 85-lap distance. Will Power led but had to defend from Simon Pagenaud, who was on newer tires and closed dramatically in the final laps to try to overtake him. Power held on for the victory over Pagenaud, in what was both his and James Hinchcliffe’s (finished third) first career podium finish in IndyCar.

Honda’s strength in numbers

So all the preseason words written about how another Chevrolet whitewash would occur were promptly blown away at St. Petersburg. Honda had its upgraded engine, the same spec it ran from the Indianapolis 500 onwards, in at St. Pete for the first time and coupled with the engineering expertise added to most of its five teams on the grid, suddenly Honda was a proper force, and looked the dominant manufacturer for the first time on a street circuit since the introduction of manufacturer aero kits in 2015.

It said something that four Honda cars made it into the Firestone Fast Six compared to two Chevrolets. Honda never got more than three cars into the Fast Six in any one race in 2016, and in 2015, only had five total Fast Six appearances the whole season. So that spoke to Hondas executing both on pace and grip level on the Firestone red alternate tires, and with Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports all getting at least one driver into the Fast Six, the parity was spread. Had he not had his incident, Sebastien Bourdais’ practice pace suggested a Fast Six run of his own was possible for Dale Coyne Racing.

Qualifying will again be key here this weekend and if the Hondas maintain their dominance in qualifying as they did at the street course in St. Petersburg, it could be a long afternoon for the Chevrolet camp.

Bourdais’ magic start and chance to recapture more old glory

It used to be Sebastien Bourdais would turn up at Long Beach and it was game over for the rest of the competition. Bourdais won three straight on the streets of Long Beach from 2005 through 2007, those wins helping to set sail for his eventual championship seasons.

Winning from last to first at St. Petersburg in his return to Dale Coyne Racing, getting the band back together was a great story… but it was also lucky. There’s a reason you have to go back several years to find the last driver to do so, in Dixon at Mid-Ohio in 2014. The stars aligned perfectly there but Bourdais will need any sort of qualifying performance if he’s to have something close to an encore here.

He was one of few drivers able to make passes here last year, though. Then driving the No. 11 KVSH Racing Chevrolet, Bourdais advanced from 14th on the grid to ninth in the race. That stood out when the top eight on the grid also finished in the top eight in the race, albeit not necessarily in the same order as they qualified. But if Bourdais can get into the Fast Six, a second straight podium in the No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Honda is more than possible.

Pagenaud vs. Dixon, the encore

Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon haven’t really been perceived as top rivals but the last two series champions are coming into Long Beach with respective chips on their shoulders after both St. Petersburg and this race last year.

How so, you ask? Consider 12 months ago, Pagenaud’s questionable – but as it was deemed by INDYCAR, not illegal – re-entry from the pit exit drew sharp criticisms from the normally mild mannered Dixon, who’d felt he lost a sure win as he thought Pagenaud committed a violation. Meanwhile this win took Pagenaud off the winless list at Team Penske and helped to springboard his title run.

Flash forward to St. Petersburg. Pagenaud, like Bourdais, benefited from the yellow flag timing to vault forward from a poor starting position of 14th. Dixon was among those who didn’t pit beforehand, got shuffled to the back, and then managed to scythe his way back to a podium. But again, Dixon was aggrieved at a result lost.

It’s not being billed as a rivalry the way Pagenaud and Will Power’s was after contact here in 2014, before they were teammates, but if Pagenaud and Dixon wind up close to each other on Sunday, don’t think Dixon won’t be chomping at the bit to get around the defending champion and not be stuck staring at his rear wing.

A sneaky win or podium sleeper? It might be Sato…

There’s not many tracks where you think of Takuma Sato and win potential but Long Beach is one of them. Consider he should have been on the podium in 2012 before being nerfed off track by Ryan Hunter-Reay, then winning his first and thus far only race a year later, and scoring a solid top-five here last year, hounding Juan Pablo Montoya towards the finish. Despite an incident in practice at St. Petersburg, Sato rebounded nicely in the race. On paper, this could be a good weekend for the driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda.

An important weekend for the young guns

After mixed season-opening weekends in St. Petersburg, these questions occur for the younger set of drivers in the field (five years or fewer experience):

  • Is this the weekend for Josef Newgarden to score his first podium or better with Team Penske?
  • Can JR Hildebrand get ahead of Spencer Pigot, or will Pigot put together a second better weekend at Ed Carpenter Racing to kick off his sophomore season?
  • Will Alexander Rossi be able to make his first Firestone Fast Six after a weekend where he started eighth and missed a potential top-five at St. Petersburg, owing to the yellow timing and a slow puncture?
  • At a track where he’s won in Indy Lights and starred in a last-minute call-up two years ago, will Conor Daly be able to start higher up the grid, or will Carlos Munoz stay fractionally ahead in the battle of A.J. Foyt’s two young guns?
  • Was Max Chilton’s seventh place in qualifying at St. Petersburg or a mirage or a sign of greater things to come?
  • Can rookie Ed Jones back up his 10th place at St. Petersburg or will he fall further down the order?

The final word

From the defending race and series champion, Pagenaud: “Long Beach is a special event for me. I really like the whole California vibe. There’s just a different feeling in the air there. The St. Pete race allowed us to make a lot of points right away in our championship quest and it is what the Menards Chevrolet team does so well. We’ve done some testing during the break which has gone well. The whole team is very hungry. Long Beach has been kind to me and especially last year when we got my first Team Penske win. We’re ready for the street fight.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, April 7
10-10:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2-2:45 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, NBCSN (Live)

Saturday, April 8
10:45-11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
3:30 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series qualifications); NBCSN (taped at 4:30 p.m.)

Sunday, April 9
9-9:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warm-up, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
1 p.m. – NBCSN on air
1:23 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines” command
1:30 p.m. – Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (85 laps/167.28 miles), streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live); NBCSN

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Scott Dixon
3. Helio Castroneves (pole)
4. Juan Pablo Montoya
5. Takuma Sato
6. Tony Kanaan
7. Will Power
8. James Hinchcliffe
9. Sebastien Bourdais
10. Josef Newgarden

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Helio Castroneves
2. Scott Dixon
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Juan Pablo Montoya
6. Will Power

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.”