PREVIEW: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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Heading into the third round of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 2017 season at Barber Motorsports Park, we totally expected to come to the first Honda-sponsored race of the season with Sebastien Bourdais (Dale Coyne Racing) and James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) having won the first two races of the year for Honda and Bourdais and Coyne leading the standings by 19 points.

Just like we expected the Chicago Cubs to win last year’s World Series, Donald Trump to become the 45th U.S. President and Fernando Alonso to willingly choose to run the 101st Indianapolis 500 over the Monaco Grand Prix.

Riiiiight.

So since the form book has been thrown out, writing these previews is a proper crapshoot because the unexpected is the normal, and the past offers no indication of the present. But we try anyway.

With that as a lead-in, here’s some talking points for the “Alabama roller coaster” this weekend (TV times):

2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama – Talking Points

Honda’s quest for the road and street three-peat

It seems longer than the last stretch of 2015 that Honda won three races in a row. But it did when Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal pulled this off at Iowa, Mid-Ohio and Pocono in 2015. However Honda hasn’t pulled this off on three straight road and street circuits since 2013, when Scott Dixon swept the Toronto races and Charlie Kimball won his first and thus far only victory at Mid-Ohio. That seems a lifetime ago!

Quite how well Honda’s power delivery improvements have been on the permanent road courses will determine whether a three-peat happens on this occasion. Some good tests have occurred at Sonoma and Barber previously, and Max Chilton was about to lead the Barber open test last month before Will Power pipped him on the last lap.

Again by strength in numbers, the odds say Honda should be able to get at least half its 13 cars through to Q2 in qualifying and another three or four into the Firestone Fast Six. From there, another win would be possible.

Penske’s Power outage… 

A mechanical issue at St. Petersburg from another pole and contact with Kimball at Long Beach leaves Will Power languishing in a three-way tie for 17th in points with Alexander Rossi and Max Chilton. At only six points back of 10th-placed Marco Andretti though, a win would go a long way towards moving him up the food chain much sooner than he did last year, when he hit his midseason stride.

Power just needs a drama-free weekend, something that has escaped him since his win at Pocono last August. He struggled to eighth at Texas in the resumption, had contact with Kimball at Watkins Glen, had mechanicals at Sonoma to end 2016 and St. Petersburg to start 2017, and then the Long Beach incident last weekend.

Andretti’s Southern redemption?

At a track Andretti Autosport has won at before, when Ryan Hunter-Reay went back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, the team is desperate to bounce back from its nightmare end to Long Beach as all four cars suffered either mechanical or electrical woes.

Hunter-Reay is due a win – he hasn’t won since Pocono 2015 which meant he hasn’t properly been able to celebrate one since his win prior to that in Iowa earlier that year – while Marco Andretti has run well at Barber in the past. Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi should fare well here too; Rossi has the race-winning engineer in his camp that propelled Newgarden to victory here two years ago in Jeremy Milless.

Lingering questions

  • What does Scott Dixon have to do to translate his pace, and his Barber podium success, into a win?
  • Can Simon Pagenaud continue his quiet, stealthy title defense?
  • Can Graham Rahal go one step higher after tough runner-up finishes here the last two years?
  • Will Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing be able to lead the points for a third straight race?
  • Can Charlie Kimball, who’s done well at Barber before, break his unfortunate recent string of contact?
  • Do one of the “big three” teams finally get on the board or do the other five teams continue their roll?
  • Will it rain? How will the temperature swings of 90-plus ambient on Friday compare to the mid-60s expected on Sunday?

The Barber of Oviedo, España

That’s a clever subhead for saying that Oviedo, Spain’s Fernando Alonso’s first appearance in an IndyCar paddock will be at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. You couldn’t ask for two worlds further apart.

Will Alonso dominate all the headlines this weekend as he makes his first guest appearance with the Andretti Autosport team? Will Barber give him a proper taste of the IndyCar world? Will he make his maiden voyage to Rusty’s BBQ?

These, and other questions, will be answered from the time “Places Alonso Would Rather Be” actually moves to an IndyCar race, away from an F1 Grand Prix.

Meanwhile, about the other three rookies in this year’s Indy 500…

Seems hard to imagine the words Alonso and rookie in the same sentence but they’re real. Lest he be the only rookie in the field though it’s worth noting all of his compatriots will be on hand this weekend.

Zach Veach makes a surprise debut in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing as injury fill-in for JR Hildebrand. Ed Jones, the lone full-season rookie, goes for his third straight top-10 out of the gate in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. And Jack Harvey, Andretti’s other rookie, will be present coaching Neil Alberico in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires with Carlin.

An idea? Have the three Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires graduates make T-shirts that say “also a rookie in this year’s Indianapolis 500,” and debut them this weekend.

Rubber variation de jour

This will be an interesting weekend from a tire standpoint. A lot of times IndyCar shares weekends with a sports car series, it’s the Pirelli World Challenge. But Pirelli World Challenge has opted out of a return to Barber this year, instead focusing its efforts on its own headliner next weekend at Virginia International Raceway.

In its place, two sports car championships from IMSA come to the track in the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda and Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA Presented by Yokohama, as does the Andersen Promotions-operated Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires.

So what this means is besides Firestone for IndyCar, there’s also Cooper (Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires), Continental (Prototype Challenge), Yokohama (Porsche) and BFGoodrich (MX-5) rubber being laid down this weekend on a high-grip track. And if it rains, then all the rubber gets washed away and we start from scratch.

The final word

From Sebastien Bourdais, the Frenchman who’s the points leader on this occasion: “Barber is a very demanding track both technically and physically. There are very long corners that are physically demanding. It might not be the most difficult circuit technically, but what makes it difficult is trying to find the right setup on the car. That’s the true test of Barber Motorsports Park. The corners are so long it kind of resembles an oval, where the quality of the car is what makes the difference on the timing sheet. To be able to put in a good time at Barber, your car needs to do what you ask it to.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local/CT):

Friday, April 21
10:45-11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
2:25-3:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

Saturday, April 22
11-11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
3:15 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series knockout qualifications), NBCSN (telecast starts at 3:30 p.m.)

Sunday, April 23
9:45-10:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warm-up, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
2 p.m. – Driver Introductions
2 p.m. – NBCSN on air
2:35 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines” command
2:42 p.m. – Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (90 laps/207 miles), NBCSN (live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Graham Rahal
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Will Power
5. Juan Pablo Montoya
6. James Hinchcliffe
7. Helio Castroneves
8. Tony Kanaan
9. Charlie Kimball
10. Scott Dixon

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Will Power
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Scott Dixon
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. Graham Rahal

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.”