Davison returns to IndyCar under less than ideal circumstances

Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – James Davison does not have a full-time ride in the 2017 racing season, which meant he was available for more particular one-off opportunities that could arise.

Davison, now 30, received the call Sunday morning from team owner Dale Coyne to take up a one-off that arguably neither side was ready for, nor one Coyne necessarily wanted to go through.

But a familiarity between Davison and Coyne – he’s driven for the team in three of his four past Verizon IndyCar Series starts in 2013 and 2015 – provides a bit of continuity as he gets the call-up to replace the injured Sebastien Bourdais ahead of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Bourdais had a rocket ship of a primary No. 18 GEICO Honda for Dale Coyne Racing before his heavy crash in Saturday qualifying left him with multiple pelvic fractures and a fracture to his right hip. The team’s lone oval backup car is its primary road course and street course car, and was built up Sunday.

Davison was at Road America at the time when he first saw the accident.

“I was at Road America, watching on a live stream. I was pretty horrified to be honest,” Davison said Monday after running 88 laps in his first day back in an IndyCar in almost two years.

“I had a pain in my stomach. You knew he had to be hurt in some way. It brought back a déjà vu of (James) Hinchcliffe’s crash for many. Certainly was holding my breath. It wasn’t nice to see.”

What it also did was provide a quick response from drivers who weren’t set to be in this year’s Indianapolis 500 to reach out to Coyne to see the status of the No. 18 Honda, while also putting the concern of Bourdais’ health first and foremost.

And, truth be told, Coyne had options to pick from. Davison was known to have been working on a ‘500 program for several months, but his own chances were halted when Fernando Alonso’s shock program was.

“It was my plan to be in the race this year. (I was) aware there was a limited supply of engines and chassis. Someone’s got to miss out. A lot of us didn’t see the Alonso thing coming. That took an engine away from even Stefan or I,” Davison said.

“I knew there was a possibility someone could get hurt, right? You never wish for that. So you’re around the paddock in case something does happen, and you’re there.”

On site in Indianapolis, Tristan Vautier, Matthew Brabham and Stefan Wilson were also pounding the pavement, working to see whether they could be an option too. Other veteran names were murmured, if not actually on site.

Certainly from some paddock observers, and names as big as four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, Wilson seemed a fit from a sentimental standpoint. Wilson had been set to join in the Andretti entry before stepping aside for Alonso, and his late brother Justin had been the one who’d achieved Coyne’s greatest successes.

Davison, on the other hand, was thinking about another name that could have been his “competition” for the lone vacant seat in the field, while also explaining the process of how he got the ride and how awkward said process is.

“I heard from Dale just after 9 a.m. yesterday morning. He told me to come meet him in the garage. Clearly he’s interested, was what I knew,” Davison said.

“For a number of us drivers, we were hoping we’d get the call-up for at least 12-16 hours or so. There was a lot of nervous energy built up, going through our heads, thinking who’s my competition, and who’s likely to get in the seat.

“I thought Townsend (Bell, NBCSN IndyCar analyst) would be possible – my biggest challenge, if he wanted it. He’s had really good runs here. He’s pulled the pin on driving full-time… but if an opportunity presented itself though where he could jump in, and feel he could win the race, he’d consider it.

“Plus, Townsend’s phenomenal at raising sponsorship. I thought Townsend could have possibly been. But maybe, I’m not sure if he even considered it himself. It was a huge relief when I knew, and I was given the go-ahead.”

What then occurred Sunday morning was a whirlwind of emotions and drivers going in-and-out of the Coyne garage to receive either good (Davison) or bad (everyone else) news.

Davison (18) battles Karam (24) in practice. Photo: IndyCar

“Basically, we then had to meet in the garage and chat,” Davison said. “Once I got the go-ahead it was then a totally different state of mind. I have to get my INDYCAR license. I need to call the sponsors. I have to get my helmet. I need to get fitted in the car. I was at the track until 11 p.m. last night doing the seat fit, then here at 8 a.m. this morning.

“It’s been a stressful 48 hours; my mind racing a lot, and especially watching pole day unfold. There’s everyone running 233 mph… and I haven’t even turned a lap. Talk about a contrast. It was kind of bizarre, the state of mind I’ve been in. I’m excited I’m in the race, but it’s for a very unfortunate reason. It is what it is, we’ll do the best we can with the situation.”

Davison was back in action Monday morning with 20-plus laps on his own, with 88 laps total completed on the day. This marked his first day working with engineer Craig Hampson, while he had worked with engineer Olivier Boisson in his rookie Indianapolis 500 attempt with KV Racing Technology in 2014, when he finished 16th.

He said the team was conservative with downforce selections and thinks a finish in the top half of the field is achievable.

“It came back to me like it was yesterday, two years ago was yesterday,” he said. “I was running in a pack with Hinchcliffe and Alonso nearly immediately. They may have assisted with lifting. Time passes, and there was no problem feeling in context.

“It’s nice the Honda is certainly strong. For sure today, we ran conservatively. Maybe didn’t run in traffic as much as I would have liked, but we worked on the balance and the aero trim as well.

“I think we have to be (modest), based on where we are with our situation. With good improvements between now and Carb Day, and the race, hopefully those will go up.

“From the outset, it was always going to be like this.”

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.”