Honda, Acura have banner weekend in the ‘Motor City’

Photo: IndyCar
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The weekend at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear is usually a celebration of all-things “Bow tie.”

But it was Honda and Acura that utterly dominated the weekend on General Motors’ home soil, with GM’s corporate headquarters in the background.

In total, Honda won both Verizon IndyCar Series races and the new Acura NSX GT3 won its first race in its fifth start in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. For good measure, the Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Honda Civic Coupe also got on the podium in Thompson, Conn. this weekend in Red Bull Global Rallycross competition.

Honda’s aero kit struggles since the introduction of manufacturer aero kits in the 2015 IndyCar season have been well-documented, but it wasn’t until you did some digging into the stats to see how rare what the California-based Honda Performance Development effort accomplished was this weekend, and in the last week.

RAHAL BREAKS HONDA’S ROAD AND STREET POLE DROUGHT

Early pace from RLL signaled a big weekend. Photo: IndyCar

When Graham Rahal took the pole for Saturday’s first race of the weekend, it immediately triggered the stats that this ended droughts for both Rahal, the driver, and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team dating to 2009 and 2007 that they’d won poles.

What it also revealed was that Honda hadn’t won a pole on a road or street course in that time of aero kits. All of Honda’s poles since 2015 had come on ovals, courtesy of James Hinchcliffe, Carlos Munoz and Mikhail Aleshin last year in Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono, and this year via Scott Dixon at Indianapolis. The last time Honda won a pole on a road or street course came with the base Dallara DW12 chassis at Houston race one in 2014, achieved by Simon Pagenaud, in a bizarre rain-affected race won by Carlos Huertas.

So, that pole was the first of three big moments for Honda and sister brand Acura on Saturday in Detroit.

ACURA, SHANK, LALLY AND LEGGE WIN GTD

Great pit work netted the Nos. 93 and 86 Acuras huge track position gains. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The second came a few hours later when after a storming lap to get up to second in qualifying, Katherine Legge then did the best she could in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race in her No. 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 despite being balked by a slower Prototype Challenge car.

Legge kept the car within shouting distance of the lead though and on the pit stop, the Shank team – which had been flat out for a month anyway with its Indianapolis 500 entry in partnership with Andretti Autosport – nailed its pit stop taking only two left side Continental tires and moving to the lead.

From there, co-driver Andy Lally controlled the pace from there, delivering the first win for the NSX GT3 in only its fifth race in the series. A gamble to not take any tires backfired slightly for Jeff Segal and Ozz Negri in the sister, and rebuilt, No. 86 car; after vaulting from 12th up to sixth, which later became third, Segal got tapped by another car at Turn 7 in the final five minutes and dropped to fifth.

“I’m just so grateful that our team gets the win for the Acura brand today. You could almost feel it around this place, everyone was really, really calm before the race, it was almost too quiet!” Shank said.

“We are really making advancements on the car and I am just so thrilled for the team. Everyone from the drivers, to the crew guys, to the engineers, everyone did what they needed to today.”

Legge and Christina Nielsen led a 1-2 in GTD. Photo courtesy of IMSA

For Legge, the victory was a culmination of a lot of hard work and persistence to enter into the Honda and Acura family over the last five years.

“Today was the longest hour of my life watching Andy drive. I was telepathically talking to him. It was harder to watch than actually drive!” she said, after her first win in the U.S. since a Formula Atlantic race in 2005 at San Jose.

“Thank you to everyone who has given us a chance to put together this car and this ride. In 2013, I drove with HPD in the Indy 500 and it started the relationship, and I wanted to be in their program. And I kept nagging to do the ‘500 with Mike, and I kept nagging him. And when they wanted to do Le Mans, I pushed him to drive the LMP there. And then we became a good team, and I became good friends with Andy. So it’s been really special working everything out.”

Shank, Legge and Lally. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Lally, who’s achieved a ton in sports car racing on his own, paid all credit to Legge, Shank and HPD for this win.

“Everyone from HPD have been full tilt on this program. Shank and the crew made a fantastic pit stop,” he said. “We’ve had quite an up and down year. We’ve had some things go wrong at bad times, but today, everything went right. I’m so happy for these guys. Kat did an amazing job. She helped me get faster this weekend. I was junk, and I found some things she was doing and applied it to what I was doing. I did not think we were going to be here at the beginning of the weekend!”

RAHAL DOMINATION LEADS HONDA PODIUM SWEEP

Rahal’s No. 15 Honda. Photo: IndyCar

The wins for Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe at St. Petersburg and Long Beach this year kicked off Honda’s success on the street courses and what followed Saturday afternoon served as a continuation of that form.

Rahal’s first win saw him lead 55 of 70 laps in a period of utter domination, easily his most authoritative win yet of five he’d achieved in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe on the podium behind him, Dixon rallying through pain while Hinchcliffe atoned from a first lap spin with two laps of extra fuel in what was still a two-stop strategy, Honda had its first podium sweep on a road or street course also since that Houston 2014 weekend. In race two, Pagenaud beat teammate Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth in what was both of those drivers’ first career IndyCar podiums.

DOUBLING UP ON SUNDAY

Newgarden (left) and Power (right) flank Rahal. Photo: IndyCar

Chevrolet finally fought back a bit with Josef Newgarden and Will Power scoring podiums behind Rahal, but after another Honda pole from Takuma Sato in the morning and Rahal banking his second straight win, it was another authoritative day here.

As the Acuras did on Saturday, it was quick pit work from the RLL Racing crew that netted Rahal the lead. Sato led the opening 22 laps, while Rahal led 41 of the remaining 48 laps after the first pit stop sequence, only losing the lead again through stops. Sato was fourth and perhaps unlucky to end that way.

Sato’s pole on Sunday came a week after his Indianapolis 500 triumph. Photo: IndyCar

BIG PICTURE? BIG GAINS FOR HONDA IN 2017

The problem Chevrolet faces this year is in its strength of depth among teams. On the short ovals, Penske and Chevrolet still clearly have the advantage but elsewhere, the Honda teams have stepped up.

It’s somewhat intriguing that Honda has five teams – Ganassi, Andretti, RLL, Coyne and Schmidt Peterson – and all but Ganassi have won a race this year.

Honda has five wins in eight races this year, which comes after a year when Chevrolet won 14 races to Honda’s two in 2016, and 11-5 in 2015. It’s a perfect four-for-four on street courses with only Toronto on July 16 to come.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, celebrates after winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

And having won the Indianapolis 500, Honda now has three IndyCar wins in eight days, with Sato’s win at Indianapolis hugely important for both Honda of Japan and America. A loss there would have been a bitter pill to swallow, and Sato’s win defeating Helio Castroneves’ Chevrolet was big from a big-picture standpoint, especially as Honda endured a month of reliability issues and had three more failures in the race.

Honda also led the manufacturer’s championship, 480 to 471, going into Detroit and that lead should increase leaving it.  Chevrolet has won each of the five manufacturer’s championships in the last five seasons, 2012 to 2016, but appears to be under threat in search of the six-pack this year.

President of Honda Performance Development Art St. Cyr and a number of other key Honda officials were on site in Detroit this weekend and hailed the overall weekend performance.

“This series is so competitive, it is extremely rare when a driver and team combine to dominate a weekend as Graham [Rahal] did here in Detroit,” he said.

“Combined with our win at last week’s Indianapolis 500, yesterday’s historic first victory for the Acura NSX GT3 in sports car racing, and our 1-2- 3 IndyCar sweep on Saturday, it’s been a very memorable eight days for everyone at Honda Performance Development. Congratulations to Graham, to Scott [Dixon] for a gritty effort in both races, and to Takuma for coming off a hectic Indy 500 ‘Champion’s Tour’ to perform very well this weekend.”

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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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 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 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 car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

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. – McLaren Racing

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.”