PREVIEW: KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – After a hectic period in the lead-up to and run through the Indianapolis 500 in May, then into the first two and a half weeks of June, the Verizon IndyCar Series is back in action this weekend with the KOHLER Grand Prix at picturesque Road America.

The race’s return last year after nine years away proved a hit for drivers, teams and fans alike and the encore will also be one to watch.

With that, here’s some story lines to look out for the 2017 KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

2017 KOHLER Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does a Will Power “summer smackdown” begin now? 

Last year, Power’s win at Road America was his second in a row after winning Detroit race two, and the second race in his ludicrously good run of four wins and two second-place finishes in six races. He enters the 2017 Road America race in exactly the same position, fresh off a dominant win in the race beforehand.

Power’s Texas win was authoritative and didn’t really seem in doubt, even as Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato posed late-race challenges before they collided. Power seems in a good spot mentally this year, more so than in past years, and a second straight win both in 2017 and at Road America would fully serve as a warning shot to the rest of the field that his title pursuit is underway.

How will the IndyCar trio at Le Mans fare back at Road America?

Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin return to action in their day jobs this weekend after racing at last week’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. There wasn’t much of a hangover here, last year.

Dixon and Kanaan qualified second and third, with Dixon running strong early before a mechanical issue. Kanaan, meanwhile, had probably his best drive on a road or street course in years, ending just behind Power in second. Aleshin had a somewhat quiet weekend, qualifying 13th and finishing 16th.

Can Rahal’s roll continue?

Graham Rahal had a very strong weekend here with a sixth place start and podium finish in third. He’s had struggles on permanent road courses so far this year, though. At Barber he qualified 21st and last and finished 13th; at the Indianapolis road course he was 20th on the grid but recovered to sixth.

A good qualifying effort will be key to snapping that rough run on the road courses and continuing the overall roll he and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team have been on in the last month, with the doubleheader sweep in Detroit and a fourth place at Texas.

Will testing help the six-pack of Hondas that tested here?

Three Andretti Autosport, two Dale Coyne Racing and one Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda all tested here last week, to get an early leg up on the track for 2017 ahead of the rest of the field. It’s been rare in 2017 – Indianapolis aside – that teams have got the opportunity to test at the same track so soon to race day, but the Andretti and SPM teams cannily used an Indy Lights test day to ensure their primary drivers got an extra half day of running in. Coyne, too, got Ed Jones a day on track in an IndyCar here. Jones was in the crosshairs in a crazy Indy Lights weekend here last year but has been much calmer, and solid, in his first season in IndyCar.

Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske also tested at Watkins Glen last week for a Firestone tire test, so they’ve had a bit of extra running in too.

Five extra laps of fuel doom? 

At just over 4 miles, there’s no room to be wrong on fuel strategy at Road America. You run out, and it’s likely game over – the strategy has to be pinpoint perfect.

This year’s KOHLER Grand Prix has been extended five laps to 55. It makes the race longer but it also forces teams into a very tight window of either three or four stops. Usually a fuel stint here is 12 or 13 laps; it can possibly be stretched to 14.

With pace laps to factor in early, pitting sooner on the first stop is possible. Can teams make it home on three stops this year or will a fourth be needed?

The potential eighth winner list has some good potential candidates

Besides the obvious driver you’d have expected to have a win but doesn’t so far in 2017 – Dixon – there’s also the names like Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves and even Max Chilton or Ed Jones who could be considered potential eighth different winners of the IndyCar season. Marco Andretti has looked strong in road course practice this year but it hasn’t translated to qualifying or a result.

The final word

From Power, who seeks both his second straight win in 2017 and a second straight at Road America: “I’m really looking forward to racing at Road America after the race at Texas. It was a crazy race but the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team worked hard together to pull off a win. I’m confident that the momentum we’ve built off of that win can definitely be a huge benefit for us as we head to Elkhart Lake and get into the championship hunt. It’s a fun, energetic crowd there and a fun course. I’m just ready to get back on track.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, June 23
10:45 – 11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:15 – 4 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
4:05 – 4:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, June 24
11 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (5 p.m. ET, same-day delay)

Sunday, June 25
8 – 8:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
11:32 a.m. – Driver introductions
12:10 p.m. – Command to start engines
12:17 p.m. – KOHLER Grand Prix (55 laps/220.77 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Will Power (pole)
2. Tony Kanaan
3. Graham Rahal
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Juan Pablo Montoya
8. Josef Newgarden
9. Spencer Pigot
10. Carlos Munoz

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Will Power
2. Scott Dixon
3. Tony Kanaan
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Graham Rahal

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.”