DiZinno: Dixon toppling Penske highlights nice Road America encore

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The sequel is often harder to duplicate than the original, so the second year of the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America was always going to be a test case to prove last year’s “oh my goodness, IndyCar at Road America is back!!” vibe wasn’t a one-off.

Similar to the Indianapolis 500, while 2016 was always going to be a special event, the 2017 event matched it in awesomeness, even with a slight reduction in crowd.

With that as a backdrop, here’s some takeaways from the weekend:

DIXON SLAYS PENSKE’S QUARTET

Photo: IndyCar

Because IndyCar often dwells so much on its history – which often serves as a crutch for IndyCar’s future – it is sometimes hard to appreciate the history being made as we speak.

In Scott Dixon’s latest historic act, winning his 41st career race to move within one of Michael Andretti for third on IndyCar’s all-time win list, he singlehandedly toppled the Team Penske quartet in the process.

A well-timed caution for him and being on the right tires – Dixon had Firestone red alternates on while combatant Josef Newgarden was on the black primaries – paid dividends. Dixon promptly delivered one of the overtakes of the season following the Lap 31 restart, basically taking Newgarden’s earlier around-the-outside pass for the lead at Turn 1 of Helio Castroneves and saying “hey, I can do this too.”

The combination of the strategy with Mike Hull, in his 25th anniversary weekend with Ganassi, and Dixon’s pace on track delivered an overdue first win of the year. It was such a big win, and extended his points lead to 34 in the process, he even did donuts after the race.

“He’s a calm person. I can get pretty worked up at some points throughout the races,” Dixon said. “It’s nice to have that sort of level-head person on the stand to extract the most out of everybody that’s on there.

“His knowledge and experience that he’s had, you know, in racing, I don’t know how long he’s been in racing, it’s got to be a long time if he’s been at one team for 25 years, we win and lose as a team. All but one race victory has been with this team. Mike’s a very large instrumental piece of, you know, Chip’s team and the success that they’ve had.

“It’s very gratifying. They looked pretty disappointed. It was nice to get a victory. As far as road courses go, this was going to be one of the more difficult ones for us because of the long straights and the drag that we have.”

The win also came after Dixon missed the morning warmup owing to a fuel pump issue, but the team got it resolved.

Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate good deadpan but Dixon nailed that after the race, too.

“I did not fix it, which is a good thing, because we probably wouldn’t have started the race!” he laughed.

PENSKE’S LOST CHANCE

Helio Castroneves led early at Road America. Photo: IndyCar

Between a disappointed Josef Newgarden, a dehydrated Helio Castroneves, a seemingly invisible Simon Pagenaud and an occasionally erratic Will Power, Team Penske’s dominant weekend ended without first place when it mattered most.

Newgarden looked the best of the bunch while Castroneves lost out on strategy – he pitted too early in the final sequence – while Pagenaud and Power faded from contention. Power got one penalty assessed and ordered to give up one position to Pagenaud for a move earlier in the race and ultimately finished behind him, on a day when “the incident involving Car 12 and Car XX” was said repeatedly. Pagenaud, as has been his strength this year, banked another solid top-five finish without generating major headlines to do so.

A TRIO OF UNDER-THE-RADAR GOOD DAYS

In sixth, seventh and ninth, Charlie Kimball, Ed Jones and Max Chilton got needed results. Kimball’s penchant for poor luck finally turned as he hoped it would going into the weekend. Jones, again, continued to overachieve for Dale Coyne Racing – this time wearing a Walter Payton Chicago Bears tribute helmet and having overcome a major piece of debris hitting his left front wing. Chilton fell to ninth from seventh but banked his fourth top-10 finish in the last six races. For a driver who only had two all of last year, that’s moving in the right direction.

GOOD CROWD ONCE AGAIN

Thanks to Chevrolet for a pre-race ride in one of its event cars, driven by USF2000 regular Ayla Agren – Road America is a big Chevrolet track – I had a good view of the crowd in the final moments before this year’s race kicked off. Between the grandstands and hillsides, there were plenty of fans and just as many campers.

It’d be hard to call this year’s race day crowd as big as last year’s but even if it was down slightly, it was still very good.

MAZDA MOTORSPORTS MANIA

Eight of the additional races this weekend were from the Andersen Promotions operated and INDYCAR sanctioned, Mazda-powered series. With all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires here for two races each, plus two Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires races on the docket, fans and paddock observers had a chance to witness a festival of “driving matters” on display at RA.

They were largely entertaining. Saturday’s second Pro Mazda race nearly witnessed Victor Franzoni complete a last-to-first comeback, and end disappointed after being beat by sparring partner Anthony Martin. Just like in USF2000 last year when Martin and Parker Thompson battled for the title, it will be hard to see one of them lost the title. Both Indy Lights races had huge margin of victories and surprising Carlin drivers winning (Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman De Melo) but great action throughout the field. Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser continues to drive like a champion-in-waiting; his race craft has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two years. And in USF2000, Rinus VeeKay delivered on his season-long potential with the only weekend sweep in a dream weekend for Augie Pabst’s Pabst Racing time. The likable young Dutchman, who is still only 16, was able to celebrate with both his own and with Pabst’s family this weekend. Teammates Calvin Ming and Lucas Kohl also scored podiums.

MX-5 Cup? Two photo finishes showcased that series’ racing at this track like few others on the calendar. Patrick Gallagher and Nathanial Sparks each used last lap, last turn moves to net their wins.

PWC’S POPULAR WINNERS… 

Elkhart Lake, WI – Jun 23, 2017: The Pirelli World Challenge racers take to the track on Pirelli tires during the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix at Road America presented by VP Racing Fuels at the Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI.

Panoz winning a sports car race is cool. As Ian James said on Saturday, few have given as much to sports car racing in North America, and for that matter the world, what Don Panoz has. So seeing Panoz’s latest wild GT creation tame Road America for a double win with James driving was not just a highlight for the driver, but also the Tom Milner-led team, who’ve been through a lot over the years with either uncompetitive or unreliable past cars.

A Panoz sports car was last a winner with the old Esperante GT2 in 2006, its Le Mans class win that year the car’s ultimate highlight. And with James’ weekend sweep, it continued PWC GTS’ crazy run of different drivers, teams and manufacturers sweeping the weekend – now five different drivers, teams and manufacturers in as many weekends, over 10 races. Yet it’s the one driver who hasn’t won, Lawson Aschenbach in the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R, who still leads the points.

GT saw the perfect balance of Fong and Long on top. Adderly Fong took his first PWC win in his No. 88 Bentley Team Absolute Bentley Continental GT3 on Saturday while Patrick Long rebounded in his No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R on Sunday. The two were second in the races they didn’t win, with Cadillac splitting its two drivers – Michael Cooper and Johnny O’Connell – in third.

… BALANCED BY WEEKEND SCHEDULE ANGST

The good news this weekend was that there was a lot of action on track. The bad news for competitors in certain paddocks was that that “lot of action” meant awkward or bad track times. Pirelli World Challenge, in particular, had a brutal weekend schedule that may threaten the combination of PWC and IndyCar on the same weekend going forward for 2018 and beyond, IndyCar having been confirmed for June 23-24 here next year.

PWC already lost its Touring Car classes from the weekend compared to 2016 going in, with MX-5 as the replacement. A handful of invitational TC cars were added to the GTS races. The majority of PWC sessions were held Thursday with the GT and GTS/TC classes only having one session each on Friday, a qualifying and a race apiece on Saturday, and a second race apiece on Sunday.

Several competitors voiced their displeasure over this this weekend, and it was the latest sign of PWC’s growing pains as it works to evolve into a marquee, standalone series beyond being an excellent supporting act on IndyCar weekends. The fact for the second time this year that Sunday’s second GT race was not shown on a live web stream despite being advertised as such did not help matters, either, as a same day delay TV broadcast did occur for a smaller audience.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

  • The first murmurs of IndyCar silly season started to emerge this weekend with an AutoWeek report that hinted Andretti Autosport could be on the move from Honda to Chevrolet next season. While it would not be a surprise to see team and manufacturer movement next year – and there are whispers of multiple teams doing just that – it would be a surprise to see that starting so soon. Several drivers could do with improved results too in the coming races as contracts start to get looked at for 2018.
  • Robert Wickens handled his abnormal situation as well as he could. The Canadian had to deal with wondering whether he’d get to keep racing into the weekend after substituting for Mikhail Aleshin on Friday at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. It’d be nice to see Wickens earn a proper opportunity for a full weekend later this year, and it’s worth noting the DTM calendar and IndyCar’s remaining road and street course races don’t have any clashes…
  • Birthday weekends at race tracks are amazing, but exhausting. The amount of kind words and gestures were overwhelming though this weekend, as was what I think was a joint operation between INDYCAR, Road America and several media colleagues to surprise me with a cake in the media center on Friday evening was very flattering. I’m not sure where the “LaVern” came from, but the #BlameTony hashtag – a running joke going six years on – was a fun touch. Thanks to all.
  • It was also fun to call Sunday’s second Indy Lights race from the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network booth. Seeing the behind-the-scenes operation of how radio works as the crew puts everything together is like an orchestra. Coincidentally, IndyCar Radio regular Jake Query led NBCSN’s Indy Lights coverage this weekend, as Kevin Lee gets to call additional Verizon IndyCar Series races as lead announcer and host.

The Verizon IndyCar Series is off until Iowa; Pirelli World Challenge races next at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course; the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires is split between its next races at Iowa (Indy Lights, USF2000) and Mid-Ohio (Pro Mazda) and MX-5 resumes next in Toronto.

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.”