High speed, high grip: Watkins Glen poses unique test for IndyCar

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Last year’s return of the Verizon IndyCar Series to Watkins Glen International showcased ridiculous speed for the Chevrolet and Honda-powered cars. Trying to translate that beyond the cockpit is a tough task.

But consider on the repave of the 3.37-mile permanent road course in upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes region, average lap speeds – again, on a road course – were well north of 140 mph, and the slowest point around the track was just under 100 mph.

Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN) may only be 60 laps but it’s incredibly high on commitment and sheer speed.

“I thought about that leaving the test. How do we translate that to fans?” Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport, told NBC Sports.

“The workload is insane. The amount of commitment that you do going into a corner, Turn 5, we’re pulling over 3.5 G’s on a road course – which is freaking huge! You’re going in thinking it’s not right, and it’s still not right when you reach the Bus Stop.

“I won there in ’08 and it was an actual Bus Stop, it was a proper chicane. Now you barely break, you can barely see, you hit the curbs, your hair is on fire, and you’re swatting flies in the cockpit. By time you react you’re into the fifth gear right hander. It’s a lot of fun, with absolutely huge commitment. It’s probably the most commitment you have on a road course.”

Other drivers have extolled the speed and commitment required to this track, as well.

“The Glen to me is the best road course in North America, and I cannot wait to return to its flowing, high-speed and undulating bends this weekend,” said Max Chilton, driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, who’s an unabashed fan of the track.

“I think no one has ever said that Watkins Glen is an un-favorite track,” added Takuma Sato, driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda. “We all love it! This awesome track has a beautiful series of flowing, high-speed corners with great elevation changes, and overtaking is very possible. It’s just a fantastic road course.”

Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya. Photo: IndyCar

“Watkins Glen is a beautiful track. It has great history in Indy car (racing). It has lots of grip which makes it very interesting and very fast,” summarized Simon Pagenaud, driver of the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, the defending series champion.

This year’s weekend will see IndyCar run alongside all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires for the final time, with the Pro Mazda and USF2000 making their returns to the track after extended absences. The Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires is also present, as is Robby Gordon’s Stadium SUPER Trucks series. That’ll mean four different types of rubber go down, same as a couple other circuits this year, with Firestone joined by the Cooper, BFGoodrich and Toyo rubber. How cars react following each previous session will be interesting to watch.

Watkins Glen is the fifth of six permanent road course races on the schedule this year, and figures to race similarly to Road America earlier this year. All three MRTI series, plus MX-5 and Pirelli World Challenge all raced there.

Team Penske’s quartet dominated the weekend in practice and qualifying but got usurped by Scott Dixon in the race itself. Another such performance by Dixon here, at a track where he’s won four times before, would ensure he’ll keep the championship fight within a 30-point gap heading to Sonoma in two weeks.

Photo: IndyCar

Dixon’s Watkins Glen weekend a year ago was something to behold as he led every single practice session before qualifying, won the pole, led morning warmup, and won the race after leading 50 of the 60 laps. The only thing he missed was fastest race lap, pipped by Tony Kanaan.

He reflected on it in the immediate aftermath.

“These are the weekends that you definitely don’t forget, just in the sheer fact of we had such a smooth one, which made it hard also going into the race,” he said. “We had been fast in practice, fast in qualifying, obviously got the pole. You just think of the problems and maybe strategy not going your way or maybe having a mechanical and taking you out of it.

“It was definitely a very dominant weekend, but I think when you’re in those weekends, too, your mind is just running crazy with possibilities and things that could go wrong, especially in the race. Yeah, I don’t know. As I said, I think we should race here more.”

What will be interesting to see for him this year is if the baseline car setup stays as on point with a Honda package this year as it was with a Chevrolet package last year. Dixon hailed the Chevrolet fuel economy – saying it seemed like a “Chevy Volt” engine was in the car – in addition to his nailing the pace from the off.

“There’s places that we know that we have a good baseline setup and a place that we can run strong at, and this is definitely one. We didn’t really change the car too much all weekend,” he said.

And what did he think of the physicality of the race itself?

“I like to think a lot of the tracks that we go to, the most physical ones are the bumpy ones, just because you’re correcting so much,” he explained. “The street courses have a lot of grip, but places like Mid-Ohio or Road America have a lot of character to them, so the braking zones are a little bumpy, the apexes, but the speeds and loads are high. Here it’s still very smooth and you’re not doing a whole lot of correcting.

“We had a 16- or 18-lap final stint while saving fuel, you know, the pace comes down a couple of seconds and the loading comes down a lot.

“Had this been a flat-out race, I think, throughout, which they may change I think the distance of the race next year just so it’s not so much of a — kind of a — you’re right in the middle of making it on fuel and making it pretty easy to be achievable but not being that slow. So next year they may change it by five or ten laps and see how that plays out.”

The race distance has not changed so that might mean a similar amount of fuel saving, but still a similar amount of commitment throughout the 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.”