IndyCar 2018 grid starting to become significantly clearer (VIDEO)

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SONOMA, Calif. – The rumors are starting to turn into releases about the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series grid, as the 2017 season draws to a conclusion this weekend at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

With the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit coming to teams and with teams going to be testing over the fall, following the completion of INDYCAR-run testing at Sebring on Sept. 26, it’s become significantly more important for teams to finalize their programs earlier than ever.

Here’s a look at how the grid is shaping up, in a Sonoma update (post-Mid-Ohio update here):

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1, Honda): Graham Rahal
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

New here in the last few weeks or so have been the quartet of young Americans, with Rossi (just before Watkins Glen), Pigot and Veach (just before Sonoma) all locked up. That means of the 13 officially confirmed driver/team combinations, nine of them are American drivers. Another new inclusion is Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser, who will also have at least three races in IndyCar thanks to the Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship valued at $1 million.

Additionally, both Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have re-upped with Honda for multi-year agreements. The Andretti new contract with Honda put a stop to any potential other engine movement dominos.

On Friday at Sonoma, Honda Performance Development President Art St. Cyr confirmed as much when he said all five of its teams from 2017 are under contract for 2018. Contracts are staggered, he said, that all five teams will not be up for renewal simultaneously.

PROGRESSING, CLOSE, OR ALL BUT OFFICIALLY CONFIRMED 

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (1, Honda): James Hinchcliffe
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1, Honda): Takuma Sato
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet), Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Ed Jones
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet), Gabby Chaves

Based on reports primarily from RACER and Motorsport.com as well as our own investigating over the last few weeks since our post-Mid-Ohio update, these entries seem close-ish if not outright official yet.

The plan has appeared to shift for Castroneves from his potential sports car shift for Penske’s Acura ARX-05 DPi program to a fourth Team Penske IndyCar after all (first reported from Motorsport.com here). While no formal announcement about his future will be made until after this weekend, Castroneves in a Penske IndyCar now seems a more viable possibility than it did for most of the summer – and may mean this won’t be his final bow as a full-time driver after all.

Hinchcliffe’s options to move away from SPM have seemed to close in recent weeks, and he realistically has nowhere else at a similar caliber top team he can go. As of mid-week no contract had yet been signed, but all signs point to a return here.

Meanwhile Sato will be jumping ship from Andretti to RLL – even though neither party can confirm it until after Sonoma – and Kanaan’s four-year run at Ganassi ends so he is set to become the veteran with Foyt, after their year with a pair of young guns.

Jones appears close to a renewal with Dale Coyne Racing and Coyne told NBC Sports in the paddock today that he is hoping to finalize the second car “within a couple weeks.” The Dubai-based Brit is known to have some funding, but will need to find enough to offset the loss of the Indy Lights championship scholarship, valued at $1 million from Mazda, he brought this year.

While Chaves and Harding are all-but-a-lock, there’s always a tinge of doubt with new programs. The team could theoretically add a second driver with budget as the team has two cars.

QUESTION MARKS 

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (seats 2 and/or 3)
  • Carlin (seats 1 and/or 2)
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (seat 2)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (seat 2)
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (seat 2, road/street courses)
  • Juncos Racing (seat 1)

Ganassi’s non-Dixon trio of Max Chilton, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball has been anticipated to leave over the last couple months. While RACER linked Porsche LMP1 driver Brendon Hartley to Ganassi’s second seat, eRacing365 reported on the same day that Hartley said he was looking at a Formula E seat. If the latter scenario developed, it’d leave Hartley in the same spot as Felix Rosenqvist, locked into a Formula E contract.

Chilton is expected to head to Carlin, the Trevor Carlin-run team which is owned by Chilton’s father Grahame. The identity of his teammate, provided Carlin enters into the series with two cars, is less clear. Kimball makes sense although his degree of budget with longtime partner Novo Nordisk could be reduced. Carlin could be in the frame for an Indianapolis shop if it steps up; the team’s Indy Lights operation is based in Delray Beach, Fla. And with Ed Carpenter Racing confirming it will be moving shops at year’s end, this provides a potential entry point for Carlin into Speedway if a deal is struck.

SPM co-owner Sam Schmidt has told multiple outlets a “short list” of some “28 drivers” are under consideration for his second seat. All the while, the team delivered a rather random third car announcement for next year’s Indianapolis 500, for French sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy with the Calmels Sport team. Drivers ranging from sports car veterans to Hinchcliffe’s Canadian countryman Robert Wickens to SPM’s 2016 Indy Lights driver, Santiago Urrutia, are among the contenders for the highly coveted seat.

Foyt is known to be evaluating both Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz for the second seat there, alongside at least one or two other young guns with recent IndyCar experience.

Quite who lands in Carpenter’s second seat for road and street course races is less clear. A reflective JR Hildebrand won’t be a candidate following Pigot’s promotion into the full-time No. 21 car.

Ricardo Juncos is set for anywhere from three to five races at the least as he steps up further beyond his pair of MRTI programs. Graduating with Kaiser would be a natural, but that’s not to say Kaiser might not be looking elsewhere – he is here at Sonoma and making the rounds this weekend.

DRIVERS LOOKING TO FIND A SEAT 

The list of 2017 drivers without a ride confirmed yet includes those already mentioned in the first few categories: Hildebrand, Daly, Munoz, Chilton, Kimball, and Jones.

Jack Harvey joined Veach in the “Indy Lights graduates making limited 2017 starts” club and worked to push through some issues that hampered his weekends. He’s known to be looking at a couple different team situations.

Then there’s Esteban Gutierrez and Sebastian Saavedra to consider. Gutierrez’s budget amount seems to vary depending on who you talk to, but if the series adds a Mexico City round, Gutierrez is a must-have for the field, certainly for that race and preferably the full season. Talk though that he might be with one of the top teams has cooled, and with Michael Andretti now unlikely to run a fifth car full-season beyond the Indianapolis 500, he may not wind up there as was possible.  Saavedra was his usual serviceable self in a handful of races with Juncos and SPM that put his name back on the map.

Recent veteran drivers that raced once or twice in 2017 include Oriol Servia, Sage Karam, Tristan Vautier and James Davison, but none seems to be on the real radar of a full-time seat. Servia’s development savvy – particularly given his work on the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit – and guidance to a young gun is once again being overlooked.

We ran through the Indy Lights contenders a week or so ago, with Urrutia and Zachary Claman DeMelo both making the most noise about their desire to graduate. Claman DeMelo makes his IndyCar debut at Sonoma in RLL Racing’s second car and wants to step up in 2018, although wouldn’t rule out an Indy Lights return. Meanwhile Urrutia and Matheus Leist are among the young guns here this weekend in a visiting role.

RC Enerson and Matthew Brabham have had the unfortunate distinction of impressing in limited 2016 starts but failing to secure a follow-up opportunity this year, although both have made sporadic appearances at races throughout the year, including Enerson here at Sonoma 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.”