Dixon, Castroneves, Power solid at Sonoma, but come up short

Photo: IndyCar
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Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, and Will Power had solid runs on Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, with all three of them finishing in the top five.

However, their efforts were ultimately not enough to see any of them take a championship away from Josef Newgarden, who clinched his first first Verizon IndyCar Series championship by finishing second to teammate Simon Pagenaud, who moved up to second place in the standings as well.

Of those three, Dixon ranked highest in the championship order after finishing a distant fourth, over 12 seconds off race winner Pagenaud. Castroneves was even further behind in fifth, and more than 22 seconds off the lead, while Power managed to get on the podium by finishing third, but couldn’t get close enough to challenge either Newgarden or Pagenaud.

For Dixon, the result caps a year in which he won one race and remained his usual consistent self, but could not overcome the Penske quartet.

“It seemed like the 3 (Castroneves) covered us. He was a massive roadblock at certain parts on the track. It was circumstance. Once we got clear track we could hunt them down. Huge credit to everyone on the NTT Data crew. It was a strong season. Congrats to Penske and Josef on a job well done,” Dixon told NBCSN.

“I think we had good speed but we should have won quite a few races and we didn’t. We got crashed out a bit. It was all valuable points lost. We learned a lot this season. Going back to Honda we made some good gains. We’ll have a bit of a break and get going.”

For Castroneves, the chance to battle for a win likely went by the wayside due to strategy, with the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet group not following Pagenaud’s four-stop strategy. Castroneves detailed that he tried that last year, only to see it fail, so he wasn’t sure about trying it again.

“I last year did that strategy and it did not work, so I said, ‘I don’t want to be that guinea pig again and do the same thing. I want to change,'” Castroneves said of his team’s strategy.

Helio Castroneves finished fifth Sonoma and ended up fourth in the championship standings. Photo: IndyCar

For Castroneves, this comes at a time with his future still uncertain, as he has not yet been confirmed as returning to Team Penske in the Verizon IndyCar Series or moving over to its new Acura DPi entry in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

While he noted that not decision has yet been made, Castroneves asserted that his goal will remain the same regardless: win races.

“Now, you know, whatever happens in the future – sometimes you can use that in different ways, and something that I learned in the past: Sometimes we’ve got to dance according to the music. But at this point we’re definitely going to announce — I feel whatever it’s going to be, if it’s moving on or not, I’m going to continue to motivate and keep working hard to achieve my goals, which is winning races,” he declared.

Teammate Power ran a quiet race to finish third, and ultimately ended up fifth in the final standings. However, Power’s day began with a little drama, as Team Penske swapped his and Newgarden’s pit crews before the race began.

Power remained matter of fact about it afterward, and admitted that he understood why the team made the last-minute change.

“It’s probably something they were thinking of, the team. Basically just assemble the pit stop competition winners from Indy, which is understandable,” he explained. “They needed to make sure they had the absolute best possible chance, had everyone come in under yellow, the best chance to have Josef get out first.”

Will Power finished third at Sonoma, and ended up fifth in the final IndyCar standings. Photo: IndyCar

Power added that, while he entered the race with a mathematical shot the championship, his season never truly had him in a position to make a championship push.

“I just never quite got on a run, never,” he revealed. “I think back to the ones that hurt, and it’s failure at St. Pete and we’re leading at Barber, that’s a huge points swing for me right there that would have put me right in contention here, but getting the puncture. So there were a couple. But yeah, just up and down all year, up and down.”

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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.”