Coastal motorcycle ride, 2017 season recap with NBCSN’s Townsend Bell

Photos courtesy Townsend Bell

Editor’s note: Our NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Townsend Bell headed back from San Francisco, outside the season finale in Sonoma, to his home in Los Angeles on a BMW motorcycle and answered your Twitter questions sent to @IndyCaronNBCSN along the way. Here’s a similar recap from last year.

Check out the blog below from Bell to see your questions answered and his reflections on the season (Bell’s 2017 season preview on linked here, along with an archive of past posts).

Another trip down the coast, and through an IndyCar season

By Townsend Bell

Thanks for all your questions. I enjoyed another epic ride Monday and Tuesday with a few friends. Zig-zagging our way between the California coast and Central Valley by way of some of the greatest twisty back roads on the planet.

Here was our route starting out in San Francisco:

  • Monday- Highway 35 to Highway 9 to Santa Cruz. Lunch in Pebble Beach. Carmel Valley Road to King City. G14 to Lake Nacimiento to Paso Robles. Highway 41 West to Morro Bay. Highway 1 to San Luis Obispo.
  • Tuesday- Highway 58 East to Taft. Highway 33 West to Ojai for lunch. Highway 1 South through Malibu.

Over 550 miles of two wheeled ecstasy and a nice reminder why we pay through the nose on taxes in this great state of recreational opportunities.

Big thanks to BMW Moto USA for loaning me their new K 1600 Bagger. Visually it took some getting used to. If Paul Tracy and Heidi Klum got together, this would be their love child. But the features don’t lie: 160 HP, heated grips and seat, traction control, ABS, adjustable fairing, cruise control, and highly engineered to still be nimble enough to go for it on the twisties despite being over 700 lbs. It was a blast to ride.

And now to your questions:

@coy_john: Do you prefer seasons to end on an oval? Did you find the Sonoma race interesting or as Will Power said, boring?

Townsend Bell: Good question. I agree that the Sonoma race lacked for some excitement this year. But there are a number of factors to consider. Team Penske locked out the top four slots in qualifying and, as such, dictated the race from there. A right they had earned based on a dominant qualifying performance. It was clear that Helio and Will Power were playing supporting roles all race which meant there really wasn’t a battle for the championship between four Penske drivers like we hoped. Josef and his team just had to execute flawlessly and they did.

Sometimes we have really exciting ovals, like Indy or Pocono, but St. Louis for example could be similar to Sonoma if the Penske situation noted above played out there for the Championship.

I’ll remain optimistic that next year’s spec- aero kit will remedy some of the racing limitations (on all road courses and short ovals) that come with ultra high downforce. Keep in mind the lap times will be slower at places like Sonoma.

That is, until we add more horsepower. I hear a slow chant starting now….. 1 Thousand….1 Thousand!

BROOKLYN, MI – AUGUST 1: Helio Castroneves driving the #3 Marlboro Penske Racing Toyota Dallara leads Scott Dixon in the #1 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Toyota GForce and Townsend Bell in the #2 Menards Panther Racing Chevrolet Dallara during the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series Michigan Indy 400 on August 1, 2004 at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

@CarMcFast1: Why won’t Helio be able to stay? What are some of your favorite Helio memories?

TB: It’s just time and I think Roger Penske made this plan some time ago with agreement (if not a tad reluctantly) from Helio. I’m guessing Helio and Montoya were a big sell to Acura to get the sportscar program in place too.

I will remember the way he doubled down after Will Power arrived at the team to step up his pace and meet the challenge. That’s hard to do late in a career. I’ll also remember the number of times he raised his hand in a driver’s meeting to ask for clarification on something Brian Barnhart had just said. The look on Barnhart’s face is always priceless!

@KeithSchmitz: Would you like to see these cars get more power or do you like how they’ve run with their current power levels?

TB: It’s the biggest thing we need to change to boost the appeal of the product. I advocate for 1000 HP any chance I get. Increase displacement, add an intercooler, switch back to methanol, increase revs, and watch the people push down the gates to come see just one car blow their minds. Let alone 33 lined up together!!!

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan of Brazil pose on the finish line with the Borg-Warner trophy during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

@BalchJamesBalch: How will Tony Kanaan do at Foyt next year? Can he win a race?

TB: It will be tough. Tony had a challenging year in 2017. He will bring some of the Ganassi personnel with him to Foyt but the team will need to ramp up the resources that good people need to perform. It would be really exciting to see A.J. Foyt Racing and Tony Kanaan challenge for the win at Indy next year. Long shot but I’d love to see it.

@ITSAKIRBY97: Who do you think was best rookie/young driver this season?

TB: Ed Jones. Hands down.

@NickHames1 / @KenAgain: Great job in the booth with the team – how fun is the dynamic between you and PT as ‘professors of the sport?’

TB: Paul is like having another teenager to look after. And I already have two teenage boys to manage. But behind the incessant napping, kit-katting, and missed conference calls is a guy who knows more about what it takes to win than anyone who has ever sat in the booth. We have fun, sometimes a wee bit too much, but I think the fans like to roll with our style because we are passionate about the sport and focus on getting the little things right.

@AdrianlmpMata: How impressive was Josef Newgarden being able to drive like a veteran rather than team rookie in year one at Penske?

TB: He has four years of experience previously so I expected big things and a calm head. I would say his apprenticeship lasted about two-three races. After that….he was on his way.

@RennPhoto: Big kudos for onboard shots at Sonoma… great to ride along. How cool were some of the new shots such as the visor cam?

TB: Uber cool. That’s exactly what it looks like as a driver in an Indycar.

@BDingess2010: Do you see IndyCar add more races to the schedule and/or returning to ovals such as Milwaukee/Kentucky?

TB: I think Portland will be the next up, maybe in 2019. Which is awesome because it’s a great market and fun race track close to the city. Hope they can make it happen. Milwaukee was a dud the last several years. Mark Miles and his team have done a terrific job of hammering out schedule consistency and overall league stability. It’s not a highly visible thing (stability) but I feel better about the health of Indycar than I have in the last 10 years. The Indycar management should be applauded.

A couple questions I added (-TDZ)

TDZ: Where did the inspiration for some of the nicknames – i.e. Joey New Jive and Slick Willy P – come from?

TB: PT listens to too much disco on his down time. Which is nearly all the time.

TDZ: You said at the beginning of the season that this would be one of the most competitive years in memory. Fair to say it lived up to that?

TB: I would say so.  Next year will be just the same, maybe better.

TDZ: Between Josef’s two title-defining moves at Mid-Ohio on Will and Gateway on Simon, which is more impressive and why?

TB: Gateway because it was much higher risk.  And they touched at 180 + which made the drama even higher.

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

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.”