Indy Lights: Herta, Steinbrenner look to build on 2017 season

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The 2017 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season started out with a bang for Colton Herta and George Michael Steinbrenner IV in their No. 98 Dallara IL-15 Mazda entered under the Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing banner. In their first weekend together, at the season-opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Herta and Steinbrenner asserted themselves as forces within the field by finishing second in race one and winning race two.

It was an authoritative debut for for driver and team owner, one that made a lasting impact on the latter, as Steinbrenner grew up in the area and considers it his home town.

“That was definitely the moment that stood out,” said Steinbrenner of their debut in a piece on IndyCar.com. “It was so unexpected to win so early and, to get it in what is essentially my hometown race in St. Pete, it was something special. It’s a race that I’ve gone to for the past 10 years or so, so it was really something special for me.”

From there, however, the year became defined by the phrase “feast of famine.” At Barber Motorsports Park, Herta finished tenth in race one after getting together with Kyle Kaiser in Turn 1 and damaged his front wing, though he rebounded to win race two – the 400th race in Indy Lights history since 1986, well before either Herta or Steinbrenner was born!

However, a pair of mechanical issues relegated Herta to finishes of 12th and tenth at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, and he crashed out of the Freedom 100 on Lap 1 with teammate Ryan Norman, leaving him 13th.

Race one at Road America wasn’t much better as he finished 12th, though he ended up third in race two and and back-to-back fourth-place finishes at Iowa and Toronto (race one). However, race two at Toronto saw him suffer suspension damaged after wall contact while leading, leaving him tenth again at the checkered flag.

The final four races of the year saw more consistency, however, as he finished second and sixth at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, third at Gateway Motorsports Park, and third at Watkins Glen.

All told, it amounted to nine finishes of sixth or better (including two wins and four additional podiums), but sixth finishes of 10th or worse, leaving him third in the championship at season’s end.

Herta, who is still only 17 years old, describes the year as a success and on in which he grew a lot.

“A year of learning. I think we exceeded our expectations. We were third in the championship, so I’ve been third the last three years!” quipped Herta, who finished third in the F4 British Championship (2015) and the Euroformula Open Championship (2016) in the two previous seasons.

What’s more, he took the heat for any mistakes this, asserting that the Andretti-Steinbrenner team gave him everything he could’ve asked for. And their speed together was evidenced in qualifying, as took seven poles in his rookie Indy Lights season, one shy of a single season record held by several drivers – including his dad Bryan.

“I never doubted what the car was doing,” Herta described. “A lot of the things that happened, some was in my hands – crashing vs. getting taken out – but the team was perfect all year. So I can’t blame them. The car was always good. Doug (Zister, engineer) knows what he’s doing.”

Colton Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing showed a lot of speed in 2017 and took two race wins. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography.

And while there isn’t much he would do differently, Herta did acknowledge he needs to settle down and a little and better harness the raw speed he possess. “We had a lot of speed. I need to settle down more in races,” he said of his development.

Steinbrenner, who at 21 years old is quite young himself, expressed similar sentiments and revealed that he is seeing Herta learn from his mistakes.

“He’s always had the speed, but as it is with a lot of drivers, he’s learned a lot from his mistakes,” Steinbrenner explained. “He’s matured a lot over even the past eight or nine months, since the beginning of the season. It’s good to see that and he’s grown stronger with each mistake he makes or each bad weekend we had.”

And as far future plans, Steinbrenner says Indy Lights is definitely in the cards for 2018 with an eye toward moving to the Verizon IndyCar Series in the future. The Herta and Steinbrenner partnership hasn’t been confirmed for a return yet, but it is something they both want to continue with.

“We’re planning on making the jump whenever we all think we’re ready. Whether that’s 2019, 2020, we’re not sure yet,” Steinbrenner added. “We know for sure that in 2018 we’ll be in the Indy Lights series.”

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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.”