MRTI: First look at 2018 comes this weekend at Griffis test at IMS

New Tatuus PM-18. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

INDIANAPOLIS – The Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway enters its seventh year this year, and always serves as a first look at the new season to come for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires.

While last year it was the debut of the new Tatuus USF-17 Mazda that turned heads, this year it will be the new Tatuus PM-18 – in its first official public test by teams, after private testing has followed series testing over the last several months – that will be most intriguing to watch.

The new car is already reportedly several seconds faster than the venerable Star chassis with the Mazda Renesis rotary that served as the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires’ stalwart chassis for more than a dozen years, thanks to a moderate power jump to a 275 HP 2.0-liter Mazda MZR-PM18A motor developed by Elite Engines, with a six-speed sequential transmission. Reliability might need to be monitored as well as the new engine gets put through its paces.

There’s 11 cars listed in Pro Mazda, which is a good sign this early on in the process as teams look to put together programs for a new season. The last two years, the car count has hovered between eight to 15 cars, with only eight to 10 of them full championship class contenders.

Existing teams Juncos Racing, Team Pelfrey and Cape Motorsports have six of the 11 cars entered. Juncos has evaluated several drivers already in private testing and for its three PM-18s this weekend, the series’ defending champions have Carlos Cunha, Sting Ray Robb and Robert Megennis in its three cars.

Cunha enjoyed a successful first year in the U.S. with Pelfrey this year, and finished with a run of five podiums in a row to end the year. Robb, the teenager, learned throughout his year with World Speed Motorsports while Megennis had a tougher second season in USF2000 with Pelfrey despite winning his first race.

Pelfrey will test Kaylen Frederick as the Maryland teenager will look to impress after a solid first full year in USF2000, along with Kris Wright, who drove partial seasons in USF2000 (John Cummiskey Racing) and Pro Mazda (JDC Motorsports). Cape will run Oliver Askew, the USF2000 champion, in preparation for his graduation.

The five other cars come from three new teams, as USF2000 outfits BN Racing, Exclusive Autosport and Pabst Racing join the grid in anticipation of Pro Mazda efforts next season. Parker Thompson, Nikita Lastochkin, Calvin Ming and David Malukas all raced in USF2000 or Pro Mazda last year with all four now set to test this weekend; Malukas will have Dutchman Leonard Hoogenboom as a teammate a second car at BN Racing.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires field features some new intriguing driver/team combinations.

Andretti Autosport and Juncos Racing will field four drivers each. For Andretti, it’ll be three of its four 2017 drivers with Colton Herta (in an Andretti-Steinbrenner entered car), Ryan Norman and Dalton Kellett all listed along with Anthony Martin, who expects to graduate to Indy Lights next year after a year in Pro Mazda, and after coming up just short of the title to Victor Franzoni.

Franzoni, meanwhile, will make his Indy Lights test debut with Juncos this week. This will be a special week for the Pro Mazda champion as he comes home to IMS, as it’s where he made his first test with Juncos last year at this event and then promptly swept the IMS road course weekend in May in Pro Mazda. Like Askew, Franzoni’s team choice for 2018 will be announced at a later date by Mazda, but it wouldn’t be a surprise for either driver to continue with their 2017 teams for another season.

Beyond Franzoni, Cunha, Nicolas Dapero and Heamin Choi will be in the Juncos Indy Lights cars. Dapero is believed to be returning to the Juncos team for a second season, looking to build on a year of development his rookie season.

Belardi Auto Racing is targeting anywhere from three to four cars next season, although none of its 2017 drivers are set to test with the team this weekend. Aaron Telitz will be on site helping a USF2000 team (RJB Motorsports) through its paces. Belardi will test Telitz’s seemingly eternal sparring partner in USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights race winner Nico Jamin, along with Dutch standout Rinus VeeKay, who’s also had private tests with Juncos Racing, Pabst Racing and Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda.

Elsewhere Pato O’Ward and T.J. Fischer will be teammates again as they were in Pro Mazda with Pelfrey at its Indy Lights team, Fischer making his test debut here in a Lights car. Carlin is notably absent this weekend, opting not to test.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

With the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda the first rung on the MRTI ladder, this test provides the first real introduction to a large list of rookies. Only Telitz and Thompson (who wouldn’t be racing in USF2000 next year), Lucas Kohl, Darren Keane, Callan O’Keefe, Jacob Loomis, Andres Gutierrez and Jayson Clunie have any level of USF2000 race experience among those listed to test, and the last five there have only run partial seasons.

The field isn’t as big as it could be with the F4 U.S. Championship season finale happening this weekend at Circuit of The Americas along with the Formula 1 weekend, and with a number of international and domestic talents – including this year’s Team USA Scholarship recipients in Jonathan Kotyk and Aaron Jeansonne – on display at the Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy in England.

Still, there’s more than 20 drivers entered, including the only two females set to run this test with Sabre Cook (John Cummiskey Racing) and Zoey Edenholm (BN Racing) both part of the lineup. Cook was one of 10 drivers selected as a finalist for the Team USA Scholarship this year, and she, Loomis, David Osborne and Elliott Finlayson make it four of the 10 nominated that are testing a USF2000 car this week.

The full schedule is linked here, along with the entry list.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing

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.”