Top 5 storylines for 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season

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Editor’s note: Today we kick off our weeklong coverage of the IndyCar season-opening weekend, capped off by the marquee event, Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. We will have several stories going forward over the next six days, as well as comprehensive coverage of race day Sunday.

As we prepare for the start of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season this weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida, the key word heading into the campaign is “change.”

There are several storylines within the sport that are based upon change, namely, changes to the race car, as well as changes to driver lineups in several teams.

Here’s the top five storylines heading into the new season:

1. The new car: Without question, the biggest attention-getting change is the new body style and aero kit on the 2018 race car.

The new Dallara body is arguably the boldest, sexiest and sleekest looking car seen in the Indy car open-wheel ranks in many years.

Just looking at the car conveys speed — and lots of it. Plus, the new aero package that’s part of the design significantly cuts downforce, putting more control in a driver’s hands.

Whether powered by Honda or Chevrolet, the new Dallara body is already a big winner among drivers and teams. During last month’s test in Phoenix, virtually every driver extolled its virtues, with the biggest word used over and over being how much “fun” the car is to drive.

2. Downsizing vs. new teams: Two of the biggest teams in the sport have scaled back their lineups.

Team Penske has gone from a four- to three-car operation, with defending IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden, 2016 champ Simon Pagenaud and 2014 champ Will Power as the team’s IndyCar lineup. Helio Castroneves has moved over to Team Penske’s sports car operation in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series.

And Chip Ganassi Racing has scaled back from a three- to a two-car team for the first time since 2010.

But the series will also see several new teams. Carlin Racing will field two full-time cars, Harding Racing will field one full-time car, and both Juncos Racing and Michael Shank Racing are expected to run part-time slates.

3. New driver lineups: As they say in baseball, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. And that’s very relevant to the IndyCar driver lineup for the 2018 season.

Several drivers have either changed teams, while others are coming into the sport for the first time.

Among driver changes:

* After four seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing, Tony Kanaan moves to A.J. Foyt Racing and the No. 14, replacing Carlos Munoz.

* Ed Jones will replace Kanaan in the No. 10 at Chip Ganassi Racing, which has downsized to just two cars this season, the other car being the No. 9 driven by veteran Scott Dixon.

* Former Indy Lights driver Matheus Leist replaces Conor Daly in the No. 4 at A.J. Foyt Racing. Leist, 19, becomes the youngest rookie driver on the IndyCar circuit since Marco Andretti in 2006. Daly, meanwhile, is expected to announce a ride in this year’s Indy 500 on Tuesday.

* Zack Veach joins Andretti Autosport in the No. 26, replacing Takuma Sato. Carlos Munoz does not have a full-time ride for 2018, but will race in the No. 29 for Andretti Autosport in the Indianapolis 500, as will Stefan Wilson in the No. 25.

* After just one season with Andretti Autosport, 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato returns to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the No. 30. In addition, RLL expands to become a two-car team for the first time in several years.

* Spencer Pigot is upgraded from racing only on road courses to a full season in the No. 21 with Ed Carpenter Racing, replacing J.R. Hildebrand. Also, Jordan King joins the team to drive the No. 20 on road and street courses, while team owner Ed Carpenter will compete in the No. 20 only in oval-track races.

* Danica Patrick (car number TBA) will compete in the final IndyCar race of her career when she races for Ed Carpenter Racing in this year’s Indianapolis 500.

* Russian driver Mikhail Aleshin is out at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, replaced by Robert Wickens in the No. 6. Wickens spent the last six seasons competing on the German Deutsche-Tourenwagen Masters circuit.

* Dale Coyne Racing will have 2017 World Series Formula V8 3.5 champion Pietro Fittipaldi, for seven races in the No. 19, while Zachary Claman DeMelo will drive the other 10 races. Fittipaldi is grandson of two-time F1, two-time USAC and one-time CART champ Emerson Fittipaldi.

* Carlin Racing will have former CGR driver Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton in the No. 23 and No. 59, respectively.

* Gabby Chaves will run the full season for the new Harding Racing team in the No. 88.

* Rene Binder and Kyle Kaiser will split driving the No. 32 for Juncos Racing.

* Jack Harvey will compete in at least six races in the No. 60 for Michael Shank Racing.

4. Adios Watkins Glen, hello Portland: After a two-year run at Watkins Glen International race course, the IndyCar Series moves its penultimate race of the season to Portland International Raceway.

Watkins Glen had originally been pressed into service in 2016 after the Grand Prix of Boston was abruptly cancelled just a few months before it was slated to be held.

Watkins Glen did a good job as a fill-in track when IndyCar needed one the most. Don’t be surprised that if the IndyCar schedule is expanded in the near future, that the series may return to one of the premier road courses in the country. It’s a no-brainer.

5. Can Team Penske do it again? Team Penske has won three of the last four IndyCar championships – Will Power (2014), Simon Pagenaud (2016) and Josef Newgarden (2017).

Will the most successful team in IndyCar history make it four titles in the last five seasons? Can Newgarden make it two in a row?

While the nucleus of the team remains intact, they’ll be without Castoneves, who has shifted to full-time sports car racing (although he’ll be in the Indy 500 for Team Penske).

Will the loss of Castroneves in IndyCar end up hurting Team Penske in the long run? Time will tell.

There’s a lot more to talk about this week as we continue the countdown to the season-opening race in St. Petersburg on Sunday. Stay with MotorSportsTalk as we have several more stories planned leading up to the race, as well as comprehensive coverage of the race weekend.

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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.”