Rookie Robert Wickens takes St. Petersburg pole for first career IndyCar race

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Oh, Canada!

Rookie driver and Canadian native Robert Wickens overcame rain and slick track conditions during Saturday’s qualifying for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the season-opening event for the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Entered into the first IndyCar race of his career and first qualifying effort, Wickens, grabbed the pole on the last lap of qualifying for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and will start from the front after an effort of 1:01.6643.

Rookie Robert Wickens will start Sunday’s IndyCar Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from the pole.

“I’m a little speechless,” Wickens said. “My goal going into today was to make top 10. It was tough … but we kept our cool, made changes for the wet and we got it. I’m super happy. I hope we can take this pole position tomorrow and get a good result.”

Added Wickens’ teammate, James Hinchcliffe, “I knew he could do it. This kid’s got talent. He proved the car’s quick. It’s the first pole of his first career in his first race. It’s just awesome. I’m real happy.”

Wickens is one of three rookies to make the Firestone Fast Six.

Will Power will start second (1:01.7346), followed by rookie Matheus Leist (1:01.7631), rookie Jordan King (1:01.7633), Takuma Sato (1:01.8821) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (1:02.0385).

“It was really unpredictable, especially the way the paint was so slippery in Turn 1,” Power said of the qualifying conditions.

Added Leist: “That’s awesome. It’s a dream come true for me. First IndyCar race, first IndyCar season. I’m so happy. The A.J. Foyt team did a great job and I’m really, really happy.”

Here’s the full final qualifying grid:

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Qualifying Notes:

* Rookie Jordan King broke Will Power’s old track record (1:00.0658) with a run of 1:00.0476 in Round 1.

* Drivers that advanced from Round 1 to Round 2 in Group 1 were:

Jordan King: 1:00.0476
Alexander Rossi: 1:00.0936
Robert Wickens: 1:00.0999
Tony Kanaan: 1:00.2828
Simon Pagenaud: 1:00.3242
Ryan Hunter-Reay: 1:00.4087

* Those that did not advance to Round 2 from Group 1 were: Josef Newgarden, Zach Veach, Ed Jones, Jack Harvey, Charlie Kimball, Rene Binder

* Drivers that advanced from Round 1 to Round 2 in Group 2 of qualifying were:

Will Power 1:00.5969
Mattheus Leist 1:00.6331
Scott Dixon 1:00.8435
James Hinchcliffe 1:00.8441
Gabby Chaves 1:00.8507
Takuma Sato 1:00.9580

* Those that did not advance to Round 2 from Group 2 were: Spencer Pigot, Marco Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais (who started 21st and last one year ago, but then rallied to win), Graham Rahal, Max Chilton and Zachary Claman De Melo.

* In the second round of qualifying, Wickens was quickest (1:00.5428), followed by Will Power (1:00.5911), Ryan Hunter Reay, Jordan King (1:00.7305), Matheus Leist (1:00.7679) and Takuma Sato (1:00.8470).

* Failing to make the Firestone Fast Six were: Alexander Rossi (due to penalty), James Hinchcliffe, Gabby Chaves, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud.

* It was somewhat surprising that Team Penske had just one driver in the top 12 (Power), while Chip Ganassi Racing also only had one (Dixon).

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There were several incidents of note throughout all three rounds of qualifying:

* Rain began to fall slightly during Group 2’s qualifying session, but it quickly stopped. However, it appeared Graham Rahal’s loop around in Turn 10 may have been due to the sprinkles.

* Rain returned a few moments later with a slight mist as the Fast 12 second round of qualifying got underway.

* Spencer Pigot and Marco Andretti were involved in an incident that Race Control was reviewing.

* Takuma Sato looped his car around in Turn 2 with about 2:45 left in the Fast 12 round of qualifying.

* Just a few moments later, Scott Dixon had to get on the brakes hard in Turn 2, but managed to keep going. Ditto for Simon Pagenaud, who spun on three consecutive laps while fighting to get into the Fast Six, costing him a chance to advance. It also brought out a red flag to end the session slightly early.

* In the Firestone Fast Six battle to earn the pole, just after Will Power almost lost it on the front stretch, Ryan Hunter Reay slid coming into Turn 1, followed by Jordan King and Takuma Sato.

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Here’s some selected driver quotes about qualifying:

James Hinchcliffe: “It went away quick (said of the conditions once the drizzle began). Once the paint gets wet, it gets incredibly slippery and we saw so many cars going off there in Turn 1. Some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the bug. I’m happy Robby made it in, which is good for the team.”

Scott Dixon: “I guess we probably thought it was going to get drier as that session went on. It’s extremely slippery. We just misread it there. We were fast, quickest this morning, have good speed in the car. … We came here to win. I think the car is fast enough. We just have to see how we race.”

Gabby Chaves: “I would say we’re pretty happy, looking at where we started in practice yesterday. We took it very calmly, looked at the data, made the right changes and improved the car so much. … We knew with a little bit of luck and the right changes that we could make the final group and we did.”

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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
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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 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.”