Roger Penske: Guarantee full-time IndyCar drivers starting spots in Indy 500

Roger Penske
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Roger Penske has a very simple solution for the predicament the Indianapolis 500 created when one of its most popular drivers, James Hinchcliffe, was bumped from the field during qualifying last weekend.

Teams that run the entire season should be guaranteed spots in the biggest race of the year.

“As I look at it now,” the Hall of Fame team owner said, “with sponsors being so important and the teams building up for Indianapolis, and that really being the hallmark of probably your sponsorship running at Indy, it’s a real tough pill to take if you don’t make the race.”

Indeed, one of the largest tents on the infield of Indianapolis Motor Speedway carries the logo of Arrow Electronics, the primary sponsor on Hinchcliffe’s car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Hinchcliffe is also one of the faces of IndyCar, not to mention engine supplier Honda and several other sponsors, and commercials featuring him continued to air even after he missed the field.

“I think we need to step back and look at this and be sure that people who commit for a full season know they have a place in the Indy 500,” Penske said, “because the world has changed.”

NASCAR learned long ago the importance of keeping sponsors happy. So while it’s common to have more cars attempt to qualify on a week-to-week basis than could fit in its field, the sanctioning organization implemented a charter system that assures a spot for the full-time teams.

Purists might argue that bump day is a part of the Indy 500 mystique, and that it adds a crucial wrinkle of drama to qualifying weekend. The race against the clock to make the field of 33 can be just as heartbreaking as anything that happens when the green flag drops Memorial Day weekend.

Penske has experienced that heartache, missing out on the field entirely one year.

He understands the importance of keeping bump day alive, and the fact that 35 cars were vying for 33 spots shows the health of the sport. But he also thinks there could be a compromise where perhaps the last 10 or so spots – after the full-time teams get theirs – would be left open for anyone to grab.

“I don’t think anybody would think we’re breaking with tradition,” said Penske, adding that already he’s spoken with Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles and IndyCar President Jay Frye about potential changes.

“In ’94 we didn’t make the race. I remember walking out of pit lane with 100,000 people qualification day and going back to my garage and it was a real blow,” Penske said. “On the other hand it made us better going forward. This is a place you want to race and you have to be there going in.”

Guaranteed spots isn’t the only idea that has floated through the garage area.

Several drivers mentioned eliminating double points for the Indy 500 – or eliminating points entirely – which would have made the blow to Hinchcliffe’s team a bit more palatable. Others said they wanted a true bump day to return to Indy, where the field is set Saturday with the last few spots available Sunday.

That would also make it more likely for the top teams to survive.

“It’s so exciting to watch, just unbelievable,” 2014 series champ Will Power said. “Very sad for Hinchcliffe. He’s in the championship and it’s a double points race and he doesn’t get to race. But on the other hand, you can’t take all this lightly. There are serious consequences for small mistakes.”

Penske would just prefer the consequences be a bit less serious.

“I feel good about what’s going on with the cars, the technology, the cost,” he said. “I think this is just one thing they’re going to have to tweak.”

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.”