IndyCar notables come out in force for IMSA’s Motul Petit Le Mans

IMSA
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Since the merger of the NASCAR Grand-Am and American Le Mans Series created the Weathertech Sports Car Championship in 2014, the Motul Petit Le Mans has closed out the year. As the combined series heads into its fifth season, it will once again wind down at the 2.54-mile Road Atlanta.

There are a few races that always attract drivers from a wide array of disciplines. The Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta is one of these. The green flag will wave over the 10-hour race shortly after 11 am ET this Saturday with several IndyCar and other notable drivers behind the wheel.

Here is a look at how they have performed in previous editions:

• Sebastien Bourdais is the only notable with a victory during the past four Petit Le Mans races. Driving a Daytona Prototype in 2015, he was part of the winning combination in class. The overall victory that year was scored by a GTLM fielded by Porsche North America. Second overall went to the GTLM BMW Team, with Bourdais and his team finishing third overall. Last year, he finished seventh in the GTLM class, which is where he will compete again in 2018.

• Scott Dixon finished second in class in 2015 in Chip Ganassi’s No. 01 Prototype, giving him a fourth-place finish overall. In 2014, the same team finished third overall and in class. In 2018, Dixon will be racing in the GTLM class where he finished with a best of eighth (14th overall) last year.

• Simon Pagenaud has made appearances in the last two Petit Le Mans, scoring a pair of top-fives in the process. He finished fourth in a Prototype in 2016 and improved to third last year. In 2018, he will once again climb behind the wheel of a Prototype.

“I really enjoy being part of this race,” Pagenaud told IndyCar.com. “The long races is a great way to keep my eyes open and keep an open mind as well on driving style and other ways to race. I enjoy it. It great to be here and race with some old friends.

“The goal at Team Penske is always to win races, but personally my goal is a little different. It’s just about making no mistakes, being fast and being consistent. I don’t need to set the world on fire because it’s a long race. The goal is more to look long term than short-run speed.”

• Gabby Chaves has made only one previous start at Road Atlanta in the Weathertech Series. He finished fourth in 2014 in a Prototype, which he will wheel again in 2018.

• Ryan Hunter-Reay is set to make his third appearance in a Prototype this year and hopes that it will go better than his two previous attempts. In 2016 and 2017, he was part of a team that failed to finish either time. His best overall performance in this class was only 35th in 2016. His best overall appearance in any class came in 2014 with a third-place GTLM result that was good enough for 11th overall.

• NBC analyst Townsend Bell will get some seat time this week in the GTD class. He has run that class three times previously with a best of fourth in class and 20th overall in 2015.

• Spencer Pigot will make his second appearance in a Prototype this week. His previous effort ended early with a 37th-place overall finish in 2016 out of 38 cars entered.

• Graham Rahal will make his first appearance in a Weathertech Petit Le Mans this week, but he has two fourth-place finishes in the Rolex 24 Hours since it went under the combined sanction umbrella in 2014.

“I have only done Petit maybe once before, but it’s always been a race I’ve wanted to compete in,” said Rahal, who rejoins Castroneves and Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura Team Penske for the first time since the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, told IndyCar.com. “To do these three races with Acura Team Penske this year has been awesome and I’m excited for the weekend. For it to be the last race of the year for not only me but everybody makes it an important one. Hopefully, we can go out and get a win. This is definitely a long race. It’s a test of endurance and man and machine. A lot of things can happen here, so we’ll go out and battle hard.”

For the 2019 season, the Weathertech Sports Car Championship will move to the NBC family of networks.

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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.”