NHRA: Robert Hight hopes math adds up to still rally for third Funny Car title

NHRA
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Defending NHRA Funny Car champion Robert Hight’s Twitter account handle is @RobertHight7000.

But heading into next weekend’s season-ending Auto Club Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, Hight may want to change his Twitter handle to @RobertHight118.

The reason is pretty clear. Hight, who is also president of John Force Racing, will go into the race trailing JR Todd by 74 points.

With drivers eligible to earn as much as 191 points in the race – that’s 1.5 times the normal amount of available points in most regular races – Hight doesn’t need a calculator to figure what it’s going to take for him to win his second consecutive Funny Car championship and third overall.

Which is why the number in his Twitter handle should be changed to 118 heading to Pomona. Hight must earn 118 more points than Todd in the Nov. 11 final eliminations to earn the championship.

That’s not going to be easy, but it’s also not impossible. If Todd were to lose in the first round next Sunday, and Hight earns No. 1 qualifier honors and then goes on to win the race, it’s mathematically possible that Hight could rally to earn the championship yet again.

MORE: JR Todd: Even with a big lead, ‘no letting up’ for first NHRA Funny Car title

Admittedly, that’s a big task, especially since Todd has reached the final round in four of the first five races of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs currently underway.

But Hight, who has fought through a broken collarbone suffered in a rough crash four races ago (and is still recovering), still feels he’s up to overtaking Todd.

“There’s nothing like racing in Pomona,” said Hight, who has 45 career wins. “Southern California, all the fans there, there’s nothing like that.

“I always remember back to my first run in competition coming there and just looking down the track. It was a dream come true getting to race a Funny Car and I still get all those same feelings every time I race there.”

Hight finds himself in a more difficult position than he did in last year’s playoffs. En route to his 2017 title, he won four of the final 11 races, including two in the Countdown.

Heading to Pomona next week, Hight earned back-to-back wins at both St. Louis (where he suffered the broken collarbone, crashing after winning the race) and Dallas.

But he hurt his championship hopes greatly when he uncharacteristically lost in the first round last weekend at Las Vegas – while Todd went on to win the race and overtake Hight in the standings.

Much like Todd is focusing on himself and his own program and trying to put the challenge Hight presents out of mind, Hight has pretty much the same mindset when it comes to Todd.

“At the beginning of the year, all you can do is hope to be in this position,” said Hight, who has four career wins in Pomona. “Up until these last few years, we went through a period where we were going to Vegas and Pomona without a chance to win a title, and that’s tough.

“It’s painful and I think that makes you appreciate the team you have and everything we have going on this year.

“We all know what we have to do. We love our jobs, but we love to win and that’s our main focus. Fans love the thought of the championship going down to the last race and that gets me pumped up.”

The battle between Todd and Hight isn’t the only championship to be determined. In Pro Stock, Tanner Gray has a massive 140-point lead over five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. and leads third-ranked and two-time champ Erica Enders by 149 points.

Drew Skillman (-170) and Vincent Nobile (-179) are both mathematically in the running for Pro Stock, but about the only way they could rally back is if Gray fails to qualify at Pomona, which is unlikely given his qualifying prowess thus far this season.

And in Pro Stock Motorcycle, it’s a tight battle between points leader Matt Smith, defending champ Eddie Krawiec (-4), LE Tonglet (-61) and Hector Arana Jr. (-64).

Also still mathematically in it are 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie (-101) and four-time PSM champ Andrew Hines (-113).

MotorSportsTalk will feature previews for both Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle next week leading up to the season finale in Pomona.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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.”