IndyCar Season In Review: Top 10 stories of 2018

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With 2019 right around the corner, it’s fitting to end the year with a recap of the top 10 stories of the Verizon 2018 IndyCar Series season (plus a few more additional mentions):

1. Scott Dixon wins fifth IndyCar championship. The outstanding New Zealand native moved into second place on the all-time championship list with his fifth title, including three in the last six seasons. Only A.J. Foyt has won more titles (seven). Dixon also moved into third place on the IndyCar all-time race wins list (44 victories), behind only Foyt’s 67 wins and Mario Andretti’s 52 triumphs.

Will Power wins the Indianapolis 500 (Getty Images)

2. Will Power wins 2018 Indianapolis 500. Power is no stranger to success at Indianapolis, having won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis three times (2015, 2017 and 2018). But he had never finished better than second (2015) in the biggest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500. That is, until 2018, when the Australian native roared to the front late in the race and finally captured what he had chased for his entire career.

3. Robert Wickens critically injured in crash at Pocono. The plucky Canadian IndyCar rookie was involved in one of the worst crashes the series has seen in many years, suffering several injuries – including a spinal cord fracture that left him a paraplegic – in a horrendous wreck at Pocono Raceway on August 19. Prior to that injury, Wickens had enjoyed an outstanding debut season. Even with missing the final three races of the season due to his Pocono injuries, Wickens still managed to earn Rookie of the Year honors, he was so dominating prior to his fateful crash.

4. James Hinchcliffe fails to qualify for Indy 500. Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been a vexing place for the Mayor of Hinchtown. The Canadian driver suffered the most serious crash of his racing career while practicing for the 2015 500, came back to earn the pole in the 2016 edition of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, and then failed to qualify for the 2018 500, running out of time to make one last effort on Bump Day. But Hinchcliffe vowed to come back stronger than ever in the 2019 500. A win would definitely be in order, given all he’s endured at IMS.

5. Emergence of Alexander Rossi as bonafide championship contender. Rossi came out of virtually nowhere to win the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 as an IndyCar rookie. But he would prove not be a one-hit wonder. He’d finish 11th in 2016, improve to seventh in 2017 and finished runner-up to Scott Dixon in the 2018 season, including earning three wins. The Dixon-Rossi rivalry will likely be one of the most-watched in 2019.

6. NBC to air all IndyCar races in 2019, including the Indy 500. There was major news off-track on March 21, 2018, when IndyCar signed a three-year media rights deal with NBC Sports Group to televise all IndyCar races starting in 2019, including the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, the first time the Greatest Spectacle In Racing has been televised on anything but ABC/ESPN in more than a half-century.

Danica Patrick’s final race of her overall racing career was the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 (Getty Images).

7. Danica Patrick’s final IndyCar race. Both ends of Danica Patrick’s “Danica Double” – her final races in both NASCAR Cup and IndyCar – ended with less than stellar finishes. Patrick wrecked in her final Cup race, the Daytona 500, and finished 35th. Then, three months later, Patrick again made an early exit, crashing out on Lap 67 of her final Indianapolis 500. And with that, Patrick’s two-plus decade racing career, dating back to when she first began piloting go-karts, came to an end.

8. Resurgence of Ryan Hunter-Reay. After several difficult seasons, the Andretti Autosport driver had a huge comeback campaign in 2018. Not only did RHR finish the highest (fourth) since he won the IndyCar championship in 2012, he also broke a two-year winless streak, earning victories at Belle Isle 2 and the season finale at Sonoma. He also finished second four times (Birmingham, Belle Isle 1, Road America and Portland). Given the year he had in 2018, Hunter-Reay is already among potential contenders for the 2019 IndyCar title.

9. Harding Racing takes some big steps. After a part-time dabble in IndyCar racing in 2017, Harding Racing began a quick climb toward prominence in its first full season in 2018. It started the season with two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. hired as a “consultant.” But Little Al proved to be so much more by wearing numerous hats, from strategist to advisor to driving coach. He further showed his commitment to the organization by moving from his lifelong home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Harding’s base in Indianapolis. But Unser was only part of the puzzle. The team hired two of the most promising young drivers at season’s end – 2018 Indy Lights champ Patricio O’Ward and runner-up Colton Herta – to lead their two-car operation in 2019. And shortly after the 2018 season ended, the organization changed its name to Harding-Steinbrenner Racing with the addition of George Steinbrenner IV as a full partner going forward.

10. Tony Kanaan endures worst season of IndyCar career. This was not the kind of season the Brazilian native had hoped for when he joined AJ Foyt Racing for 2018. More than anything, Kanaan had hoped for a resurgence in his career. But the opposite happened, as the 43-year-old Kanaan – who turns 44 on New Years Eve – struggled to his worst campaign in 17 seasons on the IndyCar circuit, finishing 16th overall. He managed just four top-10 finishes, with a top showing of sixth at Toronto, seventh at Belle Isle 2 and eighth at both Phoenix and Long Beach. But while the season was rough, there were still some highlights: Kanaan ran his 300th consecutive IndyCar race (at Sonoma), and he and wife Lauren welcomed their first daughter, Nina, to go along with three sons.

Newly promoted IndyCar President Jay Frye. (IndyCar)

And a few others worth mentioning:

A. Last week’s announcement of the promotion of Jay Frye to President of IndyCar.

B. The introduction of the new-style Indy car body not only brought about great racing, it was a big hit in terms of popularity with fans.

C. The addition of Portland Raceway back to the IndyCar schedule for the first time since 2007.

D. The end of a 14-year run at Sonoma Raceway (to be replaced in 2019 as the IndyCar season-ending venue by WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway)

E. Losing ISM Raceway (formerly Phoenix Raceway) for the foreseeable future. However, the Phoenix area’s loss will become Austin, Texas’ gain as IndyCar announced a few months ago that it will race for the first time ever at Circuit of the Americas in 2019.

F. Sebastien Bourdais winning the season-opening race at St. Petersburg for the second straight year.

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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.”