IndyCar: Top 5 storylines to watch for in 2019

IndyCar
1 Comment

The start of the 2019 Indy Car Series is just over two months away, but already there are some major storylines developing that could bring significant attention to the series even before the first green flag falls March 10th in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Here’s the five top stories you should watch for in the new year from the premier open-wheel series in the U.S.:

1. New entitlement sponsor. Rumors have picked up in frequency over the last few weeks that a new entitlement sponsor will be named soon, perhaps as quickly as the next few days.

Verizon’s five-year deal as the series’ entitlement sponsor expired December 31.

While it will no longer be the series’ main sponsor, the cell phone giant will still remain involved in the sport, particularly in sponsoring 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power.

So who will the new sponsor be? That’s the multi-million dollar question.

With the time needed for marketing activation and other elements, teams are eagerly anticipating such as updating photographs (with the new series sponsor’s logo, of course), sewing the new sponsor’s logo on firesuits, and putting the new logo on each Indy car.

So, IndyCar fans, who do you think the new sponsor will be?

2. Will The Iceman cometh again? Scott Dixon moved into rare air in IndyCar history in 2018, becoming only the second driver to ever win five championships (A.J. Foyt holds the record with seven titles).

And even though Dixon was given a good fight in the last few races by Alexander Rossi, the plucky New Zealander could not be stopped from his date with destiny.

So what does Dixon do for an encore in 2019? Win the title again, that’s what. If he does so, that would make it his sixth IndyCar crown overall and fourth since the 2013 season.

While Dixon will have a new teammate in 2019 (Ed Jones has departed in favor of Felix Rosenqvist), it’s hard to pick against the five-time champ. Unless he struggles, particularly later in the season, it’s a good bet that Dixon could indeed win two in a row and six overall.

But struggling is one thing Dixon – a.k.a. The Iceman because of his cool demeanor while under the heat of pressure – rarely does. If anything, when the odds go against him, it only makes him stronger, much to the dismay of his fellow competitors.

They don’t want to give him any kind of an edge because they know how dangerous he is when it comes to winning races (44 thus far in his IndyCar career, third most behind Foyt’s 67 wins and Mario Andretti’s 52 wins) and championships.

3. Robert Wickens’ recovery and rehab. The Canadian driver, who was seriously injured in a crash August 19 at Pocono Raceway, has been an outstanding example of positivity and inspiration despite suffering several injuries, including a spinal cord injury that left him as a paraplegic.

Despite the long recovery and rehab he faces, Wickens is bound and determined to walk again, which says a lot about his character and personality.

Especially noteworthy is how Wickens shares so much of his post-accident private life on social media. That includes the way he first announced he was a paraplegic, as well as humorous videos such as getting a Christmas tree, or “racing” teammate, fellow Canadian and best friend James Hinchcliffe in wheelchairs around the Colorado rehab facility Wickens is currently receiving treatment at.

Wickens has unquestionably become one of the biggest inspirations not just in IndyCar racing and sports, but life in general. If anyone will be able to fight through the adversity and recover, Wickens can through sheer grit, determination and even a little humor thrown in.

4. Fernandomania (and possibly more) returns to Indy. Even though he disappointed many fans by announcing he won’t run the full 2019 IndyCar season, now-former Formula One driver Fernando Alonso already has folks looking forward to his return for his second Indianapolis 500 in the last three years.

Alonso will spend the rest of the season competing in some WEC races and pretty much anything else that suits his racing fancy.

But don’t be surprised if he does do a full-time IndyCar campaign in 2020. McLaren looks like it wants to go all-in to the series that season, in addition to its existing F1 program.

And right at the front of the pack – both for McLaren and what it hopes for the future – will be Alonso.

One related item to keep an eye on: Alonso may not be the only former Indy 500 one-timer to return to the fold.

Now that he’s racing in NASCAR Cup for Chip Ganassi Racing, don’t be surprised if Kurt Busch doesn’t give Indy a go for a second time in his own career (he finished an impressive sixth in his initial IndyCar foray back in 2014 – and then went on to drive in NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 later the same night, finishing 40th due to engine issues).

And as Nate Ryan noted in his Wednesday MotorSportsTalk story about Robby Gordon, the latter thought hard about returning to Indy for the 2018 500, but ultimately decided against it. But that doesn’t mean he’s completely ruled out 2019.

If he does race again in the 500, it would be the first time since the now 50-year-old Gordon has done so since 2004.

5. Hello COTA and Laguna Seca. The IndyCar Series will feature one new track to its ranks in 2019, as well as a return to an old friend after a 15-year absence.

Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, one of the premier road course tracks in the world, will play host to IndyCar for the first time ever over the March 22-24 weekend.

And then the series will return to an old friend, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, for the 2019 season-ending race on the weekend of September 20-22.

COTA and Laguna Seca replace ISM Raceway in Phoenix and Sonoma Raceway on the schedule.

It should be interesting to see how fans respond and turn out for both races. One thing is for certain: the racing action will be out of this world at both places.

AND DON’T FORGET: NBC Sports is your exclusive IndyCar connection. The season-opening St. Petersburg Grand Prix marks the start of NBC Sports Group televising every IndyCar race through at least the 2021 season.

And for the first time in more than a half-century, the marquee Indianapolis 500 will be televised on a network other than ABC when NBC airs the Greatest Spectacle In Racing live on Sunday, May 26.

We have lots in store and planned for this season when it comes to our IndyCar coverage (and don’t forget IMSA, Supercross and more), as well as our NASCAR coverage.

So when it comes to motorsports, get your motor running with NBC, NBCSN, NBC Gold and the entire NBC Sports Group family.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
0 Comments

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.”