IndyCar drivers, teams impressed with COTA

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AUSTIN, Texas – A long offseason doesn’t appear to have made five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon sluggish as the defending champ was among the fastest drivers throughout the two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” at Circuit of the Americas.

Dixon was fifth-quick during Tuesday’s combined sessions and backed that up with even more speed on Wednesday. For most of the afternoon session, Dixon’s time of 1:47.9003 around the 3.41-mile, 20-turn road course was the second fastest, just behind his rookie teammate Felix Rosenqvist’s 1:47.7559, both in Chip Ganassi Racing Hondas. Later in the session, Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport claimed the second position at 1:47.8565, knocking Dixon down to third.

“It was fun to be out here, it’s a track I’ve seen a lot of cars run on, but I’ve never been to Austin,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “It’s a big track, it has a lot of elevation and you don’t see that on television. That was my first shock, how steep Turn 1 is. Also, the elevation in Turns 3-9, that complex as well.

“We eased into it but all in all, pretty happy with the way it went.

“Racing here, it’s like doing a half Ironman competition.”

Dixon said the elevation is visually striking and noted how there are a lot of twists on the 20-turn course. He believed he needs to improve on his times in the first complex of turns, but the rest of the track will provide some fantastic racing for the IndyCar Classic on March 24.

“I think it’s going to be good,” Dixon said. “Tire degradation will be pretty interesting to see how they cover that. The tires fall off, which we like to see. I think because of the sheer size of the track and the braking zones, it will be pretty good.

“You can pass into Turn 1, you can pass into the last corner, into Turns 11 and 12, but there are also a lot of corners where you can approach it differently and try to undercut. You can get pretty sneaky, here.”

Dixon kept himself sharp by competing in Ganassi’s Ford GT program at the Rolex 24. His only other times in the race car came during a one-day test at Barber Motorsports Park in November and a one-day test last weekend at Laguna Seca Raceway.

During Tuesday’s testing, Dixon was fifth fastest with his rookie teammate fourth quick.

Because this was a test session rather than a practice day, teams work off a test list that have lots of areas and items they want to try rather than go for sheer speed. During a race weekend, teams are trying to look for speed and performance and build for a successful race day.

“The time sheets are reflective of two things,” Dixon’s race strategist, Chip Ganassi Racing Managing Director Mike Hull, told NBC Sports. “One is people getting it done with a setup and the other going back-and-forth in the garage area to actually make it a test day. The Firestone Black Tires (harder, more durable tire compared to the softer Firestone Reds that have more speed, but wear quicker) are really good. A crisp lap-time doesn’t last that long with the tires. You really have to be well-endowed mentally to get the run right with the tires.

“I think this was worthwhile.”

Hull’s test list for Dixon “was longer than the amount of daylight we have.” He estimated the team got one-third of the way through the list on Tuesday and worked off the rest on Wednesday.

“The big deal is to make sure you got the most out of each segment that we ran so that we can sit down as a group and evaluate that,” Hull said.

Josef Newgarden, the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion at Team Penske, loves how long COTA is and it reminds him of two iconic racing facilities in the United States.

“It’s very different than where we’ve been,” Newgarden said. “It’s a long track, kind of like Road America. It’s very smooth. The facility is really beautiful. It’s kind of like running at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to be honest with you, because the facility is so immaculate.

“But it’s been tough. I think we need to find our footing a bit better. Our teammates were pretty quick at the end. We lost some ground compared to the morning. We weren’t as quick in the afternoon, but that’s testing. That’s what it’s all about. We got to try things and figure out what’s good and what’s not. This is a racetrack for us. We test sometimes at places we don’t race at, but here, we’re working on race setups and we’re trying to see what works.”

There are only two drivers in IndyCar that have previously run at COTA including Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson and Alexander Rossi of the United States when both were in Formula One.

“It’s great to be here and I’m pretty excited to drive,” Rossi said. “It’s also good to be here with the full field and get an indication of how the offseason development has gone.”

There is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm from IndyCar teams and drivers to have a chance to race at one of the nicest facilities in North America. COTA is the home of the United States Grand Prix in Formula One, and sought to have an IndyCar date in recent years.

The two sides were finally able to make that happen when the schedule was released last year with the first race set for March 24.

“COTA is a terrific facility, the infrastructure and everything here, it’s a proper race track to support what race teams and race fans want to do together,” Hull said. “There is a lot of enthusiasm for IndyCar. Last week, we were at Laguna Seca, the weather was absolutely miserable and the parking lot was filled with spectators.

“The interest with IndyCar is up. Let’s roll with it.”

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.”