IndyCar 2019 preview: Say hello to ROY contenders

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Editor’s Note: Over the last two days, MotorsportsTalk has been previewing all full-time entries competing in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series. Our fourth preview features the full-season drivers competing for rookie of the year in 2019.

This week’s previews so far:

The Champions

The Veterans

The Young Stars

The 2019 season begins on March 10 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Additional coverage can be found on NBC Sports Gold.

Colton Herta – #88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda

IndyCar

Second-generation racer Colton Herta enters his first full NTT IndyCar Series season after a successful Indy Lights career that included six wins, nine poles, and a runner-up finish in last year’s championship. At age 18, the son of ex-driver and current team owner Bryan Herta will be the youngest racer on the circuit, but he’s already had an impressive 2019 so far. In January, he helped BMW & Rahal Letterman Lanigan win the GTLM class in his first start in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and last month in IndyCar testing at Ciruit of the Americas, he topped the speed charts in three of the four sessions. It’s raised expectations a bit for his rookie season, but while Herta and the entire #88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing team are hoping to hit a home run, a few singles to start would be nice.

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Felix Rosenqvist – #10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Malcolm Griffiths/FIA Formula E via Getty Images

Rosenqvist will be the third driver to pilot the #10 NTT Honda in three years, but there likely won’t be a fourth driver next season as the Swedish has been a driver that team owner Chip Ganassi has had an eye on for a long time. The Formula E veteran first tested for Ganassi at Mid-Ohio in 2016 and has already proven to be fast in preseason testing, finishing sixth quickest overall at COTA, ahead of teammate Scott Dixon. Driving for an established team like Ganassi, Rosenqvist is expected to perform well this year. Ganassi’s #10 car hasn’t reached victory lane since Tony Kanaan won at Fontana in 2014. Rosenqvist enters the 2019 season with an excellent opportunity to end that drought.

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Marcus Ericsson – #7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Fellow Swede Marcus Ericsson finds himself in a new home for 2019. The former Formula One pilot will make his NTT IndyCar Series debut Sunday, driving the #7 Honda for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Ericsson finds himself in unfamiliar territory in his inaugural IndyCar season, but while he has never competed on an oval before, his F1 experience will surely help him on the road and street circuits. And after five years at the back of the F1 grid, 2019 is a golden opportunity for Ericsson to show what he’s truly made of. It’s too early to predict whether or not he’ll win this year, but he should be fairly competitive from the start.

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Santino Ferrucci – #19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda

IndyCar

Santino Ferrucci enters 2019 returning to Dale Coyne Racing, where he ran four races last season with a best finish of 11th at Sonoma. Like Ericsson, Ferrucci – who spent nearly seven years in Europe trying to make it to Formula One – will learn to race on ovals for the first time in his career, starting with the biggest race of them all, the Indianapolis 500. His road and street course prospects look more promising for now, and he was a respectable 10th overall over the combined test sessions last month at COTA. Once heralded by GQ as “America’s most promising young driver”, Ferrucci is also seeking validation from fans and peers. Last year in Formula 2 at Silverstone, he had a public meltdown in which he purposely crashed into a teammate during the race. The subsequent backlash damaged his reputation, and Ferrucci has acknowledged his mistakes. If he can find speed and, just as importantly, avoid controversy, it’ll be a good start to earning the respect of IndyCar fans and making sure his decision to return Stateside was the right move.

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.”