View from the pits: IndyCar Classic at COTA

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR / Chris Jones
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The NTT IndyCar Series’ debut weekend at Circuit of the Americas culminates today with the 60-lap IndyCar Classic at 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN, the NBC Sports App and NBCSports.com.

After claiming the 56th pole of his career, Will Power has set himself up for a $100,000 bonus if he wins today’s race. But his bid to cash in is just one of numerous storylines that will play out.

Following all of those storylines are IndyCar on NBCSN pit reporters Marty Snider, Kelli Stavast and Kevin Lee. What’s jumped out to them this weekend? And which drivers should we be watching? Read on…

MARTY SNIDER

“I don’t recall an IndyCar race where tire degradation has been more discussed from the first practice on…and it’s fantastic! If you’ve watched F1 races from COTA in the past, buckle in…this IndyCar race will be so vastly different from what you’ve seen in the past. These Indy cars are heavier than F1 cars, they have no power steering and they are an absolute beast to wrestle with over 20 turns!”

“There are legitimately a number of cars that could win the race, there is likely to be ample passing and strategy will be massive in deciding the winner. The Ganassi cars might have the most overall speed, the Penske cars worked all day Saturday to be good on old tires, and the Andretti cars may have the best overall balance through the whole run. Bottom line…Several cars are in the mix and there’s a whole new crop of rookies who have the ability and the car to upset the favorites. Can’t wait for the green flag!”

“My pick is Alexander Rossi. I like his experience here. You can tell he’s focused this week. Privately he’ll tell you he feels as though he has unfinished business here…he finally has a shot to win at what used to be his only home country race. I think he gets it done on Sunday.”

KELLI STAVAST

“In my section of pit road is the exciting, young American Santino Ferrucci, who drives the flashy, all-chrome David Yurman-sponsored machine for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan. Santino comes to COTA riding the momentum of a top-ten finish on the streets of St. Petersburg, which kicked off his rookie campaign.

“Santino is high-energy, hard-working and professional, according to his veteran teammate and former champion Sebastian Bourdais. Already a winner at COTA in the [Lamborghini] Super Trofeo series, Santino told me he loves this track, as it suits his driving style and reminds him of circuits he ran back in Europe.

“Although the team struggled a little bit with understeer through both practice sessions Friday, Ferrucci told me the car came to life in final practice Saturday, describing it as “playful.” He has already achieved one goal for the weekend: advancing to the second round of qualifying, setting up an 11th place starting spot. Now he has his sights set on staying inside the top-ten in points following the 60-lap race.”

KEVIN LEE

“In my section of pit road, in the middle, there are several interesting stories to follow. For the 2nd straight race, Simon Pagenaud didn’t have the chance to advance in qualifying because of a red flag. But Pagenaud feels he and Team Penske have solved the issues they had last season with road and street course pace and will be quick in the race. Tight pit windows will make it difficult to make up a significant amount of positions. He’ll need a timely yellow to work in his favor.

“The other story will be the teenagers that were teammates in Indy Lights last season. 18-year-old Colton Herta backed up the pace he showed at St. Pete by qualifying 4th. 19-year-old Patricio O’Ward will start 8th in his first race with Carlin Racing. Both are impressive beyond their years and are we may be witnessing the early stages of superstar careers.

“Which teams are able to manage the tire wear will determine IndyCar’s debut at COTA.”

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.”