View from the pits: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

INDYCAR / Chris Owens
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The spring stretch continues for the NTT IndyCar Series with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. You can watch the race today at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com or the NBC Sports App.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal start on Row 1, but arguably the bigger surprise in Saturday qualifying was Team Penske failing to make the Firestone Fast Six. As a result, the Penske trio of Will Power (starts 7th), Simon Pagenaud (starts 14th) and points leader Josef Newgarden (starts 16th) will have to rally from well within the field.

The IndyCar on NBCSN pit reporters – Marty Snider, Kelli Stavast & Kevin Lee – have their thoughts on who and what to watch in today’s 90-lap race. Read on…

MARTY SNIDER

What a strange weekend this has been at Barber Motorsports Park.  Truncated practice sessions, lots of spins and off course excursions, tires that have thrown the teams for a loop and tons of surprise names in the Firestone Fast 6 (props to RLL for locking out the front row).  All of those ingredients should make for a chaotic race on Sunday.

None of the powerhouse teams have shown that much strength this weekend.  Team Penske has been searching for something all weekend…anything.  The dominant team at Barber over the last few years has tried everything to find speed and largely, it’s still missing.  As a befuddled Josef Newgarden told me after qualifying, “We are kind of scratching our heads as to why, but we just don’t have enough speed.”  The last time Team Penske failed to put one car in the Firestone Fast 6 was Long Beach in 2014…5 years ago!  That day, they finished the race in 2nd and 4th with Will Power and Juan Montoya.  Not promising it will happen Sunday, but Team Penske should race much better than their qualifying positions of 7th, 14th and 16th.

Andretti Autosport is not much better.  “Meh,” as Alexander Rossi described the weekend. Ryan Hunter Reay said he feels like the team has actually gotten worse throughout the weekend, “We seemed to plateau from Practice 1, where we were fifth. The whole team has fallen in competitiveness as every session has gone on. So, unfortunately everyone is sitting right now in eighth, 11th and 13th. We don’t know the reason, we’re all scratching our heads.”  Frustrating.

Of the “Big 3” teams, only Ganassi was able to put a driver in the Fast 6 with Scott Dixon.  Think about that for a second.  It not only goes to show you how some of the most well funded, highly supported teams are truly searching so far this weekend…but it also shows you how competitive and tight the competition in the NTT IndyCar Series truly has become.  The top nine in qualifying were separated by about three tenths of a second over a 2.3 mile road course.  That’s a tight field.

All of that to say…what do we expect tomorrow?  To be honest, I have no idea.  

The cars are about 1.5 seconds slower than they were here last year, that is no doubt part of the set-up confusion this weekend for many teams.  The track surface is starting to wear out…which I think is fantastic and should produce tire degradation on Sunday and therefore more passing.  Plus the fact that there are a ton of usually fast cars starting out of the top 10.  All of that should equal some outstanding racing and lots of passing on a very tight circuit.

Will Power once won this race from the 9th starting position, so it can done from 7th on Sunday.  Power’s had the best car in the first two races of the season, but no wins to show for it and he still has a smile on his face.  My pick to win Sunday…Will Power.  This one is going to be fun to watch!

PS- Mr Barber.  Please do not re-pave this track after Sunday’s race like you are planning to do.  Old pavement makes for better racing.  

KELLI STAVAST

After two action-packed days of practice and qualifying, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is shaping up to be an interesting one, with some unusual suspects at or near the front of the grid.  

Spencer Pigot proved the relative speed he showed in practice (7th in combined practice times) wasn’t a fluke.  The Ed Carpenter Racing driver matched his career-best qualifying effort of 6th, advancing to the Firestone Fast Six for the first time on a road or street course.

Pigot comes to Barber Motorsports Park off a pair of 11th place finishes to open the season, but after showing flashes of brilliance throughout his career, Spencer has said he is looking for more consistency in his racing and is eager for that first win. Working in his favor this weekend: Pigot is a two-time winner on this course in the Indy Lights series, which he says gives him a level of confidence and comfort in the senior series.  

At a place where track position is key, Spencer Pigot will start with his best position of the season and will try to convert the Row 3 start into his first top-10 of the season.

KEVIN LEE

Graham Rahal has been adamant that the key to fighting for a championship starts with improving in qualifying.  He has raced well, but has often started too far back to consistently fight for wins.  For round three of the 2019 championship, mission accomplished.  The team locked out the front row at Barber with Takuma Sato winning pole and Rahal qualifying 2nd.  Sato will be looking for career win #4 while Rahal is seeking #7 and his first in almost two years.

The RLL performance was only one of the stories in a mixed up qualifying session that saw both Team Penske and Andretti Autosport miss the Firestone Fast 6.  Expect different strategies and plenty of action with strong teams racing from mid pack and several starting near the front of the grid looking for break through performances.

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.”