IndyCar officials, drivers relieved how cars have held up in heavy wrecks

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INDIANAPOLIS – The heavy impacts last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway even had an IndyCar veteran like Scott Dixon cringing, particularly when James Hinchcliffe slammed the wall in qualifying.

“Some of those crashes, when I saw them, I was like, ‘Oh man, that was a pretty big hit,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “Qualifying can be the worst because your corner speed is so high, if you do lose it in qualifying, it’s going to be massive.

“I was a little worried for Hinch, because I’m like man, that’s going to be a really big hit, much like we saw with (Bourdais, just not as direct head on, but I was really pleased to see him get out and walk around and get in another car a couple of hours later.”

Unlike the Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash two years ago that sidelined Bourdais with a broken pelvis for several months, every driver walked away.

Besides Hinchcliffe, there were jarring impacts in practice that involved Felix Rosenqvist, Kyle Kaiser, Patricio O’Ward and Fernando Alonso.

IndyCar president Jay Frye told NBCSports.com that it’s a validation of several safety enhancements, particularly a crushable impact zone on the driver’s side. IndyCar made the piece less rigid after testing last year.

“Safety is always our No. 1 priority, so the outcome of each of those incidents was good,” Frye said. “Each driver was OK and cleared. When things happen, we analyze it immediately and see how it compares to other incidents over the course of the years. In general, we’re encouraged by the outcomes. We made thousands and thousands and thousands of laps last week, and you ask, ‘Is there a trend?’ We don’t necessarily see a trend.”

If there was some commonality among the wrecks, it’s that four of the cars briefly got airborne.

But unlike Dixon’s terrifying upside-down crash in the 2017 Indy 500 (when the Chip Ganassi Racing driver avoided injury despite his car’s cockpit nearly landing on the inside SAFER barrier), Rosenqvist, Hinchcliffe, Kaiser and O’Ward each escaped having their cars turn over entirely.

The closest was Hinchcliffe, whose Dallara-Honda did slightly more than a half-flip and got up on its side before landing on its wheels.

Frye said the series worked to keep cars on the pavement by moving weight toward the center of the car.

“Not going over is obviously a good sign; that’s the result we’re looking for,” Frye said. “When the cars have turned or got up on the side, what appears to be happening is, because some of the stuff that’s been moved, they pivot right back down. That’s a great result.

“Obviously anyone getting on their side that’s something we monitor of how and why that happened. We feel very good about where this car is at from a safety perspective. Everything that happened here, the result ended up being what we always strive for, each driver got out and walked away. They were immediately cleared and competed again right away. We always look at data. That’s as good a data as you can get when that result happens.”

Frye said IndyCar had no changes planned in part because there can be “unintended consequences” from being too proactive. “The car has done what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “It’s come back down. Anything you do now could possibly have a more negative effect than a positive effect.”

Other IndyCar veterans also credited some floor holes that IndyCar has added to affect aerodynamics and help keep the cars grounded.

“The holes they have in the floor definitely prevent the flips,” Alexander Rossi told NBCSports.com. “I think that’s exactly what we were looking for. There was a period of time where we had these big pieces of body work on that were kind of designed to do the same thing, but they were atrociously ugly and ineffective and inefficient.

“So the fact we have a car that looks the part and performs the way it does but also stands up to the impacts at Indianapolis is a huge testament to what IndyCar has done, and they did a really good job at it.”

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden said IndyCar had done a good job with mitigating the inevitable at Indianapolis.

“We’re always going to have big hits here; it’s impossible to run around that month and not have someone smack the wall,” Newgarden said. “It’s really easy to do. You see Fernando Alonso, Felix Rosenqvist, Patricio O’Ward, those are all extremely talented people, and they had very capable race teams. The place is tricky, and we’ve continued to evolve safety.

“You look at the cars and the way they hit the wall, the way the airflow starts to shear over the car in a sideways, reverse impact. That’s where (IndyCar) made a lot of gains. In particular when the car gets up on its side, there’s so much surface area on the floor, because the floor is so big on the car, it turns into its own wing, but the way they’ve got the holes in the floor, the way they’ve put the reverse flaps and rear wing, it’s all worked really well. You see people get up, and the wind can catch the underside of the car, but you don’t see it turn into much more than that. So it is encouraging. Everything they’ve done seems to be proving out.”

Said Dixon: “All the guys have walked away, so I think obviously the cars are still getting up a little bit, but it seems the devices they have are thankfully stopping (full flips). I think the next iteration of car or version of car, there’s probably something we can do to help that again. I think getting rid of a lot of the surface area from the wings has really helped.”

IndyCar also has added a new Advanced Frontal Protection device to its cars at Indy to help deflect debris away from drivers in crashes. On Friday, series officials are expected to unveil the second phase of open-cockpit protection.

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.”