Mid-Ohio will always be special to Graham Rahal

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STEAM CORNERS, Ohio – When Graham Rahal was just a kid, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was his playground. His father, Bobby, was one of the big-name stars of the 1980s and 1990s, his shop was based in Hilliard, Ohio and the Rahals made the Columbus, Ohio suburb of New Albany their home.

Young Graham would accompany his father to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the big-time CART races at that time, and maybe a few test sessions when Rahal was in the early days of owning his own racing team in the 1990s.

Bobby Rahal’s final season as a driver was in 1998 and he was honored at many of the race tracks, including Mid-Ohio. The Rahal Family took a ceremonial lap around the road course before that 1998 race with nine-year-old Graham waving to the fans seated alongside his famous father.

Bobby Rahal finished third that day at a track where he won back-to-back races in 1985-86.

Two decades later, Graham joined his father as a winner at Mid-Ohio in 2015, driving a Honda owned by Bobby Rahal along with former TV funnyman David Letterman and South Chicago industrialist Michael Lanigan.

To this day, Graham, now 30, considers that his greatest victory.

“Having won there in 2015, it’s a special race for me,” Rahal told NBC Sports.com. “In 2015, we were in a really good place in the championship that year and the win at Mid-Ohio helped us close the gap on Juan Pablo Montoya. The home crowd, I will never forget doing the doughnuts afterwards and looking up and seeing all the people go nuts. It’s a moment, I will never, ever forget. Sharing the podium with my good friend, Justin Wilson, was extremely special as well. It was an important day in my career.

“I’m hoping we can make it happen again. I don’t see why we can’t. We’ve had really good runs there in the past and hopefully, we can get another one.”

Rahal hopes to break into NTT IndyCar Series victory lane for the first time this season in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

Watch the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on NBC Sunday, July 28 at 4 p.m. Eastern Time.

“I think we are looking good off Road America, but also Toronto, Rahal said. “We learned some great stuff at Toronto. Between the two of those, I feel strongly we are in a good spot and we should be pretty competitive as we go forward into Mid-Ohio. I’m excited. It’s an important race for me. It’s my home race. I love competing there.”

There are many things that make the 13-turn, 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course unique. It is set in the middle of Ohio’s “Amish Country” with cornfields surrounding the twists and turns of the course.

It also features an up-and-down ride for the high-speed competitors.

“The elevation is the most unique because to go fast there, you really have to push to the limit,” Rahal explained. “We say that everywhere, but there are certain areas that are trickier than the others. At Mid-Ohio, you have a lot of elevation. You have a ton through the Keyhole through Turn 2 and at the end of the backstraight, Turn 4 really falls away from you, then you go way up the hill, straight up into Turns 5 and 6. The elevation makes that such a challenging track to figure out and find the speed.

“We’ve raced there a long time, now, and hopefully we can have a good weekend and our car can be more settled than at some of the other places. Our performance at Road America, we found some good stuff and had a great race day. I’m excited. We should be pretty strong.”

The race course is located on Interstate 71 between Ohio’s largest city of Columbus and the metropolis of Cleveland. But it is also a short drive from IndyCar’s home base of Indianapolis, with many fans making the four-hour drive to spend the weekend camping out at Mid-Ohio.

Even many of the IndyCar team crewmembers camp out at the track, instead of spending another weekend in a motel.

“It’s good fun,” Rahal admitted. “We all stay at the track, but a lot of guys camp out. We have a lot of friends and family that camp. It’s a great environment. It’s a special place.

“I strongly urge anybody who hasn’t been to come check it out. It’s very different than most of the places you go to. It’s a great place to enjoy a race with the family. As I’ve said a few times, hopefully we can get another win.”

Getting a win would help give Rahal a boost to what has been an unusual season. He was expected to be a top-five competitor for the NTT IndyCar Series championship and at times has had some really good races. But he arrives at Mid-Ohio eighth in the championship, 197 points behind points leader Josef Newgarden with only five races left in the season.

He finished third at Texas Motor Speedway in June and fourth at Circuit of the Americas (COTA), Long Beach and Road America. He also has a pair of seventh-place finishes in both races of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

But it was a crash in the 103rdIndianapolis 500 when Rahal was in position for a top-four finish that doomed his season.

“We’ve raced pretty well at a lot of place, but Indianapolis is going to haunt us,” Rahal admitted. “It’s going to haunt us not from the fact we would have finished third or fourth, but because points-wise that really shaped our season in the wrong direction. The gap between finishing third or fourth to 27thwas almost 50 points. Fifty-points would put us fourth in the championship right now.

“We’ve had a good year but let a couple of good opportunities slip. Toronto was disappointing. We passed a ton of cars at Toronto and had one of the fastest cars for sure. To let that one slip hurt. But we also maximized others where maybe we weren’t as strong.

“Goods and bads – that’s the way it goes. We still need to work on our pace a little bit and get our cars a little more competitive than what they are in a couple of areas.

“I feel good about going into Mid-Ohio this weekend.

“Let’s go make it happen.”

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.”