Uncertainty awaits INDYCAR championship contenders at Laguna Seca

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As one of only two races on the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule that pays double points, the season’s final race has often been referred to as a “Wild Card.” But in reality, the real “Wild Card” aspect of the September 22 race at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca is just five drivers have ever raced on the 11-turn 2.258-mile road course located a short drive from the Monterey Peninsula on the California coast.

Championship contender Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport has raced there before, but that was way back in the Skip Barber Racing days. Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay have competed on the track in Indy cars during the CART/Champ Car Series days. Simon Pagenaud has raced sports cars at Laguna Seca from 2008-2010 including wins from the pole in 2009 and 2010 but has never raced an Indy car on this course.

This year’s championship race will wrap up on a track that is essentially the great unknown to many battling it out for the title.

“Obviously we’re going into next weekend with a lot of unknowns in the fact that most drivers haven’t raced at Laguna Seca before,” Rossi said Wednesday. “It’s been a long time since IndyCars were racing there. The test that we had in February was fairly inconclusive just due to weather and the time of year that we were there.

“It’s a blank slate for everyone. I think that’s exciting. It will definitely reward the team and the drivers that come to grips with everything the quickest. It will probably reward them in a championship.”

Team Penske driver and 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden has a 41-point lead over Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi with one race remaining. Pagenaud is just one point behind Rossi.

Dixon is 85 points out but would need a lot to happen for him to win his sixth career IndyCar Series championship.

When asked to pick out the passing zones around Laguna Seca, Rossi admitted he won’t know that until hitting the track next weekend.

There is a full day of testing next Thursday. Practice for the race will begin the following day with knockout qualifications set for Saturday, September 21 and the race on Sunday, September 22.

“I have no idea about passing zones because obviously in a test the main goal is to stay as far away from other cars as possible,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “In terms of the challenging parts of it, I think it’s a very low-grip surface. It’s one of those tracks where you’re going to see the cars sliding around a lot, guys working the wheel. There are dirt runoffs, drop wheels, throw dust on the track, that sort of thing. From that standpoint it’s pretty tricky.

“The race-ability of it, I couldn’t tell you. The obvious answer would probably be turn two, the braking zone there. But it’s a pretty narrow corner, so I don’t know unfortunately. I’ll let you know on Saturday.”

In the past, Laguna Seca has been a very difficult track for drivers in terms of passing. If that holds true next week, qualifications could be one of the most tense and pressure-packed sessions of the season.

“I think that’s a very fair statement,” Rossi admitted. “I’ve been saying for a while this championship very well could be decided in qualifying at Laguna. It’s no secret that we’re expecting it to be a challenging race to pass just because of its history.

“It’s 100 percent going to be a critical qualifying session that you’re going to have to be inch perfect and nail it through all three rounds. The guy that’s on pole, if he’s one of the guys that are in the championship fight, it’s going to make their job to win the thing a whole lot easier.”

Rossi admits he doesn’t have much experience actually racing at Laguna Seca, but it is the track where he fell in love with the sport. He used to attend races with his father, Pieter, when he was just a small child.

“That was my first introduction to motorsports when I was three years old,” Rossi said. “My father took me for seven consecutive years after that. That was kind of our father-son trip. It was only a three-and-a-half-hour commute from where I grew up.

“As much as Sonoma was claimed as my home track, it’s just because of its proximity to my hometown. Laguna is much more a place where I kind of cut my teeth in Skip Barber. I had my real first race experience in a race car there.

“I have a lot of laps there, albeit in a car that’s pretty incomparable to what I’ll be driving here in two weeks. Nonetheless, it’s going to be a huge weekend for me in terms of local support, family that comes out. It’s always really exciting. I’m fortunate to have two races in the state of California.”

Rossi admits, some of his memories as a 3- and 4-year-old are quite foggy, but the weekends with his father sparked his career path.

“I was there when Alex Zanardi’s pass happened,” Rossi said of 1996 when he passed race-leader Bryan Herta down the hill out of the “Corkscrew” heading to the checkered flag. “I don’t think I remember it as a three- or four-year-old. What stands out is that’s where I fell in love with just auto racing and cars. The sound and the smell, I mean, back then, they were running methanol fuel obviously. There was a very distinct smell to that. Being a kid, being able to walk through the paddock and everything. I had hats in my room for a really long time that were signed by Chip Ganassi and Max Papis.

“It’s cool that it’s kind of come full circle. It’s my introduction to racing, what really made me fall in love with the sport. It’s a place where I’m coming back to 20 plus years later, kind of racing in the same series that introduced me to the sport.

“There are a lot of neat parallels there.”

Rossi has gained fame by putting his racing machine in areas other drivers fear to tread. He can make passes in areas that previously were “no passing zones.”

One way or another, though, at Laguna Seca, Rossi will probably put on one heck of a show.

“That’s the plan,” he said. “Josef has had a sensational year. Unfortunately, that’s been a little bit better than ours. However, we have the full intention of taking that away from him in the last race, just like old Scott did to JPM (Juan Pablo Montoya) in 2015.”

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.”