Racing through Christmas? Where IndyCar now goes from here

INDYCAR Photo
1 Comment

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – IndyCar, like all other professional and intercollegiate sports leagues, is seeking the answer to the same question after shutting down for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Where does the sport go from here?

For Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, who is the de-facto CEO of IndyCar, the two-month shutdown is an important time for the series. First and foremost is ensuring the safety of its competitors, crewmembers, partners and fans from contracting the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus.

Beyond that, it’s finding race dates to make up for the loss of the first four races of the season.

Those include Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (canceled), the April 5 Honda Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park (postponed), the April 19 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (postponed) and the April 26 AutoNation IndyCar Classic at Circuit of the Americas (postponed).

It’s Miles’ goal to run as close to the original 17-race schedule as possible.

Unfortunately for St. Petersburg, it won’t be able to secure another date on the calendar because the course is on city streets. The same challenges exist for Long Beach, though race promoter Jim Michaelian is actively working with the City of Long Beach to find a late summer or Fall race date.

“We want to have as full a season as we can,” Miles said. “We want to race in all of our cities. I will say that Long Beach, they’re canceled. I don’t see any opportunity to reschedule later in the year.

“But the bottom line is we just don’t know enough now to know what’s possible when. What we can do is monitor the situation endlessly and to be in a great communication with our promoters and all our officials and to focus on May. From our perspective, our hope, our ambition, our plan is to restart in May and to get in as much of a season as we can.

“I know that our promoters are going to assess their individual situations, as well. We’ll be every day, every hour talking to suppliers, to the paddock, to our sponsors, our broadcasters and our promoters. We’ll put on as big a show as we possibly can this year.”

With the first four races canceled or postponed, the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season now is scheduled to start with the May 9 GMR IndyCar Grand Prix followed by the 104th Indianapolis 500 on May 24.

“I would just say we are absolutely focused on May,” Miles said. “I’m with (IMS President) Doug Boles. We’re all going to go home and keep doing what we do. We’re going to be absolutely ready. That’s with the normal schedule. We will obviously evaluate everything every day by the hour. We’ll make any changes we have to make. But our mindset and our efforts are completely dedicated to being ready to put on a great show throughout May.”

Team owner Michael Shank’s team is in its first full season in IndyCar after running partial schedules the past two seasons. He also runs the Acura NSX effort in IMSA.

The St. Petersburg race was the kickoff of an extended trip to Florida as Shank’s team was competing in IndyCar this weekend, and his IMSA team was preparing for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring next weekend.

Both events have been halted, as well as other races beyond that.

Shank was asked, where does IndyCar go from here?

“I’ve never been here before,” team owner Michael Shank told NBCSports.com. “The sport will be all right; we just don’t need to panic. We need to get through this and get to what the solution is.

“It’s not going to go anywhere. We all need to get through the next 30 to 60 days.”

Shank believes once racing resumed, the sport and the public will make some positive changes.

“What it does is force us to keep everyone safe, healthy and clean,” Shank said. “But what it forces us is to get tight with everything financially. We have to put a chokehold down on the extra spending and keep it at a bare minimum until we see how we are all going to come out of this.

“It could be we race until December on the IndyCar side and the sports car side. Certainly, I think we will look at anything, and everything until we get the number of races up.”

Team Penske driver Will Power is more than willing to drive race cars into the Christmas season, if it means having a full schedule of races.

“I’ll race until December; I don’t care,” Power told NBCSports.com. “I’d like to see us run a few races during the gap for the Olympics. Or, some of the races during that gap.

“All of those questions are what people will be working on these next few weeks. I’m hoping no event gets completely canceled, and it is only postponed. I hope we get to race a full calendar. St. Pete, Barber, Long Beach and COTA. It will be such a disappointment and pity if we don’t get to race at those places.”

Miles cannot start to schedule races during the break for the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to run as planned from July 24-Aug. 9.

“Your hypothetical question included the possibility that the Olympics aren’t happening,” Miles said. “There are just too many variables to anticipate at this point.

“We’ll do whatever is possible to do to create the fullest season.”

Power’s team owner is Roger Penske, the new owner of IndyCar, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500. Power is confident Penske’s leadership will find solutions.

“With Roger, he is always speaking to the right people and will make the right decisions to help people first and plan accordingly to make the postponed races work,” Power said.

Zach Veach. Photo: IndyCar

At 25, Andretti Autosport driver Zach Veach believes IndyCar drivers and teams should try to stay in the front of the public through social and traditional media. Race fans will be starving for content, and it’s important to remain visible, even if they aren’t racing.

“It’s important for us to keep doing what we have been doing so well,” Veach told NBCSports.com. “That is building the momentum that we have done with the media and get exposure for what we are doing. We didn’t have a lot of testing this winter, but we still were able to generate that momentum. We haven’t been in the cars quite a bit, but we have been able to get that surge behind us and make sure we don’t lose that over the next month.

“All of us are going to be doing whatever we can to keep people engaged to what our lives will be the next month. We are going to go back to training as if the season was planned to start in May instead of this weekend.

“Everyone is disappointed, but we all feel it’s the right call to be made.”

For Penske and Miles, they have to ensure teams, sponsors and partners remain viable during the unexpected shutdown. That will help provide a brighter future after the country is able to endure these dark days of uncertainty because of the coronavirus.

“I think we’re concerned about our whole ecosystem,” Miles said. “Everybody is taking stock in the situation. Everybody will sort and grind through it. I didn’t hear anybody thinking they weren’t going to be in business.

“We will be in very regular touch with them. I think if there’s anything about IndyCar teams, it’s they’ve shown their resilience. They know how to manage. They care about their people. Right now, I think even more than thinking about their businesses, they’re thinking about their employees, keeping them safe, keeping them employed.

“We have real admiration for the team owners. I’m sure they’ll get through it.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

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
0 Comments

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.”