Dale Jr., Sage Karam preview IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Michigan

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IndyCar’s iRacing Challenge continues this Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) with its most star-studded field yet.

The third race of the challenge is highlighted by the addition of two-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., this weekend’s race at virtual Michigan International Speedway will feature 31 cars and drivers.

Joining Earnhardt as newcomers are IndyCar regulars Marco Andretti (who takes the wheel of his No. 98 Honda back from Scott Speed, who was third at Watkins Glen), Ryan Hunter-Reay (who returns to his No. 28 DHL Honda after yielding to Kyle Kirkwood the past two races) and Max Chilton. Five-time Indianapolis 500 starter James Davison will also make his iRacing Challenge debut this weekend.

ENTRY LIST: Who will be racing in round three

Two-time SuperCars champion Scott McLaughlin is the most recent winner on the circuit, having won last weekend’s race at virtual Barber Motorsports Park. Sage Karam won the first race at Watkins Glen.

While he is considered by many of his peers as IndyCar’s unofficial iRacing expert, Karam is too young to have raced at Michigan in real life (Indy cars last competed on the 2-mile oval since 2007). However, he did race at the nearly identical Auto Club Speedway in 2015.

Karam said that he expects that this weekend’s race should produce similar racing.

“I think it’s going to be a pack race kind of feel, kind of like how Fontana was in 2015,” Karam said during an IndyCar teleconference Friday. “But it’s going to be exciting, that’s for sure. I just think we need to stay off of each other, and we should be all right.

“I think once it comes to race time, it’ll be a bit better. I think the guys will then know that the race is on the line and stuff like that. It’s just kind of the same thing that’s happened the last couple of events. When we’re doing these practice runs and stuff, we just have a little bit more fun, and then when
the race comes we turn it down 5 percent or whatever.”

Like Karam, the majority of drivers in this weekend’s race have never competed at Michigan before. Only two drivers entered this weekend have won a race at the facility – Tony Kanaan (2007) and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has two victories apiece in NASCAR’s Cup (2008 and 2012) and Xfinity Series (1999 and 2006) at the facility.

While he’s never driven an Indy car before, Earnhardt looks forward to competing in this weekend’s race despite his lack of open-wheel experience.

“I’ve been on iRacing for a couple decades, but I haven’t put much time on the Indy car and obviously have no real-world experience, so there’s a lot of learning and trying to understand why the car reacts the way it does and what creates those issues,” Earnhardt said. “Just trying to understand how to stay out of trouble. Keep yourself out of trouble was what yesterday’s practice was about, and I’m looking forward to today, practicing some more with these guys.”

Earnhardt also said that he has a lot of respect for the IndyCar drivers that he will be competing against this weekend.

“It’s kind of fun for me to get to know their personalities a little bit and how they interact with each other was really fun yesterday during practice,” Earnhardt said. “I was just kind of sitting there listening to everybody go back and forth with each other, and it’s kind of funny. I kind of understand that camaraderie and the back and forth that they have is really similar to what we have in the Cup Series.”

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994

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
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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 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.”