It’s a pleasant May in Indy, but it still feels ‘bizarre’ for James Hinchcliffe

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It’s May in Indianapolis, but for James Hinchcliffe, something naturally feels amiss as a resident of the city that won’t have its beloved world-famous race this month.

“It’s so bizarre,” Hinchcliffe said during a Tuesday interview on “Lunch Talk Live” with host Mike Tirico. “I live in Indianapolis, I know it’s just down the street, but it’s crazy to think you’re spending all this time rather than at the racetrack.

“I’ve never sat in my backyard around the pool in May before. You’re always stressed out at the track in engineering meetings, living out of the bus, so you miss a lot of what May really means because this town and this city, they really do get behind the race from the minute the calendar strikes May 1 and missing some of that stuff, even when the race does happen in August, it’s not going to be quite the same, but it’s still Indy.”

‘BACK HOME AGAIN’: NBC special will celebrate last year’s Indy 500 thriller

STILL RACE WEEK IN INDY: It’s the #500atHome

The 104th running of the rescheduled Indianapolis 500 will be held Aug. 23 on NBC, which will be revisiting the highlights of last year’s race Sunday. Tirico will be the host of “Back Home Again” as 2019 winner Simon Pagenaud and runner-up Alexander Rossi revisit their epic battle.

There is an IndyCar race on the horizon, though, as Texas Motor Speedway finally will open the 2020 season June 6 after a nearly three-month pause because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Unlike NASCAR, which hit the track Sunday at Darlington Raceway without practice or qualifying, IndyCar will have a full warmup (on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold) leading into the green flag at Texas – which will mark the first race since Laguna Seca Raceway last September.

“For the most part everyone’s racecraft is going to to be a bit rusty, and we’re going to one of the most daunting places in Texas Motor Speedway,” Hinchcliffe said. “So the challenges for us are going to be just getting us up to speed. It’s a very difficult track, and the margins for error are small, and the cost of error are quite high.

“Again, it’s going to be a game of patience. We have an hour and a half of practice straight into qualifying and the race. There are a bunch of rookies that have never raced at Texas. There’s one driver (rookie Alex Palou) that has yet to turn a lap in either testing or practice at Texas. It’s going to be a learning experience in a lot of ways.”

It’ll be a good experience for Hinchcliffe, who will be racing at Texas with Andretti Autosports (along with the Indy 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course July 4) after originally expecting to be working as an IndyCar on NBC analyst in the since postponed March 15 opener at St. Petersburg, Florida (which has been moved to the season finale on Oct. 25).

The Canadian is looking forward to be “suited and booted” at Texas instead of fully on camera as he’d been preparing to do at St. Pete with mixed emotions.

“It was tough; I was getting a little bit of FOMO,” Hinchcliffe said. “Definitely wanted to be on the grid, but at the same time, I was really embracing this new opportunity with NBC Sports Network.

“I’d done a ton of research and a ton of prep, and it’s kind of a baptism by fire situation. You have to learn on the job in a lot of ways. So I was excited to get started and get my feet wet there. I’ll obviously still get that opportunity at some point later in the season now. It’s cool to know for Race 1 at least, it’ll be with helmet instead of a microphone, and then we’ll switch gears back to the other job.”

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.”