Real or virtual, Helio Castroneves ‘can’t wait’ to race at the Brickyard

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Helio Castroneves will race Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with hardly a prayer of winning. He won’t get to stand on the grid and soak in all the pomp and circumstances of the Indy 500. He won’t hear the roar of nearly 300,000 fans.

Saturday’s race is at the virtual version of the Brickyard, which is the site of this weekend’s Legends Trophy sim racing event.

Yet the effervescent Brazilian seems no less enthused about having a touchstone to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing (which has been postponed by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to Aug. 23 on NBC).

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“Look, anytime you have a chance to race Indianapolis, whether it’s real life or virtual, it’s awesome,” said Castroneves, who won Indy in 2001, ’02 and ’09. “I know I’m not going to learn much, but it is great. I’m excited to at the least do a race in Indianapolis. It’s the month of May, so even if it’s virtual, I still feel more comfortable.”

The Team Penske driver, who drives for the Acura team full time in the IMSA series, probably will feel a little more secure than in the handful of other Legends Trophy races he’s tried. Unlike the difficult McLaren and Brabham cars typically used on the virtual road courses around the globe, Saturday’s race will be contested in the familiar DW12 chassis of the NTT IndyCar Series.

That still might not help Castroneves, who said his main goal is to outdrive his Miami neighbor and former Penske teammate Gil de Ferran.

“I suck, man,” Castroneves said. “I’m terrible. My goal is to be better than Gil de Ferran. That’s it. Which doesn’t need much effort, man. I think if he played Pac-Man, he would be better.”

Castroneves and de Ferran (the 2003 winner at the Brickyard) are among seven former Indy 500 winners in the field, which also includes Dario Franchitti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Emerson Fittipaldi, Tony Kanaan and Mario Andretti (who will make his competitive sim racing debut).

Adrian Fernandez, Bryan Herta, Max Papis and Oriol Servia, who raced against Castroneves in CART and IndyCar, also are regulars in the series (which is for drivers older than 40).

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With the group chat constantly filling up with messages from a couple of dozen drivers, Castroneves treats the experience more like a family reunion than a fierce competition.

“It’s absolutely the most fun,” he said. “It’s fun because it’s hard to drive. We have no idea what we’re doing. We crash most of the time, but in the end, it’s serious, and it’s competitive, but it’s not like in a very mean way.

“Nobody’s judging anybody. Everybody has achieved success already in their life and career.”

Castroneves hopes there is more success on the horizon when IMSA restarts its season July 4 at Daytona International Speedway. That will keep him out of the IndyCar race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course the same day, but he will be back at the Brickyard in August (after racing July 17-18 at Sebring International Raceway, which also will be closed to fans like Daytona).

“I can’t wait, man,” he said. “It’s great to be in a virtual race, but I can’t wait to do the real deal. I can’t, can’t wait to be in any car right now. Obviously, IMSA will be the first, but Indy will be next, and this is where I shine, baby.”

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.”