One might call it a qualified success, but Chase Elliott simply called his debut in the final round of Travis Pastrana’s Nitro Rallycross “fun”, in an event that saw him cross the finish line first in a head-to-head battle with Tanner Foust only to be penalized for avoidable contact in the final turn.
After winning the 2020 NASCAR Cup championship, Elliott has been trying to get out of his comfort zone and learn new skills in new racing disciplines. With ASHOC as a sponsor and mentorship from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson, Elliott has tried his hand at racing dirt midgets and sprint cars in 2021.
As the year drags to a close, Elliott made a foray into rally racing – and almost pulled off a dramatic win early in Round 5 of the Nitro Rallycross season.
In the three-lap battle, Elliott chased Foust for most of the event. He stayed in contact with the experienced Nitro regular throughout the three-lap race and closed enough to tap his back bumper on the penultimate lap. That gave Elliott the confidence to send his car even harder into the final turn on the white flag lap. Contact with Foust gave Elliott the momentum needed to race to the checkers first.
Race officials saw it a little differently.
Elliott was assessed a penalty for what they deemed avoidable contact. Elliott was denied the win, but his quick maturation in rally racing was remarkable as he learned how to drift, jump and steer his car with a handbrake in the span of those three laps plus practice.
“I appreciate Travis (Pastrana) and everybody for having me,” Chase Elliott said during the broadcast on Peacock. “ASHOC is kind to let me expand my horizons on getting outside of my comfort zone. It’s been a lot of fun and I appreciate their partnership. The learning curve’s been steep. I’ve never driven a car like this before, so that’s a little different. This track does have a lot of asphalt though which is good, I think, for me.
“I’ve never jumped anything that far before, so I was a little nervous about that yesterday. I got to the point where I was like you just got to do it. The longer I sit around here and think about it worse it’s going to get. The learning curve’s been steep, but it’s been fun.”
On his first jump, Elliott sent the car too far down the ramp and buried the nose. On Lap 2, he landed safely in a more optimum zone.
Elliott’s transition from paved racing to short dirt ovals has been interesting, but hardly successful. And while rally racing is certainly not in his comfort zone, it is adjacent with the Firm Raceway in Northern Florida being made up of large swaths of pavement with dirt added on top.
“I’m trying to simplify it,” Elliott said. “With these kind of cars, and having front wheel drive and then having a handbrake – that handbrake is a nice tool to have. Everything you do in this thing when you drive it … drives tight or understeer into the car, so pointing where you need to go is really weird. Anytime I get out of shape, or the car gets at an angle (in a paved racecar). You’re always back steering, whereas in this car a lot of times you might be sideways, but you’re actually still turning towards the turn, or turning the correct way, where normally (I’d) be turned the opposite way.
“It’s very different but a lot of fun, some of the most fun times ever had in a race car.”
In the finale on the second day of racing, Chase Elliott finished last in the eight-car field that was won by Timmy Hansen.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”