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IndyCar Drivers’ View: How did the hybrid debut weekend go?

Written by Archie O’Reilly

After a year of rigorous testing and almost two years of development on the system’s current iteration, IndyCar’s hybrid-powered era commenced in the Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio last weekend. Despite the odd inevitable stumbling block, the weekend was generally a successful one with much learning undergone…

Much more on teams’ plates

If you want to know how big a change the hybrid system’s introduction is proving for teams, you should not look further than alterations to debriefs and the amount of engine maps.

“They’ll be longer for sure - longer meetings, just more to talk about, more to analyse,” Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward, the first winner of the hybrid era, said. “You’ve got more options. On the dials, we used to have basically eight different maps; now we have like 24 or something. It’s super weird.”

Alex Palou, who finished second for Chip Ganassi Racing and continues to lead the championship, echoed O’Ward’s sentiment about extended meetings.

“It’s a lot longer,” the Spaniard said. “There’s too much stuff to look at now, too many options to get a bit distracted, because the mixtures, it’s big. We used to have to pick the mixtures we wanted before each session but especially the race, where we would have only eight. 

“Now we have 24, which is a crazy amount. When you have to go from like two to 11 on the rotary, it takes you forever. Like it’s a full swing. So it’s tough.”

As well as there being more work and decisions for drivers to make in the cockpit, the hybrid system is leading to more work for engineers. Palou noted the importance of them having “the ability to focus on what is really important” as not to overwhelm drivers.

“This [qualifying] morning, I was like: ‘Let’s look at the deploy and regen. And Julian [Robertson], my engineer, said: ‘Don’t look at that, let’s look at your driving first and focus on the percentage of charge and all that stuff. 

“There’s stuff that is more important than others but, having that said, it’s always going to be a talking point for media, for TV and for us as drivers because it keeps on changing. There’s always a way to try and improve it and try and make it suit better for the car or for the driver.”

Mastering changes to car balance 

One slight concern with the hybrid system is the added weight altering the car balance and almost negating some of the added horsepower boost. The gearbox, bell housing and aeroscreen have been made lighter but there have still been changes to car balance.

“I think it’s an accumulation of both the new tarmac [at Mid-Ohio] and the 100 pounds at the rear of the car that have shuffled the mechanical balance of the car rearwards,” O’Ward said in observation. “I think you’ll see teams and drivers get creative for the race. I think that’s where you’re going to see a massive shift.”

Palou suggested the added weight meant “on braking” the balance has changed slightly. Drivers stressed the importance of striking a good balance as not to see negative net performance, with O’Ward describing this as a “priority” still.

“I would say more than obviously the free lap time that you get by using the system, I think it’s been more of a hit to car balance,” O’Ward said. “If you choose to optimise the system rather than optimising the balance of your car or trying to ignore it, you’re definitely going about it the wrong way because there’s just not enough to override that.”

At the same time, the hybrid system cannot be ignored. 

“The series is so competitive in qualifying I’ve been left out of the Fast Six for half-a-tenth a couple times this year,” O’Ward said. “If someone uses that half-a-tenth better than you do, they’ll transfer and you won’t. There’s a big emphasis on both ends. 

“You’ve got to get it right if you really want to be one of the top performing cars. But I would say it definitely doesn’t outweigh trying to get a better balance for the car. I think that is definitely the priority and this is just free lap time that you can gain by optimising it.”

Excitement exceeding expectations

Whether comments about the power increase not being hugely significant or drivers feeling a little overwhelmed with all of the tools in their cockpit, there has been a little bit of scepticism about the hybrid system in some quarters. But it was received pleasantly at Mid-Ohio. 

“In my opinion it was great - much better, much more fun than I anticipated,” Palou said. “I thought that it was going to be pretty boring, that it was not going to give us much of a tool to make differences between the drivers or the teams or even during the race. It’s super fun. Every lap you can do something different to try and fix your car. I’m 100 percent up for it.”

Scott McLaughlin, who rounded out the podium for Team Penske at Mid-Ohio, said he “really enjoyed” the process and the learning experience through the weekend and during the race. Rather than feeling overburdened, some drivers are relishing having more control and more tools to play with.

“It’s a lot more fun because it’s in our hands,” McLaughlin said. “There’s no order to deploy, nothing like that. Literally we push a button for it to work and you’ve got to think about it so much. It changes whether you’re battling with someone or you’re by yourself just trying to get lap time. That’s what’s really cool. 

“Then you’ve got push-to-pass on top of that. It’s busy but I think that’s where you’re going to see the difference. There’s going to be some mistakes creep in, especially on street circuits I’m sure. There’s a lot going on. But it’s fun.”

The continual learning experience

As McLaughlin hinted at, drivers are continuing to learn and adapt to the hybrid system - even those from the teams that have taken on the bulk of testing.

“I’m pretty sure if we were able to compare our data, like 100 percent of it, we would see differences in ways to get half a tenth here, half-a-tenth there - not from driving, just from the pure regen and deployment,” Palou said. “I don’t know if 70 percent or 90 percent there but I’m not sure we’re getting 100 percent of it. 

“It’s interesting. It’s a lot of work but, at the same time, you don’t want to forget about the principal stuff. You cannot focus so much about the percentage of battery, and where do we recharge and deploy, and then forget about the balance being really bad and losing three-and-a-half tenths because of balance.”

O’Ward’s approach is that of “the more you think, the worse you’re going to use it” and that drivers will automatically become accustomed to the new technology. He believes thinking too much will probably just lead to confusion.

Palou, while believing the hybrid “doesn’t gain you a lot” of an advantage, says it does still make a difference. It is an added reference for drivers to conquer in order to achieve any gain they possibly can.

“It’s the same as braking,” Palou said. “When we get to new tracks or new stuff, you always need to try and think about your braking spots and your driving references. It’s just an add-on to the driving references that we’re going to have. 

“By the end of the weekend, you don’t even talk or think about it anymore because it comes naturally. But to start the weekend, I think so.”

The desire for even more power

For the first time in two decades, IndyCar is now host to 800 horsepower - when hybrid energy is being deployed at the same time as push-to-pass being used. But with reliability the priority at this stage, drivers have not been blown away by the around 60 horsepower provided by the hybrid unit.

“You can definitely feel it when you engage the deploy,” O’Ward said. “It’s obviously not as big as I think people are thinking in terms of lap time. It’s less than two-tenths, I would say, with a perfectly optimised usage of deployment strategy. I think the system is capable of so much more.”

The intention is for the system to develop further in years to come once reliability has become a guarantee now it has debuted in IndyCar competition.

“I would like to see that evolve,” O’Ward added. “Let’s really push this system and see how much it can actually give us in terms of lap time because if it gives us four, five, six-tenths over the lap, I think that’s when we’ll really see it getting optimised by all the teams. Now it’ll usually overthrow a little balance difference in the car exactly.”

Palou said the speed gain is not such that the wheels are caused to spin. But he has still been pleasantly surprised.

“I was a bit surprised at the amount of deployment we had each lap,” he said. “It’s a little bit more than I expected and a lot more than what we had in the ovals that we just tested. Obviously it makes sense because you do a lot less laps but still it’s quite good. It’s going to be quite interesting - a lot more than what I was anticipating.”

Hybrid power vs push-to-pass

Passing proved a challenge at Mid-Ohio, with the lead pair unable to make headway on cars at the back end of the lead lap in the latter stages. But in the long run, the hybrid unit should increase overtaking possibilities with the added control enabled for drivers through the availability of the ability to regenerate and redeploy energy in addition to push-to-pass.

O’Ward said the hybrid power actually feels fairly similar to push-to-pass but added that the latter remains a “more powerful” tool due to the longer duration it can be used for in any one moment. The hybrid power has no race-long limit - which push-to-pass does - but is only able to be used in shorter bursts.

“You have more advantage with the push-to-pass,” Palou said. “It gives you more and you also have more seconds. You can put 50 seconds in one lap or 40 seconds - you can really use it a lot more than the hybrid.”

But the hybrid power can be used tactically to gain an advantage. 

“I could see where Pato was using it,” Palou added. “I was trying to use it at different places to see if I could get an advantage somewhere. Both are important - if you forget about the hybrid, I think you lose a tenth-and-a-half that is for free, maybe a little bit more. And if you lose track of the overtake, it’s a tonne more.”

Manual vs automatic regen

Drivers are able to regenerate energy for redeployment manually or automatically through braking, throttle position or a button/paddle on their steering wheel. But in the company of one another post-race, neither Palou nor McLaughlin would divulge which they prefer. 

“I’m not going to tell him,” McLaughlin said, to which Palou responded: “That’s why I didn’t speak first.” 

The pair did eventually suggest that it is used differently depending on the corner.  

“You can pick,” O’Ward, alone in the media centre after his victory celebrations, said. “You can pick where you want to be regenning. Maybe you don’t get anything on the brakes and you’re doing everything manually. It’s going to be very specific to each driver.” 

How was qualifying different?

Somewhat becoming an aside with the focus on the hybrid system’s impact in race trim, the technology’s use in qualifying is not insignificant.

“Whoever doesn’t use it is going to be a tenth or so slower,” O’Ward said. “Ultimately it’s become a tool for the drivers and the teams to make either your life easier or your life a lot harder.”

Whether drivers like the system or not, it cannot be neglected. 

“We saw how close qualifying is so you don’t want to give up one-and-a-half, two-tenths for free that’s available for you,” O’Ward said after qualifying 0.0024 seconds behind pole-sitter Palou - the tightest margin in Fast Six history. “It’s a lot of work to get those, whether you regen here or deploy here, whatever you do. It’s free lap time so you need to take it.”

Palou believes it will be easier for drivers to maximise their usage of the hybrid system in qualifying than it will be in races, where it will more likely remain a talking point.

“I think we’re going to talk about more than I expected,” Palou said. “IMSA… they spoke about it for two weeks and that’s it - everybody forgot. I think with the system, it’s more like push-to-pass; everybody talks about overtake every race weekend, how we use it. I think it’s going to be the same. 

“We’re not going to talk about it for qualifyings because we’re going to reach a point where everybody is able to optimise 100 percent and we’re not going to see a difference there. But we’re going to see, I believe, a difference in race conditions. I think we’ll be seeing big differences.”

Teams inspired to innovate

Arrow McLaren appeared to be the first team to put into place a piece of innovation to show drivers their hybrid energy levels through light beams inside the aeroscreen.

“It’s just an extra kind of something to fall back on if you’re going through something, especially in a race scenario when you’ve got a lot more things going on,” O’Ward said. “You can quickly go to that and really see where you are at in terms of levels. Did you get out of sequence? Can you get back into it? 

“Ultimately it’s like a spotter in a way. You’re obviously using your initial judgement. But if you for some reason forget or whatever, it’s there to bring you back.”

Palou chimed in to say he did not have “those fancy lights” in his No.10 Ganassi Honda. He felt that sort of thing may be too much for him but admitted it “looks really cool” and it could be something his team opts to implement.

“It’s all free for us,” Palou said. “We can do whatever we want: we can do bars, we can do numbers, we can do lights. On your dash you can do whatever you want. You can do the small dash LED lights we have but obviously those [Arrow McLaren lights] are more visible. It’s similar to what they use in IMSA. You don’t need to look at the screen.”

Apprehension about issues

As noted by O’Ward, it was expected that “curveballs” could be thrown by the hybrid system. 

And a glitch did cause the onboard starters not to work at the start of the Mid-Ohio weekend - rectified swiftly and helping to prevent a late-race caution - and a more major issue meant Scott Dixon not to take the start and dropped to fourth in the championship.

“There’s going to be issues with it,” O’Ward said. “Nothing new comes without issues. It’s going to be something that everybody is going to just have to work through and stay flexible with the challenges coming.”

Palou admitted everybody was fearful of issues like that which befell his Ganassi teammate, whereby his battery drained on the pre-race pace laps.

“I guess everybody was worried,” he said. “You don’t want that to happen to you. We’re all learning so it was a shame that he was out in the first lap for sure.”

Oval debut beckons at Iowa

Hybrid testing was done across all forms of track, including various lengths of ovals. The Milwaukee Mile and Iowa Speedway have been test locations in recent months, with the latter IndyCar’s next race location as the hybrid system makes its competitive oval debut.

But drivers are unsure about the influence the technology will actually have.

“It really doesn’t do anything on ovals,” O’Ward said. “It does more on road courses and street courses. I know we tested [at Iowa] with, I believe, more downforce than what we’re actually going to race so that’s going to be a new challenge for everyone.”

McLaughlin expects differences between the ovals to come, with visits to World Wide Technology Raceway (WWTR), Milwaukee and Nashville Superspeedway also on the agenda. 

“There’s going to be parts where you can use it,” he said. “In Milwaukee and Gateway (WWTR) where there’s probably more deceleration, you’ll use it differently than Iowa, where it’s really quick now [after a repave]... It’s boost. It’s going to help us at some point. You’ve just got to use it at the right moments.”

Palou was keen to point out that the amount of energy to be deployed per lap is lower - by “almost a third” - on ovals, particularly with a lap of less than 20 seconds at Iowa. 

“The advantage, it’s not as much,” he said. “But at the same time, you do so many laps that I bet if there’s one guy that doesn’t use it in the race, you would see that he loses probably 10 seconds or something. It’s good enough. The series is so competitive that if you give up one-tenth just because you’re lazy or something,  its not going to help you.”


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