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Inside view: IndyCar’s journey to hybridisation

Written by Archie O’Reilly


A new IndyCar era begins at Mid-Ohio Sports Car course as the series’ long-awaited switch to hybrid power ensues. It has been a long road of tens of thousands of miles of testing and tireless hours of work day upon day, week upon week to reach this point. 


But after the introduction was delayed from the start of 2024 to this mid-season stage amid supply chain issues, the tireless effort and collaboration of different rival parties is about to come to fruition on a competitive stage.


“Each series has their own identity, their own niche of what they do,” IndyCar President Jay Frye said. “We’re fast, loud and authentic. This is an enhancement to our overall program. This is something that is very relevant. The hybrid programme is the way to go into the future.”


The road from November 2022


IndyCar has long had the aspiration of switching to hybrid power. And at the back end of 2022, the latest attempt at hybridisation was launched ahead of the system initially being paired with the existing 2.2-litre, twin-turbocharged V-6 engine for testing in August of 2023.


“This project basically in its current configuration was born in November of 2022,” Frye said. “That’s when we helped put this really unique partnership together between Honda and Chevrolet. Since then, we’ve run almost 21,000 laps, almost 32,000 miles - a spectacular achievement to date. This has all happened within about an 18-month period.”


A herculean effort has been put into the ongoing process across the last year-and-a-half, from testing on-track to running the hybrid power unit through its paces on dynos and test rigs. And it has not been without its hurdles.


“It’s been a lot,” Wayne Gross, manager of trackside engineering for Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) USA, said. “Very early on we were up against some reliability and supply chain issues, getting parts in our hands. But we’re definitely on top of that and ready to go racing.”


Testing spanned all forms of track, from short ovals to superspeedways and from several different road courses to the bumpy Sebring International Raceway acting as a street course. Much of this was initially done during the off-season before further in-season test outings with gradually larger fields this year.


“Spent a lot of time in Florida, spent way too many days in Homestead, I feel like, and some days in Sebring, every weekend heading south,” Gross said. “Started off with one car [each] - Ganassi on our [Honda] side and Penske on the Chevy side and then brought Andretti and McLaren into the fold, just trying to get more drivers and more cars testing.


“And then earlier this year [it was] getting it in all the teams’ hands. All these things you start developing early on, you come into teething problems… It’s part of the exciting thing from an engineering standpoint - you find issues, you go and solve them, you come back to the racetrack, you fix them.


“That’s the cool thing about racing, that quick reaction, development, validation cycle that really pushes us forward and drives us forward. It’s good for the engineers, it’s good for us, it’s good for the competition, it’s good for the teams, something new. 


“When we stood there and we watched the Indy car with a push button for the first time… it was hard to get there and a very cool thing to be a part of. It’s that stuff that we’re really pushing forward and it’s an exciting thing to be a part of. It’s been a quick journey but it feels like we’ve done four years’ worth of work in 18 months.”


After being pushed back from its planned St. Petersburg introduction, the decision was taken to target the hybrid era commencing after the Indianapolis 500. While there have been concerns about the championship or competitive balance being altered as a result of a mid-season introduction, Mid-Ohio was seen by the series as a logical launch location.


“We thought this was a natural break in the season,” Frye said. “We certainly wanted to be 100 percent ready so we feel really good about where we’re at. We feel really good about the technology, the performance, the supply - all of that. This is as good a time to do it as any. We’ve been testing it a lot, we’ve been running a lot. We’re really excited.”


The value of a Honda-Chevy collaboration


Honda and Chevrolet are usually fierce rivals - whether in the road car world or on-track throughout the motorsport realm, none more so than in IndyCar. So the collaboration between the two organisations in building up the hybrid system was unparalleled.  


“Chevrolet and Honda are great partners at everything they do,” Frye said. “Everything they do with us is amazing. We have these weekly meetings about just engine stuff, about all kinds of different things. So this was a whole other element to what we currently already do.


“But this was a unique one because this was actually them working on something together. When they both agreed to do it, we could not be more excited about that. We thought we had a really good idea with the technology when we put in the bell housing and it was going to work but we knew they would be able to help us make it raceable.


“That was a huge part of this whole programme. How do you make it raceable? How do you service it at the track? How do you build those different kinds of things? They’re the experts at that.”


While they may be competitors every race weekend, Honda and Chevy ultimately both shared the same goal of wanting to allow IndyCar to move forward.


“This was an opportunity for us to work collaboratively on something for the good of the sport and the good of the series,” Mark Stielow, director of motorsports competition engineering at General Motors, said. “This has been a huge effort. Every week, twice a week, we’re having meetings, pushing the ball forward on this.”


It was decided that double the amount of “smart people” in the effort to go hybrid would be beneficial for all parties. There were inevitably “tense moments” through the process, as Stielow noted. But the net gain far outweighed any minor conflict.


“We were aligned on most things,” Gross said. “There’s things that might be unique to our installation or the Chevy engine with different [things] that we’ll find as we go along. But I think at this point it’s just getting a product on track and getting it reliable and getting it in all the cars.


“Obviously as we go forward and start using it in different ways, we might start to get a bit more competitive on things. But for right now it’s: ‘How do we get the product on track and all the cars and go racing at Mid-Ohio?’”


A big part of the efficiency across the development of the hybrid system has been having Honda and Chevy focusing on different elements of the power unit. This has allowed the development to have been undergone at the impressive rate at which it has been.


“It sped things up quite a bit,” Stielow said. “Honda took on the ESS (Energy Storage System) and owned it. With our [Chevy and Ilmor] MGU (Motor Generator Unit) supplier being in Great Britain, it was good to have them on that side of the pond working on that. Every week we had meetings working through issues.”


Without the help of this unprecedented collaboration, it is likely that the hybrid’s introduction would not be coming in 2024.


“It was one of those things where to get it done in a timeline, it needed both of us and all of us to come to the table,” Gross said. “It was a lot to take on, just one of us independently, so it was good to split up and work together.


“We try to beat each other as much as possible every weekend on the racetrack and then we come away on Monday or Tuesday and work together and go back to the racetrack on Friday and beat each other up again. It’s been a very unique project but pretty rewarding from that perspective.”


The help of the series’ leading teams


A lot has been made of the disparity in hybrid testing time from team to team. Testing commenced with the might of Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing before Arrow McLaren and Andretti Global were phased into the programme with additional cars.


It was not until late March that the remainder of teams got their first outing with the hybrid on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. And they all got further hybrid experience in a June open test on the Milwaukee Mile, as well as a recent team test at Iowa Speedway - another short oval run-out.


But while these differences in test time could well cause some temporary gulfs between teams in terms of time taken to get completely up to speed with the hybrid system, the rationale behind the teams and drivers chosen for the bulk of testing is logical.


“It comes down to resources really,” Gross said. “To be honest, it’s just what teams have the most people and experience and resources to help support it. Go back to those initial teething problems… it’s running around all day long every day. It’s a lot of extra workload on people and building cars and limited parts and scheduling issues. 


“It’s teams that have the people that can rotate in staff and support it that way. It’s drivers with the most experience. You have an opportunity to use a Scott Dixon or a Will Power, people that have been driving cars 10 or 12 years at a very high level - that’s the experience you want in this. 


“It’s not to take away from the other teams, it’s just you have to go with the resources that best support it. As it opens up, you bring other teams into the fold and get them involved.”


Throughout the process, engineers were being invited to hybrid test outings from every team through the field. Each team had access to debriefs and feedback, with data frequently shared to limit the extent to which teams with less testing time may be held back.


“It’s not like they were completely cut out,” Gross added. “It’s just you’ve got to go where the resources best support it.”


A path from reliability to development


For the first time in two decades, IndyCar will be host to over 800 horsepower. On road and street courses, drivers will have access to the time-limited push-to-pass as well as the ability to regenerate and redeploy energy through the hybrid system with no race-long limit.


“That’s 120 horsepower,” Frye said. “That’s legit. That’s a lot of horsepower.”


But while the horsepower boost is an exciting prospect on paper, some drivers have remarked that it does not feel markedly different to what they have been used to pre-hybrid. There is added weight with the hybrid unit, albeit the gearbox, bell housing and aeroscreen have been made lighter. 


At this stage, the series’ priority is reliability before targeting further development and an even more groundbreaking, maybe more noticeable horsepower boost.


“We’ve got nine races left in 2024,” Frye said. “We’ll bump this thing up in ‘25 and ‘26. So there’s a lot of runway to go with this project and this programme. “It’s very robust where it’s at starting in 2024 but there’s definitely some runway.”


There is confidence that, while there may be some teething problems when first run competitively, the hybrid system is at a very solid point reliability-wise. Recent tests have been described as “very smooth” and “very productive” field-wide. It is a marked upturn on what was the case even “six, nine months ago” in this process, Gross said.


And any supply chain issues have largely diminished.


“From a supply perspective, we’re in good shape,” Frye said. “Obviously you always want to be better but I think we’re in really good shape right now. From a performance standpoint, that’s a lot of horsepower. Going on the ovals, they won’t have push-to-pass but it should definitely make a difference. 


“I think it’s funny when you mention some of them felt it, some of them didn’t feel it. That’s part of what’s going on with this whole programme. We’ve put all this technology in the drivers’ hands, there’s multiple ways for them to use it… so if someone is feeling it on ovals and others are not, maybe they need to do it a different way possibly.”


The expectation even from those heavily involved on both the Honda and Chevy side through the rigorous and meticulous on and off-track test programmes is that surprises could yet crop up at Mid-Ohio. And possibly for the better.


“We’ll all be standing around going: ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that,’” Stielow said. “As the season goes on, we’ll learn a lot more about it and then we’ll probably have a much stronger and more refined package for next season.”


But just how much development could be undergone in terms of the boost offered by the hybrid system?


“It’s around 60 horsepower now,” Frye said. “It has the potential to get up more in the 150-ish range. So there will be a natural progression over the next couple of years to get it more towards that. There could even be a certain point where it completely replaces push-to-pass, where it gets to a certain point where it’s a big enough, robust enough system.”


Early hybrid aims and procedures


A successful Mid-Ohio weekend, from the view of the Honda and Chevy parties, would be emerging through unscathed and with no unforeseen failures. A visible improvement in the already-excellent racing product, with added overtake options amid extra control for drivers, and an even wider array of strategies emerging would be a bonus.


“From the Chevrolet side, we want it to be good racing and we want the units to not interfere with the race, number one,” Stielow said, to which Gross agreed. “Number two is for it to be used by the drivers to make the racing more dynamic and more interesting for the spectators. 


“This is another tool that we’re bringing to the drivers to enable there to be a little bit better competition, a little more passing. The fans at home like to see active racing so we’re hoping this is another tool in the drivers’ tool bag to demonstrate the talent between the drivers.”


Drivers will be able to regenerate the energy they are allowed to redeploy through brake pressure, throttle position or steering wheel paddles or a button. On ovals, where braking is not a common practice, harvesting of energy is more likely to be done by lifting off the throttle and the use of certain things on the steering wheel.


It is expected that drivers will use it not only as an overtaking tool but also to maximise in laps and out laps, adding these further dimensions to the races. While there is no limit to the race-long time of use, there will be restrictions lap by lap.


Qualifying is another area where the hybrid unit could be strategically used, even if there is no intention to change the format of qualifying at this stage. The hybrid system will remain at drivers’ disposal through the fight for pole, without the availability of push-to-pass, and they will be able to use it as they wish.


“One of the things we wanted to avoid was introducing too many things all at once,” Frye said. “So at Mid-Ohio, basically standard practice, standard qualifying procedure. They’ll have the hybrid unit at their disposal for both of those, then in warmup and the race they’ll have the push-to-pass.”


And if there are to be any reliability issues related to the hybrid system in the final nine races of the season, there will be leniency with grid penalties.


“There’s not really a number at this point,” Frye said. “It’s more we talked about not having penalties, like red penalties for engine changes. We won’t have those for hybrid units, certainly this season.”


How things unfold at Mid-Ohio and beyond will be fascinating.

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