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What did IndyCar drivers learn in the Milwaukee hybrid test?

Written by Archie O’Reilly

IndyCar’s journey to hybridisation surpassed yet another milestone with its near-full-field test on the returning Milwaukee Mile oval last week. There were 20 cars present - with Chip Ganassi Racing and Juncos Hollinger Racing absent due to 24 Hours of Le Mans commitments for their drivers - and a combined total of 3,563 laps were clocked.

IndyCar has been away from Milwaukee since 2015 and only six of the current field have raced there in the premier American open-wheel series. 

Those with experience include Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal. The pair were among drivers reflecting on IndyCar’s Milwaukee return and hybrid progress post-test…

Milwaukee “one of the best” tracks

Both Newgarden and Rahal shared their delight at being back at the Milwaukee Mile, with the test allowing a chance for drivers to get their eye in ahead of the doubleheader of races on August 31 and September 1 - the penultimate track visited in 2024. 

“It’s great to be back,” Newgarden said. “This is a great track, one of the best that I’ve been to. Really fun to be back. Enjoyed running today. [It is] different than other short ovals like Iowa. There’s no banking to help you. Had to get used to that, the comfort of not falling into something and trusting the car is going to hold. 

“It can be unnerving. For some of the guys that have never run it, it took a while to get used to it. It’s awesome. Love this place, love this town. Really pumped we’re coming back here.”

Newgarden raced at Milwaukee four times in his early IndyCar career, with two fifth-place finishes to boot. Rahal has paid seven visits to the Wisconsin-located track driver and has two podiums in those visits, sharing Newgarden’s affection for the vintage mile-long oval.

“I love it,” he said. “I’ve always loved The Mile. I think it’s a tremendous challenge. Great racetrack. Everything that they’ve done to spruce up the pit lane, fix that mess, get the boxes looking nice and everything, is very much appreciated. It was beautiful, awesome today. It was great to be back here turning laps.”

Last time IndyCar visited Milwaukee prior to an eight-season hiatus was during the aerokit era. Newgarden admitted there are quite significant differences, foremost in throttle application, with the current packages.

“It’s very different,” he said. “Last time we were here in 2015, I think we were pretty much flat in qualifying, if not just the tiniest lift. Not flat today, not even close. 

“You’re not braking at all in a qual run. In race conditions, you’re lifting, then a little bit of brake towards the end of the tyre life. It’s a different ballgame. I’d say it’s closer to Iowa as far as the way the tyres degrade and the way it’s going to race. I think that’s the closest you can look at.”

Trying to learn the hybrid ropes

IndyCar only has one more round, at Laguna Seca, before its hybrid era - delayed from the start of 2024 - commences at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course at the start of July. And while Team Penske has been involved in the bulk of testing compared to only two outings for some of IndyCar’s lower-resourced outfits, off-track studying has still been needed.

“We’ve been studying it,” Newgarden said. “It’s not like it’s getting dropped in our lap right now. That’s what I would say. It’s not like we’re scrambling right now to think about Mid-Ohio. If we had to go to Mid-Ohio tomorrow, it would be okay. We’ve been working on it. We had our initial feelings about it - strategy or plan.”

There has been lots of talk about whether the hybrid introduction could be championship-altering depending on who adjusts the best. But while there may be gains to be made, Newgarden does feel the field will be clued-up enough for there to not be any huge disparities.

“We’re going to keep developing that as we get closer to Mid-Ohio, try to hit the ground running a little bit better than everybody,” he added. “I don’t think you’re going to find people that are way out to bed with it. I think everyone will be pretty close. You might see some people with maybe a touch of a better advantage with it, maybe a different tactic. 

“You’re not going to see anybody light-years ahead because they are using it better. It’s pretty simplified in a lot of respects. It’s kind of like the push-to-pass. It’s a system that you’re going to determine how you want to use it across the lap. Everybody’s going to come up with their own method. I don't think you’re going to see people way off on a different planet.” 

System offering a “clear boost”

In terms of feeling in the cockpit, there has been some discord as to whether the boost offered by the hybrid system offers a significantly noticeable boost. But these are early days and it is expected that more horsepower will develop over time.

“I think it would be nice if it had more juice, for sure,” Rahal said. “It’s a start - I think it works quite well. I think at lower RPMs [revolutions per minute], when you fall out of the power band, you can feel it. It definitely has an effect. 

“It’s early days. Everybody has to be patient with it. F1 didn’t start with the same power that it delivers today in their first gen. Let’s give this thing some time to develop. I think it has big potential.”

Part of the test in Milwaukee, following initial free-for-all running, was dedicated to race running, featuring simulations of the whole host of procedures from starts and restarts to pit stops and cautions. This is where Rahal felt the use of the hybrid system, deploying regenerated energy, offers some of the greatest boost.

“On the simulated restarts we were doing, when you utilise it, it’s a clear boost,” he said. “I would also say in traffic when you get really bogged down, it was nice to be able to pull the deploy and really feel a lot of gain. That can make racing quite interesting. As challenging as it is to remind yourself of it all the time, I think the net effect is going to be positive.”

“Robust” but issues inevitable

The lack of issues after the expected teething problems early in testing has been very encouraging in the most recent hybrid test outings. Newgarden described his day in Milwaukee as “pretty seamless” but acknowledges the inevitability of issues once the system makes its competitive debut.

“It seemed like an easygoing day for most people,” the Penske driver added. “The system, certainly from the last time I ran it, operates pretty seamlessly. Just not having a lot of hiccups with it. We’ve definitely had a lot of miles on it now. It seems to work really well - pretty robust. 

“I think it’s impossible to say we’re not going to have any issues. It’s like any new part… if there’s a new part, there’s always going to be some risk of something still needing to be developed. Up to this point, I think we’ve seen the system is fairly robust. It’s ready to drive, I think, in a race condition. I’m excited to see this new chapter for the rest of the year.”

More control for the drivers

One benefit of the hybrid system is the additional control offered for drivers in the cockpit as they have more options than just time-limited push-to-pass with the addition of the hybrid system. There will be a per lap limit to the use of regenerated energy from the hybrid system but no race-long restriction, with drivers responsible for the regeneration and redeployment.

Rahal delved into the decisions drivers will have to be making.

“Where do you utilise that?” he said. “How much do you utilise it per straight? Here [at Milwaukee], do you use it once into the headwind? Twice, once in the front, once in the back? What is the net effect? There’s a lot you can do.”

Newgarden further admitted this may be “a learning curve” for drivers given the strategic element that it will add to their races.

“How do you utilise it? It’s not just a set thing for everybody and it’s there,” he said. “You can use it a lot of different ways. There’s definitely going to be a learning curve and optionality for people to use it differently.”

The hybrid system is ultimately yet another tool for the drivers to have at their disposal, adding to the likes of push-to-pass (which will remain on road and street courses), roll bars, weight-jackers and gear selects.

“There’s plenty of options in there,” Newgarden said. “I don’t think we need to add any more. We have enough going on. You could add more… I don’t know that you would need to at this point. There’s definitely enough adjustability to drive the car. This will add to it. It’s just another strategic thing that everyone will learn how to manage.”

Hard work in the cockpit 

Rahal, who has only tested the hybrid once on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and now in Milwaukee, touched on the almost overwhelming task of getting used to making the most of the hybrid.

“It’s a major challenge here to utilise it because of the fact you’re so busy already with all the other things going on that it kind of becomes an afterthought until the team said: ‘Hybrid, hybrid,’” he said. “‘Oh, okay, got to hit it, got to hit it.’ You’re so focused on the driving aspect on a short oval like this that I think it makes it difficult to maximise the effect of the hybrid.”

It is “not by any means” second nature to drivers yet, Rahal added.

An advantage for some teams?

The bulk of hybrid testing was completed by Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Arrow McLaren and Andretti Global. This leaves the rest of the teams, who have had only two test days, at a deficit in terms of track time.

“The teams that got all the hybrid testing flat out… I don’t care what they say, it’s a huge advantage,” Rahal said. “There’s so much to change: manual regen, auto regen, how much regen, what’s the gain, what’s this, what’s that. It’s the opposite of F1 where it’s preprogrammed and the driver just drives. Here the driver has to do the majority of that.”

David Malukas made his on-track return in his first outing with Meyer Shank Racing in Milwaukee. He experienced the early stages of hybrid testing with Arrow McLaren, who he never raced for in the end after suffering a pre-season injury. He concurred with Rahal’s sentiment in a later media availability.

“There’s definitely some inconsistency there when it comes to some teams having a lot of testing, others not,” Malukas said. “When we tested with McLaren early on, it was very much beta testing, a lot of it was brand new. They didn’t have set rules on what they wanted to do. It was more going out and figuring what they needed from Honda and Chevy… 

“Meyer Shank didn’t get [much] testing but everybody from Honda works together, everyone from Chevy works together, all the data is shared on the new hybrid system. Going into it, from a driver standpoint, the drivers that didn’t get to test are going to be at a little bit of a disadvantage. 

“All that information was there. Before I got into the car, I could see everything that has been tested, what was going to happen. It’s now more set in stone because they finally figured out their way around the system. Back when I tested with McLaren, we didn’t really know what was going on.”

Changes to car handling

The hybrid system has added more weight to the package at the disposal of drivers, leading to the series’ decision to make the aeroscreen, gearbox and bell housing lighter for 2024. But Rahal still feels there is a difference in car handling despite efforts to compensate for the greater weight.

“It actually does affect the way the car handles a lot,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that do change. There’s a lot to learn. There’s a hell of a lot to learn in a very short period of time, unfortunately.”

Rahal felt like the balance issues came to the fore to a greater extent when regenerating energy rather than when redeploying the build-up energy.

“I feel like the power delivery of the deploying side is actually quite good,” he added. “Indy road course test, I really liked it. Frankly, I thought it helped my power down. There were a couple of times today in those race runs when you were in light traffic, you’d hit it, you could definitely feel the rear. 

“There’s clearly more power going through the rear tyres, so you’ve got to be careful. But those are all things we’re going to have to balance over time. When do you use it? How much do you use it? There’s a lot of thinking to do in a short period of time.”

Newgarden felt the handling being limited depends on how each team sets their cars up.

“You’re going to set the car up for how you want to utilise it,” he said. “If it can’t take it, you’re going to adjust accordingly. Vice versa - maybe you don’t want to adjust accordingly and use it that much. It’s going to factor into the way you run a race weekend for sure.”

More time needed to adapt

Ultimately, patience and time will prove a virtue as drivers and teams learn more and more about the hybrid system.

“You’ll get more used to it with time, that’s for sure,” Rahal said. “In my car, they changed basically my entire steering wheel from two days ago to today to add the buttons and change things around. There was a lot in my brain as far as to figure out in a short period of time. I think it will become more second nature.”

Rahal completed a tyre and aero test later in the week at Nashville Superspeedway, along with Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward, Andretti’s Colton Herta, Ed Carpenter Racing’s own Ed Carpenter. He feels the opening hybrid rounds at Mid-Ohio and Iowa Speedway will be important in terms of further getting to grips.

“For me it was a bit of a zoo trying to figure it out in a short period of time,” Rahal added. “There’s a lot happening. This [Milwaukee] is a very low-grip track. You’re sliding around so much - not the easiest thing to do to remind yourself constantly to hit the button. As it does become second nature, it will be fine. We just got to give it a little bit of time to develop.”


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