Spec Hybrid System Introduces New Limitation

Marco Andretti strapped into U.S. Concrete Andretti Indy car at Texas

INDYCAR’s intention to electrify the formula of its NTT IndyCar Series will positively impact the on-track product thanks to a horsepower increase and other enhancements, but its single-source nature will be a hard sell to any manufacturer looking to make an impact that goes beyond public relations.

Imagine a boardroom somewhere in the world where a meeting is taking place about the prospect of joining Chevrolet and Honda as a third engine manufacturer on the IndyCar grid.

“Bill, we can go Indy car racing and get exposure in a growing motor sports series that has reach across North America.”

“Sounds great, Earl. But they have to be hybrids.”

“They are.”

“Then we’re in.”

Perhaps the conversation doesn’t go exactly like that, but this is the narrative being pushed and suggests that INDYCAR’s addition of electrification is the only path to adding a third brand to the series’ manufacturer stable.

INDYCAR’s original announcement about the next engine formula, at that point slated to hit the track in 2021, seemingly failed to attract much attention given the absence of a newly committed marque. Evidently, a 2.4-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 comes across as last-century technology while the current century is dominated by electrification as seen in hybrids as well as completely electric drivetrains. The public’s level of knowledge and familiarity with the concept of electrification is demonstrated by how widely known the Toyota Prius hybrid and Tesla’s battery-electric cars have become.

Still, manufacturers who specialize in creating the next big thing — Toyota and Tesla among them — are interested in using their technological expertise to boost sales. The same goes for racing endeavors, which are funded primarily as marketing exercises. Thus, it makes sense that a manufacturer like Toyota would want to highlight its technological expertise when it puts its brand on a race car. A prime example of this is the FIA World Endurance Championship where the Japanese company’s TS050 LMP1 car is powered by the TOYOTA HYBRID System — Racing. The THS-R name may have been developed by a marketing team but the technology is Toyota’s and it’s been perfected on track each year, culminating in the 2018-2019 LMP1 championship for Toyota Gazoo Racing.

Sebastien Bourdais spins at Mid-Ohio keyhole in 2019 IndyCar race
INDYCAR’s hybrid plans include adding the ability for drivers to restart their cars but it’s off-track factors involved in attracting a third engine manufacturer in time for the 2022 season. | Jamie Sheldrick/Spacesuit Media

Contrast Toyota’s endurance racing achievements with what INDYCAR has proposed for its 2022 formula. Should a manufacturer like Toyota have an interest in an engine program consistent with the formula as publicly outlined by the sanctioning body, it would be required to use the same single-source hybrid system — at present only confirmed to be a simplistic kinetic energy recovery system — that Chevrolet and Honda will pair their updated engines with. While the hybrid concept exists to link the two implementations, the ability to implement and evolve in-house technology is absent from INDYCAR’s planned regulations.

From a pure marketing standpoint, it may be enough for those making decisions in the boardroom to allocate funds to an IndyCar program simply because the ability to promote the effort as “hybrid” exists. Unfortunately, any portrayal of the manufacturer’s involvement beyond a branding exercise would be a misrepresentation. Furthermore, any suggestion that a manufacturer’s hybrid IndyCar engine has anything to do with its consumer hybrid offerings would be dishonest.

As a spec open-wheel formula, nearly every component of a modern Indy car, including the engine, has very little connection with consumer technology. The bespoke 2.2-liter motors in use since 2012 are built to the specific needs of a race car, which vary considerably from the needs of a typical road car, thus limiting the direct transfer of technology between the two. This situation won’t change with the expected 0.2-liter increase coming in 2022. The use of a hybrid system from a third party completely eliminates the link between what the manufacturer might want to promote to its current and prospective customers with what it’s racing at, say, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Irrespective of what company is truly electrifying IndyCar in 2022, if the series’ transition from combustion engines to electrically assisted combustion engines is what attracts a third manufacturer, then INDYCAR will have accomplished something all stakeholders seem to want.

Prior to the announcement of electrification plans, INDYCAR President Jay Frye addressed the progress made on landing additional engine suppliers, and his comments were telling.

“The ones that we’re currently talking to want to build their own engines, so that’s a key indicator when you talk to somebody about their commitment,” said Frye at a press conference during this year’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama weekend. “It’s just really a timing thing at this point. … We’ve got two great partners right now with Honda and Chevrolet and we’re very fortunate for that and very proud of that.

“Part of what’s going on is, you talk about the five-year plan, and the fields are getting bigger and the teams are coming in — at some point (another engine partner is) not going to become a luxury, it’s going to become a necessity as we grow.”

The message is clear: Increasing the number of manufacturers involved will allow for higher car counts which will create opportunities for more teams and drivers to join the series. With Chevrolet and Honda at capacity and other metrics like attendance and viewership on the rise, adding one or more engine suppliers will put IndyCar’s future on firmer ground.

Felix Rosenqvist in IndyCar Mid-Ohio race debut
Felix Rosenqvist faced no F1-style team orders when chasing teammate Scott Dixon at Mid-Ohio. F1-style hybrid powertrains will also remain absent in IndyCar. | Jamie Sheldrick/Spacesuit Media

Tucked away in Frye’s response is another nugget: The manufacturers INDYCAR had been communicating with were interested in building their own engines. With the addition of electrification to the formula four months after Frye spoke at Barber Motorsports Park, it’s not a stretch to imagine that any company so invested in its IndyCar program that it builds its own engines would also want to incorporate its own hybrid technology, especially if the hybrid element is what attracted it to the series in the first place. It’s at this point that INDYCAR’s hybrid plan becomes unattractive to an automotive manufacturer from a technological standpoint.

Was it a complete lack of hybrid acceptance on INDYCAR’s behalf that led Porsche to decide against entering IndyCar when the next-generation engines arrive, or would the new hybrid regulations still not be enough since the German brand would be coupling a presumably state-of-the-art engine with the same third-party electric components as its competition? Today’s unveiling of Porsche’s ABB FIA Formula E Championship challenger for the upcoming season, the team for which has been under development since 2017, would suggest that this motor sports-loving company views the use of an internally created electric solution as a baseline requirement.

Matching Porsche’s three-character naming style, the name of the 99X Electric racer purposefully includes the highest single-digit number to signify the importance of the project to Porsche while the X indicates “the forward-looking approach and prototype racing,” per the company. That means IndyCar could at best have an “88X” from Porsche, and likely not even that since the Porsche-made powertrain is labeled a “decisive factor” in the announcement. A decisive factor in taking the plunge into Formula E instead of North America’s premier open-wheel championship? It’s quite likely.

From Porsche: “The 800-volt technology used in Formula E is also used in the series production of the fully electric Porsche sports car, the Taycan. In addition, energy management and efficiency are the keys to success in both Formula E and series production.” The Taycan and a hypothetical Indy car powered by Porsche with an INDYCAR-mandated third-party hybrid system would have little more in common than the presence of the Porsche emblem.

That doesn’t seem to be enough for Porsche, and it’s unlikely that Porsche’s stance is a unique one.

Participation from one or more new engine suppliers will undoubtedly benefit IndyCar. The question that will be asked in the boardroom will be how it benefits the supplier. If badging a hybrid powertrain without having any involvement in what makes it hybrid is enough, the boardroom will acquiesce. If it’s not, INDYCAR might still have a hard time making the case that the return on investment is worthwhile.

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