Midseason Hybrid Deployment Draws Criticism at Season Opener

Scott Dixon qualifying for 2024 St. Petersburg IndyCar season opener

INDYCAR’s hybrid saga kicked off with an August 2019 press release put out by the sanctioning body. Now in its fourth year, the much-ballyhooed intention to electrify the NTT IndyCar Series with a simplistic energy recovery unit remains.

However, despite targeting 2022 as the first year of competition for hybrid power units and witnessing the start of the 2024 tour in St. Petersburg, Florida, the series’ fans and stakeholders still wait.

The current plan to introduce the revised and hybrid-assisted Honda and Chevrolet engines midseason following the 108th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presents its own issues, which drivers were keen to speak on as the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend began to unfold.

The twisting road to 21st-century relevance, first written about by The Apex on Aug. 1, 2019, originally went beyond simply electrifying the current formula.

At that time, the series promoted the notion that 2022 would mark the adoption of electricity as well as an increase in engine capacity from 2.2 to 2.4 liters and a new, next-generation chassis. All of the changes sought to improve the on-track product by creating a lighter, faster and more powerful Indy car.

Honda hybrid IndyCar engine tested at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Hybrid engines and a new chassis were originally planned for 2022. | Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

Time has not been kind to those prognostications from 2019.

The following season, the car got heavier with the addition of the aeroscreen, which has proven to be a critical piece of safety equipment. Weight reductions and power increases have been minimal since then, with changes ahead of the 2024 season reducing weight by about 25 pounds and power increases resulting only from fine tuning by Honda and Chevrolet.

The series still fields the same Dallara IR-12 chassis tested by Dan Wheldon in 2011 and introduced for the 2012 season. It’s the same safety cell that was dressed up in manufacturer-specific bodywork from 2015 through 2017, remembered as an era with overbuilt front wings and plenty of other bits and bobs hanging off the race cars.

It’s also the same foundation under the current universal Dallara IR-18 aero kit introduced in 2018, which looked sleek at the time but is now entering its seventh season of competition.

Criticism directed toward INDYCAR regarding its general lack of action since 2019 apart from the successful introduction of the aeroscreen doesn’t stop at being slow to change.

I’ve long been critical of IndyCar’s hybrid plans, detailed in “Spec Hybrid System Introduces New Limitation” published on Aug. 28, 2019. My argument revolved around the notion that a single-source hybrid does nothing to promote the prowess of the series’ two manufacturers, and does even less to attract a new one.

It was inspired, in part, by quotes from INDYCAR President Jay Frye, who suggested that manufacturers interested in joining the series were also wanting to build their own engines — a clear indication of an engineering exercise rather than a mere marketing ploy. Since then, Honda made waves in December 2023 when it was suggested by American Honda Motorsports Manager Chuck Schifsky that a reduction of costs would be essential for the brand to remain involved with the series past its current contract, which ends after the 2026 season.

Honda Racing Corporation, formerly Honda Performance Development, builds its Honda HI18TT Series engine itself and commits both engineering and marketing dollars to the effort. Chevrolet has a different relationship with its Chevy IndyCar V6, which is built by Penske-affiliated Ilmor Engineering. The relationship of Chevrolet to Ilmor may end up being the model that’s followed by Honda and other manufacturer partners in the future: engaging in a branding exercise and leaving the development work to a third party like Ilmor.

The concept of a spec engine being attractive to an automotive brand like Honda seems to negate my argument regarding single-source hybrids, although perhaps it’s a reflection of the mid-2020s economy more than anything.

Christian Lundgaard standing on pit lane at 2024 St. Petersburg IndyCar race
Christian Lundgaard shared his thoughts with assembled media prior to on-track action at the St. Petersburg street circuit. | Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

If a single-spec hybrid is no longer controversial, its rollout might be.

As with most things INDYCAR, there’s the company line and then there’s what teams and drivers actually think. While those lines may blur from time to time, there’s no better current example of a company man than Josef Newgarden who drives for Penske Corporation-owned Team Penske in the Penske Corporation-owned NTT IndyCar Series.

Newgarden provided a few tidbits to a gaggle of IndyCar reporters ahead of the opening practice session in St. Petersburg, including myself. All of them were what you’d expect to hear from a polished communicator, but more on Newgarden later. It’s more interesting to start with the dissenting opinion, which in this case comes from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Christian Lundgaard.

He’s not sold on the idea of hybrids coming online after the Indy 500 this year, and made his reasoning very clear.

“I doubt it’s going to happen, actually,” said Lundgaard.

“I think it will be ready. But if you think about it, you can’t run two half seasons of a championship. The teams that have been running it know about the balance and the performance of the car. And that’s where it ultimately comes down to it being unfair.

“So I think once we get through half the season and there’s conversations about it being implemented, I think there’s going to be teams not necessarily protesting that but I don’t think there’s going to be happy teams.”

Testing appears to be a sore topic, and while he probably didn’t mean to pick on Arrow McLaren’s Callum Ilott, Lundgaard pointed out that the English driver, despite being confirmed for only one race this season, already has a leg up on others in the field.

“There’s half the grid that’s that’s been running the hybrid system,” continued Lundgaard. “I think a good example is Callum Ilott has basically had the same mileage in the car that I have during the offseason and he’s got one day of testing — which was a hybrid day.

“Obviously, they do a lot more mileage there than we do at a traditional test where we have three sets of tires and they have five to eight sets of tires. So you know, that’s already unfair, but I don’t think I should get into that.”

Christian Lundgaard rounds Turn 1 of the St. Petersburg street circuit in March 2024
Lundgaard seemed to indicate his opinion has some traction among others in the IndyCar paddock. | Chris Jones/Penske Entertainment

Unfairness is one way to interpret the current situation. But is it any more unfair than other new initiatives implemented by INDYCAR in the past?

Had his untimely death not occurred, would Wheldon’s extensive testing of the IR-12 chassis provided a competitive advantage for Andretti Autosport for whom he was expected to drive in 2012? Did the teams and drivers who participated in early testing of the manufacturer aero kits prior to their 2015 introduction or the universal aero kit prior to 2018 or the aeroscreen prior to 2020 have unfair advantages?

The answer to all of those questions may be yes, and notably all of the changes were implemented at the start of a season rather than the middle of it.

The other side of the argument, the company line, brings me back to Newgarden. While he agreed with Lundgaard that the hybrid is ready to go, he did not have any concerns about a midseason hybrid deployment.

“I tested the hybrid car,” Newgarden admitted. “Yeah, definitely done miles. I think it’s great. Works pretty well.

“You know, it’s going to be interesting to see how everyone adjusts to it. It’s different. It’s going to be different than what we have this weekend. So it’s one of those challenges that’s going to be layered into the season.”

Newgarden then doubled down on the “challenges” angle.

“I don’t think it really matters,” said Newgarden when asked about the hybrids coming in the middle of the season. “You get — in motorsport, you’re always tested with challenges.

“Whether it’s a new tire, or it’s a new aero package for a specific track or it’s a hybrid introduction, you have to understand going into the year that there’s going to be unique challenges, and there could be unforeseen challenges, and that’s part of what motorsport is. So I think it’s going to be really fun to see who makes the most of that this year.”

Josef Newgarden laps the St. Petersburg IndyCar racetrack in March 2024
The reigning Indy 500 winner isn’t concerned about an updated engine formula entering competition midway through a season. | James Black/Penske Entertainment

Assuming Newgarden’s opinion held at least some influence from the corporate communications team at Penske Entertainment, the company line suggests that what Lundgaard views as unfair advantages are merely unforeseen challenges to overcome, akin to bumps in the road.

I’m sure painting such a rosy picture does little to allay Lundgaard’s concerns.

And it isn’t just a future problem. The St. Petersburg race weekend, while lacking hybrid-assisted power, was still impacted by missed deadline after missed deadline.

Firestone, expecting the hybrid engines to be introduced at the season’s start as planned, altered tire compounds to account for the expected changes. Those tires were tested preseason and put to use at the 1.8-mile street circuit, but the only change to the cars is the aforementioned 25-pound weight reduction.

The result: surprising tire performance, highlighted by the green-sidewalled guayule-derived race tires requiring an unusual amount of track time to reach optimal temperature and grip.

If there’s an old adage that can be applied here, it’s that making everyone happy all the time isn’t possible. Whether the top four teams who’ve already tested the hybrid drivetrain — Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Global and Arrow McLaren — will have a clear advantage if and when the system is implemented remains to be seen.

Perhaps the upcoming March 28–29 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway involving the remainder of the teams will serve to reduce some of the frustration that’s been expressed. But it will take a few more months to learn whether the 2024 IndyCar season will indeed be a tale of two halves.