Marshall Pruett, Racing columnistFeb 8, 2024, 11:54 AM ET
Five years in the making, IndyCar’s long-awaited technological move into hybridization is scheduled to arrive in the summer.
Originally announced to go live at the first race of the 2024 season on March 10 at St. Petersburg, ongoing delays forced the series to push the introduction back to give itself more time to ready the technology for competition. Although the exact date and event has yet to be confirmed, the July 7 visit to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course has been mentioned within the paddock as the most likely venue for the changeover to happen.
IndyCar will welcome a new and innovative energy recovery system (ERS) into the series after 12 years of relying solely on the same turbocharged V6 motors supplied by Chevrolet and Honda to propel its cars.
With the energy recovery systems installed, which follow the same ERS concept Formula One has used for more than a decade, IndyCar will give its cars an added punch of electronic horsepower. The anticipated bump in 2024 is in the 60 horsepower range when drivers depress the activation button on their steering wheels, and there’s a secondary lift to come from embracing hybridization.
Having heard the pleas to modernize its formula, IndyCar is doing itself a long-overdue favor by heeding the auto industry’s needs in bringing greater relevance to the technology found on most carmakers’ showroom floors. Despite the late adoption of hybridization, it’s a necessary component in the majority of today’s racing series.
“The general trend of racing is for manufacturers to show off their products in the way that the world is moving, so in light of that, we’re having more hybrid technology and full-electric technology in cars transfers over to racing,” Andretti Global IndyCar driver Colton Herta told ESPN. “It’s mostly because we can find stuff on the racing side that can better help or push the technology further than what they can do on the road. So think of it as [research and development] for car manufacturers with what they do by taking their tech like this into racing. And from the IndyCar side, I think the idea is by going hybrid, we’re moving in the general direction that racing’s moving, and you can possibly have more car manufacturers look at joining us.”
With Herta’s recent experience testing hybrid-powered McLaren F1 machinery and racing for both Acura and BMW in their hybrid IMSA GTP cars, he’s among IndyCar’s leading subject-matter experts on the technology.
Once the development process is complete with IndyCar’s compact motor-generator unit (MGU) and the supercapacitor pack that fits snugly between and connects the twin-turbo V6 combustion engines to the six-speed transmissions, drivers like Herta and the rest of the 27 full-timers will have more than 800 combined horsepower to play with at their discretion.
In the years ahead, the goal is to bring the ERS contribution from 60 horsepower to more than 100 horsepower, and in a first for the sport, IndyCar will use its hybrid powertrain on ovals along with the more customary application on road and street courses. Race strategies will also be influenced in new ways once IndyCar crosses over into hybridization.
“Generally, the systems are all pretty similar from the different hybrid cars I’ve driven,” Herta added. “They have their little quirks about how they use their power and how efficient it is. For IndyCar, it could make the races interesting from the standpoint of how you use your energy, how you distribute it through the lap and where you save your energy, especially on the ovals. This could be a big, big key to the Indy 500 in the last few laps and what you want to do there.”
IndyCar drivers, along with their teams and engine manufacturers, will have significant freedom in how energy is harvested and stored in the supercapacitors. Options to regenerate through automated or manual means will be allowed at any point during a lap. There’s a new wrinkle on offer as well with a harvesting paddle affixed to the steering wheels that could be popular on ovals.
Traditional energy gathering with hybrid race cars takes place under braking, then the MGU is instructed to connect with the transmission and spin at huge speeds — acting as an electricity-generating drum — with the charge being sent to a storage device like a battery or supercapacitor to wait for instructions to fire that energy back through the MGU to the rear wheels as horsepower.
With minimal braking being done on the ovals in an IndyCar, though, there are limited opportunities to charge the system while rocketing around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 230 mph or more with one’s foot buried in the throttle. Thanks to the new steering wheel paddle, drivers can use their fingertips to gently pull on the paddle and lightly engage the MGU to gather energy while drafting around the big 2.5-mile oval.
In those drafts, drivers customarily lift off the throttle by small amounts to keep from hitting the car in front of them, so with the harvesting paddle, the same effect can be replicated by holding 100% throttle and using the paddle to slightly slow the car and replenish the energy in the supercapacitor without sacrificing speed.
The tiny ERS units, developed and built in a collaboration between Chevy and Honda, will continue being tested in the background through and beyond May’s Indy 500. If the introduction plans hold, teams would go racing with the systems installed for their first road course at Mid-Ohio, make their oval debut the next weekend at the Iowa Speedway doubleheader and give Canadian fans their first look at hybrid IndyCars one week later on the streets of Toronto before the series takes a break during the Olympics and returns to complete its calendar with four events spanning Illinois, Oregon, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
If there’s one glaring point of contention to address, it’s the midseason timing for IndyCar’s move to hybridization.
Looking outside of the series, F1, NASCAR and other key series will be thoroughly entrenched in their seasons by the time Mid-Ohio arrives in July. With the heavy rotation of major storylines flooding the daily news cycles from series that are larger and more popular than IndyCar, the America’s open-wheel championship could be challenged to get the automotive and racing worlds to stop and pay attention to its summer-based technology switch.
For where it sits on the current calendar, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown wonders if IndyCar would be better served by holding the jump to hybrids for a later date and avoid the risk of missing the spotlight it deserves.
“I think hybrid is a must-have in today’s day and age, so I think it’s great we’re going there,” said Brown, who also oversees the company’s three-car Arrow McLaren IndyCar program. “I think we should remain open minded, though, on whether we should debut it in the middle of this year or push the project into 2025. I think the schedule is so condensed, my view is you either start the season with it fully developed, or if you’re not ready to start the season with it, develop it over the season and bring it out the next.”
From what McLaren’s cadre of backers tell Brown, there’s no downside to waiting.
“Their intention is to debut it sometime this year, but I don’t think the sponsors feel it’s immediately important or like it has to happen now; they know it’s coming. Whether we catch the last seven races with it or not, I don’t think matters, long term,” he said. “What does matter is making sure when we do debut it, it’s good, strong, reliable technology. And I’m not sure, with where we’re at, that we don’t still have a lot of testing ahead of us before we can get to a very reliable product through all 27 cars.
“Getting to the place of becoming hybrid is absolutely necessary. It’s a matter of when’s the best time for it to happen.”