Unless you’ve been living under a rock, nearly all fans of the NTT IndyCar Series have heard that INDYCAR will be moving to a new engine formula in 2022, a year later than originally planned, that will finally incorporate hybrid engine technology. News of this change came pretty much out of nowhere last Thursday when INDYCAR sent out a mid-morning press release with some of the details.
The long and short of it is that the NTT IndyCar Series will not be going to a completely electric formula like Formula E but will also not completely open the hybrid rule book as it is in IMSA sports car racing. Current INDYCAR OEMs Chevrolet and Honda will continue to supply internal combustion engines (ICE) in more or less the same configuration that was agreed upon and announced in May 2018. Those 2.4L twin-turbo V-6 engines will have slightly larger displacement than today’s 2.2L engines and will aim to bump the power up to something in the ballpark of 900 horsepower. The ICEs will be mated to a single-source (i.e. spec) hybrid system that will apparently bump up the power even more and increase the potency of the push-to-pass system.
I say “apparently” because I honestly don’t know the ins-and-outs of hybrid systems. I know they provide electric energy to the car that can make a car go faster under certain conditions. That’s about it. Without sounding too much like an old man yelling at a cloud, I really don’t care about hybrid technology from a sense of “it’s the next big thing” or “it’s moving us to a greener racing series.” Somehow, someway, I’ve managed to stay on this archaic path where I just want to enjoy my racing series without making any political statements or waving a banner for some cause. I just want to watch cars go fast and be entertained by men and women hustling cars at speeds I can only dream of. If hybrid technology makes cars go faster, I like that.
To me, engine architecture is one of the least important aspects of racing. So long as the engine works well in a car and it makes the car go fast, I don’t care about all the numbers. I grew up watching Indy cars with the famous 2.65L turbocharged V-8s, and I loved them. The sound was simply glorious. But I also love watching sprint cars with 410 cubic-inch normally aspirated V-8 engines as much as 2.4L inline-4 midget engines. Neither of those open-wheel beauties sound like the 2.65L CART turbos or the Buick/Menard V-6s that I grew up watching fly around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but you can bet your last dollar that I make every attempt to go see sprint cars or midgets any time they come anywhere near my hometown! And anyone who ever heard a four-cylinder Offy pull a roadster around the famed IMS oval knows how beautiful those engines sounded.
The point is that hybrids don’t excite me in the slightest bit from the standpoint of “moving technology forward” or “making racing greener.” I’m a bit of a dinosaur that way. What I am excited about, though, is that I think engine manufacturers will be excited.
When I read the headline, I was more surprised by INDYCAR going in this direction than being excited or overfilled with joy about the hybrids themselves. As late as this past spring, strong rumors were swirling around the IndyCar paddock that Porsche had shown very serious interest in joining the NTT IndyCar Series but ultimately walked away because of the lack of hybrid technology for the new then-2021 engine specifications. Given previous comments from Jay Frye and Mark Miles that INDYCAR would not be moving toward electrification at that time and the lack of any OEM announcements during the Month of May, one can fairly safely assume this reversal of direction is a plea by INDYCAR to entice those manufacturers who have made it clear they want to be a part of hybrid and electrification technology in auto racing.
I have total faith in Frye and Miles and have no doubt whatsoever that they have been strongly pursuing a third OEM for many years. They have their fingers on the pulse of the manufacturers, and if they are being told time and time again that this is the way OEMs want to go, then they are duty bound to take the Series in a direction that best aligns with those entities that can further the NTT IndyCar Series. If that means hybrid technology, then I completely agree with their decision and applaud them for being willing to change course and do what is necessary. If moving to hybrid technology is the move that pushes Porsche or Audi or Kia or perhaps even Ford over the finish line and brings a desperately needed third OEM to the Series, this will be a fantastic move, and I will be very excited.
One great concern I do have, however, is the cost aspect of the 2022 season now. The last two times INDYCAR has introduced new engines and chassis in the same year – 2003 and 2012 – entries plummeted and the Indianapolis 500 nearly failed to fill its 33-car field.
In 2002, nine drivers attempted and failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. In the final year before Honda and Toyota came to the IRL, engines and chassis were both in abundance and entries could be had for relatively low cost. In 2003, skyrocketing costs (and other factors I choose not to dig into here) had IMS and the IRL scrambling to fill the field at the last minute. Quite honestly, car counts have never really recovered from this shock, even 17 years later.
However, in 2011, with a new engine and chassis on the horizon for 2012, rides could again be had for fairly cheap as the then-current formula was soon to be extinct. Forty entries made legitimate efforts to qualify for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 in the final year for the then-nine-year-old formula. When the 2012 specifications came into play, entries again plummeted and only 33 cars made attempts to qualify for the 500. (Rumors swirled and were constantly denied that additional entries may have been possible but were strongly discouraged to protect the very slow and tenuous Lotus entries that were in the last two starting positions.)
INDYCAR will need to take every possible precaution to ensure the sticker shock in 2022 can somehow be financially absorbed by all participating teams. A third OEM will do no good if teams are not financially able to invest in the equipment necessary to make the grid. Unless that chassis has to be changed to accommodate the new hybrid system, I would actually be in favor of delaying its implementation until 2023 so teams can spread their capital expenditures out a bit more.
Whatever happens with the backroom politics and whatever ultimately ends up on track, I just want to see Indy cars go fast. I want to see speeds start to increase back toward the track record again, a desire I have constantly expressed for the past 20 years. I don’t care if speeds come from an inline-4, a hybrid V-6, or a turbo V-8, I just want to see big numbers on the speed charts. I’m sort of a dinosaur that way.