MOORESVILLE, N.C. — As auto racing enters the third decade of the 21st century, it continues to struggle with its place in an ever-changing sporting landscape.
It’s essentially a 20th century sport, out of place by today’s fast-paced technological world where a 16-year-old can win $3 million in a “Game of Thrones” tournament while race car drivers continue to put there lives on the line for a mere fraction of that.
There are two choices — become as high-tech as Formula One or remain so low-tech that it becomes an “antique sport.”
Auto racing has also struggled with its connection to the automotive industry, which has moved away from mechanical to electrical and into the land of driver assist. The problem is, without the vast dollars spent by automotive manufacturers, auto racing teams would struggle to survive.
But in order to justify the dollars spent on auto racing, auto manufacturers have to get some return on their investment.
This is known as “technology transfer.” It’s where the lessons learned on the race track can help the automotive industry get more power out of smaller engines or create the next electronic component that makes the passenger car more productive and more efficient.
Ford, Toyota, Honda, Chevrolet, Porsche and other car manufacturers aren’t investing millions of dollars to entertain a few, hard-to-please race fans. Gone are the days of, “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday,” as the marketplace has moved away from sedans to SUVs and hybrids.
That is why IndyCar’s decision to create a new engine platform utilizing hybrid technology beginning in 2022 is so important.
Before the old-timers start popping off about how this will ruin the sport, keep in mind this is “hybrid” and not “electric.”
The engines aren’t going to make that annoying, slot-car whining sound produced in Formula E. The hybrid will be part of a 2.4-liter internal combustion engine similar to that already used by Honda and Chevrolet.
It will not affect the sound, so save that rant for another day.
Also, it’s not full hybrid, but hybrid assisted. The cars will still need to make pit stops to refuel and the horsepower will increase to more than 900 — something race fans and drivers have wanted for the past two decades.
It will be the first time the vehicles will not use the traditional, manual hand-held electric starters to start the race cars. Instead, a hybrid component can be activated by the driver from the cockpit.
“It’s an exciting time for IndyCar with the forthcoming evolution of the cars and innovations like the hybrid powertrain being incorporated into the new engine and chassis,” said IndyCar President Jay Frye. “As we move toward the future, we will remain true to our racing roots of being fast, loud and authentic and simultaneously have the ability to add hybrid technology that is an important element for the series and our engine manufacturers.”
The hybrid system will work in parallel with the engines, combining growing hybrid technology with the traditional power plants to produce in excess of 900 horsepower for the most competitive racing series in the world.
The hybrid powertrain will be integrated into the push-to-pass system and provide a power boost to the tool used by drivers for overtaking on road and street courses. The current system, which is limited to 200 seconds per driver in those events, will gain additional horsepower from the hybrid system to help IndyCar reach its target goal of achieving 900-plus horsepower for its cars.
The hybrid technology will consist of a multi-phase motor, inverter and electric storage device that will create energy recovery from the car’s braking system.
The addition of the hybrid technology to the traditional engine formula will provide some integral benefits for the competitors while enhancing the racing. In addition to allowing drivers to restart their cars from the cockpit, the system will increase the horsepower of the push-to-pass system and potentially improve the pace and overall time of races.
IndyCar announced in May 2018 it would move to a 2.4-liter engine formula that would produce 900 horsepower beginning in 2021. The addition of the hybrid powertrain will push the debut of the new engine formula from 2021 to 2022, realigning it with the arrival of the next-generation chassis.
The move will allow IndyCar to continue working on other future innovations for the new package as well as extend the window of opportunity for an additional Original Equipment Manufacturer to join Chevrolet and Honda in 2022.
From a safety standpoint, the system will improve on-track situations by giving the driver the ability to restart the car quickly should it stall.
That safety feature also provides a benefit to the fan experience by potentially helping reduce the number of caution flags for stalled cars on track.
The new engine/chassis regulations will be in place for six years — 2022 through the ’27 season. It is a continuation of IndyCar’s initial five-year strategic competition plan that originated in 2016.
Chevrolet and Honda will continue with the current homologation table through the 2021 season.
IndyCar needed to make this bold step to remain in line with what is important to automotive manufacturers. After all, they are the ones that really pay a huge chunk of the bill.