Once Fast Friday arrives and NTT IndyCar Series teams receive maximum turbocharger boost to use in preparation for qualifying, the Indy 500 will see some of its highest horsepower figures put to the pavement in many years.
Big power was the norm for the CART IndyCar Series in the 1990s as more than 1000 horsepower was occasionally made by turbocharged V6 and V8 engines. With the advent of the Indy Racing League and its takeover of the Indy 500 in 1996 using CART cars, a final year of prodigious power was unleashed as Arie Luyendyk set the qualifying speed record with a four-lap average of 236.986mph.
As recently as 2019, IndyCar has given its teams 20.3 pounds of boost for Fast Friday and qualifying, which is believed to have delivered something in the 650hp range. With the new allowance for 21.7psi to be used this year with the 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 engines produced by Chevy and Honda, they’ll be flirting with an excess of 700hp.
Following the naturally-aspirated V8 engine formula established by the IRL in 1997 that ran through 2011, where power figures ranged from 600-650hp, the IndyCar Series returned to turbocharging in 2012. Modest power demands were made on the new 2.2-liter V6s, and it was reflected in opening-day speeds where Josef Newgarden was the only driver to break out of the 210mph range (220.250mph).
Ryan Briscoe captured pole position (226.484mph) in his Team Penske Chevy as 600hp or so was deployed, but it was hard to ignore how IndyCar’s new Dallara DW12s and turbo engine package was slower than Alex Tagliani’s naturally-aspirated pole (227.472mph) from the previous year.
Heading into 2020, the series and its engine manufacturers decided to scrap the 20.3psi boost maps for Indy, and with the extra 58 pounds of weight from the new aeroscreen carried by each car, the plan to use 21.7psi for the first time in qualifying configuration gave the added value of helping to compensate for the weight and aerodynamic impacts made by the driver safety device.
Depending on who you ask, the series, teams, and manufacturers have different predictions on how fast the cars will go without a tow when teams move to working on qualifying setups.
Using Simon Pagenaud’s 2019 pole speed average of 229.992mph with medium-boost as the standard of reference for Friday through Sunday’s running at high boost, some have said their simulation models call for no gain, while others have said a 1-2mph improvement is possible in favorable ambient conditions, and one has offered a 1-3mph average increase.
With educated speculation framing 2020’s pole average in the 229-233mph range, Luyendyk can sleep peacefully as his record from 1996 wouldn’t appear to be in jeopardy.
“I’d say that’s pretty certain — his record will be safe,” Honda Performance Development engine guru Allen Miller told RACER. “I expect us to at least be in line with the speeds we’ve seen in the last few years. The goal is to not slow down because of the changes we made for driver safety on the car, but at the same point, we wanted to at least maintain the show and keep the speed that we have been seeing without going backwards.”
Miller says the chance to unleash high boost at Indy was the easiest and most cost-effective choice. With the field accustomed to using high boost on road courses and short ovals, the horsepower hike for qualifying through the spec BorgWarner turbochargers is a simple tweak made via laptops and the spec McLaren engine control modules.
“We’re just wanting to be sure that it’s good and competitive, without having to redesign and make a bunch of changes to just raise the power back up to a number that we already deal with on the road courses,” he added. “And we now run it at the short ovals as well. First, we went to high boost on the short ovals and then added it here to qualify.”
With vast experience in making race- and championship-winning power on behalf of Honda, Miller loves the idea of engine performance becoming a topic of interest once again at the Indy 500.
“That’s what we do: We make power, and our whole reason to be here is we like to make engine power, so yeah, it’s neat to see it again,” he said. “There’s always some nervousness of should we do it? Should we not? In the end it’s like, ‘You know what? These are professional drivers. They know how to deal with it. If it’s too fast and too scary, they can slow down a little bit.’ There’s nothing that says you have to go flat if the car is too fast. Right?”
On the topic of nervousness, Miller expects to cross his fingers throughout Fast Friday and qualifying as every motor will experience its highest horsepower figure at the highest sustained speeds and loads since the new turbo formula was established in 2012. Although the Chevys and Hondas handle the same peak power on other circuits with few issues, this will be the first time they live near a sustained 12,000 rpm and 230-plus miles per hour for lap after lap.
And with drivers likely to receive a tow at various points once we get into Fast Friday, average speeds in a draft could exceed the 233mph solo predictions.
“Well, it always gives you butterflies to do something the first time,” he said. “But we’ve done a pretty extensive amount of running at this boost level, simulating, qualifying, and so on. Putting some pretty serious miles on engines to make sure that we weren’t going to hurt the show by doing this.
“We don’t want to blow up engines, cost money and makes people not qualify well if they break. So yeah, we’ve spent a fair amount of time getting ready for it. But yeah, first time, it’s going to be a little nervous to say, ‘OK, go get ‘em, guys.’”