INSIGHT: Who will be IndyCar's third manufacturer? The devil's in the details

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INSIGHT: Who will be IndyCar's third manufacturer? The devil's in the details

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Who will be IndyCar's third manufacturer? The devil's in the details

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Many prayers have been said to the racing gods since Toyota’s name emerged last year as a possible NTT IndyCar Series engine provider. As RACER revealed last summer, hints, rumors, and solid intel have all pointed to an undeniable interest being shown by Toyota. But since then, getting a solid answer on the brand’s intent with IndyCar has been a challenge.

Joining a few dots, and putting two and two together to hopefully get four, here’s where the trail might be leading…

To set the scene, Chevy and Honda have committed to new supply contracts for the upcoming 2.4-liter twin-turbo V6 hybrid formula that debuts in 2023. And yet the urgent need remains for a third manufacturer to join in, spread the load, and equip a number of teams with its power units. It’s here where Chevy, Honda, and IndyCar have been waiting for those prayers to be answered in the affirmative by Toyota, which is said to be looking at a 2024 launch.

Thanks to a conversation I had with Toyota Racing Development boss Dave Wilson ahead of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, we have a clear answer on where the auto giant stands on the subject.

“I’ll start by qualifying the obvious that with Roger Penske engaged in terms of ownership of IndyCar and ownership of the Speedway, we certainly know that he will be successful,” Wilson said. “We can already see the progress, the momentum, the positive trends that IndyCar have going for them. And with Roger being one of our biggest Toyota dealers in the world, we’ve talked to them about it and they would love for Toyota to take another swing at it, of course.

“I still have the picture of us in the Indy 500 in 2003, winning with Roger and Gil de Ferran, and there’s nothing I think that we’ve achieved globally that can really match up with that. One of these days, I’d love to help take our company back, and we are certainly monitoring what’s going on in IndyCar racing, but right now, we have no plans to go. We have our hands full with our current engagements in in motorsport.”

So, Toyota’s out, and IndyCar’s stuck yet again with the same two manufacturers bearing a heavy and costly load. End of story. Or is it?

In the days and weeks following our call, I began to hear of a strategy shift that confirms everything Wilson said about Toyota and IndyCar as being 100 percent factual and true. As Wilson made clear, Toyota has no plans to return to IndyCar, but what if the big parent company in Japan sees value in promoting one of its smaller brands through American open-wheel racing?

So, not Toyota, but ‘Toyota’ by another name? Absolutely. That’s the angle to emerge after our call.

Toyota’s adamant that we won’t see its badge in IndyCar anytime soon – but that doesn’t mean that it won’t have its fingerprints all over a manufacturer program nonetheless. Motorsport Images

With its high-profile presence in NASCAR and the NHRA in the USA through TRD, plus its big Le Mans-winning international sports car program in the FIA World Endurance Championship and its rallying effort in the FIA World Rally Championship that are housed in Germany, the Toyota name blankets most major forms of motorsports. Simply put, Toyota is more than covered with the marketing and promotion of its products through racing, so there’s no pressing need to add IndyCar to the list.

Which Toyota sub-brand contenders might be under consideration for the IndyCar project? There are quite a few at its disposal, so let’s work through the options.

I’ve heard some strong suggestions that Toyota could elevate Lexus as its manufacturer of choice, and as much as I love the idea of Lexus-to-IndyCar, there are a few complications that make me question if this is where the program would actually land.

As Wilson said in a recent story about Lexus and sports car racing, Toyota has gone all-in with IMSA, where the production-based Lexus RC F GT3 races and wins in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Lexus is expected to bring a new replacement GT3 model to IMSA in 2024, which would make launching a Lexus IndyCar engine effort at the same time and in the same year a serious marketing misfire.

Since Toyota and TRD are deeply committed to using IMSA as the primary platform to promote the sporty side of Lexus, I’d struggle to see a change to that North American strategy by diluting the impact and arrival of its new GT3 model with the bigger spotlight that would come from Lexus entering IndyCar.

For that reason alone, I’ve got to imagine Toyota would look to one of its smaller or emerging brands to promote in IndyCar where there’s no risk of overlap with IMSA. Searching beyond Lexus, Toyota’s all-electric Ranz subsidiary stands out as a possible fit for IndyCar’s new hybrid formula. Approximately 100 of the 900 horsepower on tap is meant to be electric and delivered by a supercapacitor-based energy recovery system made by MAHLE. But like Lexus, the fit seems off for IndyCar; Ranz is just too niche to make sense for such a meaningful engine supply program.

Almost a decade ago, Toyota Japan went through a significant rebranding of its factory racing endeavors where Toyota Racing became Toyota Gazoo Racing and the Gazoo Racing (GR) aspect was dialed up and positioned as the brand’s main racing-themed link to its road cars. In the same way BMW uses its M line, or Dodge uses MOPAR to add high-performance tuning and handling to select road car models, Toyota’s use of the GR brand – even though it’s been rather limited so far – would be perfect for amplification through IndyCar.

January’s Tokyo Auto Salon show had three GR-branded cars on display as its featured content…

Going deeper into Toyota’s sub-brand offerings, the Tokyo event also showcased a sub-brand within GR, GRMN (‘Gazoo Racing Master of the Nurburgring’), and its line of personalized high-performance Toyota road cars. Could that be the name and angle for Toyota to take? In its press release, Toyota describes GRMN as an offshoot that “deliver cars to customers that evolve quickly and can be tailored to individuals like in the field of motorsports.” For what it’s worth, Toyota’s global boss, Akio Toyoda races a GRMN Yaris.

For now, Super Formula and IndyCar don’t have much in common beyond having served as homes for Alex Palou (above) and Pato O’Ward, but that could change with the arrival of both series’ new engine regulations. Yasushi Ishihara/Motorsport Images

Between GR and GRMN, I like these options more than all the others. If I were pulling the strings on the home front and had Toyota covered in stock cars and drag racing, and Lexus flying its flag in sports cars, IndyCar seems like a perfect place to promote a newer and emerging performance-themed line that would benefit from all the awareness a turbo hybrid engine would bring.

The bottom line is that while we now know it won’t be Toyota’s name on the cam covers of those 2.4-liter twin-turbo V6s, everything I continue to hear about this IndyCar engine project says it’s moving forward, with that 2024 entry date, and with one of its smaller auto divisions as the brand put forth to market and promote while taking on Chevy and Honda.

From a technical standpoint, there’s another interesting wrinkle as I’ve heard from a few sources that the Toyota mothership in Japan is the driver behind the IndyCar engine supply idea, and it has ties to its involvement in the Japanese Super Formula series.

Starting in 2019, Honda and Toyota have supplied their home open-wheel racing series (that produced reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou) with inline 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo mills, and while there have been no formal announcements of a new Super Formula engine package being introduced, it’s believed something bigger and more powerful is in the works for 2024.

Whether it’s commissioning a new 2.4-liter turbo V6 hybrid IndyCar motor that could also be used as a new Super Formula engine minus the ERS, or commissioning a new Super Formula motor that could be repurposed in IndyCar with the spec ERS units added on, I’m told there’s direct linkage where one engine would serve the two domestic series.

Outside of TRD recently hiring Tom German, the multiple Indy 500-winning race engineer and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s IndyCar technical director through the 2021 season, there have been other indicators of Toyota-related IndyCar engine activity, as multiple teams are known to be jockeying for top status with the company if and when it confirms its IndyCar plans.

The factory Vasser Sullivan Lexus IMSA GT team is often mentioned as an obvious partner by every person who mentions the Toyota/Lexus/Ranz/GRMN/ABCDEFG program. And elsewhere in the paddock, it’s safe to assume any IndyCar team that does not feel like it’s the most important partner of Chevy or Honda has been on the phone to the company. I’ve heard of two teams, in particular, that would be ripe for leading the third manufacturer’s charge.

The reason the Indianapolis 500 has been limited with no more than 36 entries over the last decade is because of the vast cost and extreme staffing associated with Chevy and Honda splitting the field at roughly 18 cars apiece. With a third supplier, all manner of options are possible to push that figure to 40 and beyond. The same goes for full-season entries, which have hovered in the 22-26 range, but could easily swell to 30 or more if the supply responsibility was shared three ways. No wonder Chevy and Honda have been publicly lobbying for years to have another manufacturer to join them in IndyCar.

And if that isn’t enough future-minded fun for you, I’ve recently heard another engine supplier is aiming to join in 2026. Where that has the potential to be rather interesting is the timing of Formula 1’s new engine formula which debuts… in 2026. F1’s hybrid turbo V6 regulations are different in all kinds of significant ways from IndyCar’s hybrid turbo V6 layout, but if the timing is more than coincidental, one of the current or potential manufacturers coming to F1 in a few years’ time could have both series in mind.

So, once again, not Toyota, but ‘Toyota’ is where IndyCar’s best short-term chances are found. If we’re lucky and nothing brings a halt to its plans, formal confirmation should come before the end of the year and the racing gods will bless IndyCar with a new brand to unleash momentous growth.

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