INSIGHT: Supplier challenges put squeeze on IndyCar’s 2023 hybrid testing plans

Michael Levitt/Lumen Digital Agency

INSIGHT: Supplier challenges put squeeze on IndyCar’s 2023 hybrid testing plans

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Supplier challenges put squeeze on IndyCar’s 2023 hybrid testing plans

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The good news is Chevy and Honda are ready to take their brand-new 2023 NTT IndyCar Series engines to the racetrack for their first test. The not-so-good news is more supply delays with key areas of the 2023 technology package — all unrelated to the Chevy and Honda engines — have led the series and its manufacturers to cancel the test that was planned after the February 25-27 season opener at St. Petersburg.

Scheduled for March 2-3 at Sebring International Raceway, the auto manufacturers nominated one of their partner teams to make the short drive from St. Pete to the home of the popular 12-hour endurance race but, on Thursday, the call was made to postpone the test due to component supply constraints. It’s believed an early April visit to Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama will now serve as the maiden outing for the more powerful engines.

One Dallara DW12 chassis carrying a new 2.4-liter twin-turbo V6 engine from Chevy, and a second with Honda’s 2.4L TTV6 are meant to be put through the paces during the Barber test, which will be followed by more tests on road courses and ovals throughout the year. The heavily modified DW12s are outfitted with new radiator ducting, larger radiators, new fuel cells and fuel pumps, and other alterations that are specific to IndyCar’s 2023 formula.

Chevy and Honda have not disclosed which teams they’ve selected for the first track test, which comes after months of sustained testing and tuning in their respective dyno cells. Nonetheless, it’s believed Team Penske and Arrow McLaren SP are on the early testing docket for Chevy, and Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing are in Honda Performance Development’s initial testing rotation.

IndyCar set an expectation for the new energy recovery system (ERS) made by Germany’s MAHLE to be ready for testing at some point during the first quarter of 2022; that date became the March 2-3 outing scheduled in Florida. But RACER has learned of another delay with the 100hp ERS devices that were meant to be track testing in approximately two weeks’ time. Sources say the earliest anticipated arrival of the first ERS prototypes has been pushed to the middle of June. Unfortunately, the latest ERS delay is not the only supply chain issue affecting the series’ ability to sufficiently prepare for 2023.

Designed to work in concert with MAHLE’s ERS units, IndyCar commissioned Xtrac to produce lighter and significantly revised versions of the DW12’s existing six-speed transmission. Like the ERS devices, prototypes of the 2023-spec gearboxes were intended to be used in the March 2-3 test where the full hybrid powertrain would debut. However, a production delay in the conversion from aluminum to magnesium for the transmission casing and covers, along with a possible switch from pneumatic to electric shifting actuation, came with an anticipated delivery window in April.

In concert with the ERS units, delivery expectations for the Xtrac prototypes have also slid to an undefined point in June. Further complications have also been encountered with IndyCar’s switch from the current mechanical fuel pump system — found within the DW12’s existing fuel bladder — to a new electric fuel pump system supplied by Italy’s Magneti Marelli which works within a new 2023 fuel bladder design.

The most common fueling solution in open-wheel racing involves the use of a rubberized fuel bladder placed in the void created behind the driver and the rear firewall where the engines mate to the chassis. Within those fuel bladders, fuel pumps are placed at the bottom — fully immersed in fuel — where they deliver the combustible liquid to their engines. Since 2012, the Dallara DW12 and the 2.2-liter motors have used mechanical pumps.

IndyCar teams, like Takuma Sato in his new DCR with RWR Honda, have put in plenty of laps this month in 2022 spec but putting the pieces in place to prepare beyond that has proved more problematic. Michael Levitt/Lumen Digital Agency

In preparation for Sebring, the new electric pumps and new fuel bladders were duly fitted to the test cars, but a troublesome discovery was made during installation testing as a sealing issue arose while the electronic pumps were submerged in fuel. With fuel breaching the pumps’ outer casings, the units failed.

RACER understands that reverting back to the 2.2-liter mechanical pump system and fuel bladder is not an option as a workaround, and as a result, the engine manufacturers devised temporary mechanical pump solutions of their own in order to do the March 2-3 test. It’s believed that updated Magneti Marelli electric pumps were going to be flown to Florida for the teams to fit and try during the shakedown, but with the test’s postponement until April, Chevy and Honda should have adequate time to test the pumps in a shop environment and confirm their ability to function as originally intended.

Where missing the March 2-3 rollout for the ERS units and the lightened gearboxes has significant ramifications is found in the pacing of IndyCar’s 17-round championship.

Nearly a month of racing inactivity between St. Petersburg and Round 2 in Texas on March 20 offered the series and manufacturers a perfect opportunity to conduct initial testing with the full 2023 technology package before the schedule becomes increasingly busy. After Texas, the series holds a race in California, hosts Indy 500 testing, and puts on another race at Barber between April 10 and May 1.

And with May’s traditionally demanding schedule with a race on the IMS road course followed by intensive practice and qualifying leading into the Indy 500, plus two consecutive weekends of racing after Indy in June at Detroit and Road America, getting a late start with the testing of critical components — at the halfway point of the racing season — poses a serious challenge for Chevy and Honda teams to accommodate.

Outside of a three-week break after Road America, IndyCar teams will compete in nine events in a span of 11 weekends from July 3 to September 11. In light of missing the important outings early in the year, adding in extra ERS and transmission tests to try and make up for lost time during the summer months might not be possible.

On a positive note, and thanks to the readiness of Chevy and Honda, the new 2.4-liter engines should log plenty of mileage once testing starts in April and there’s no question as to whether they will be ready to race next year.

Another consideration to factor in is where the first ERS and revised transmission tests would happen on the calendar. As one would expect with any brand-new or significantly altered form of motor racing technology, bugs, glitches, and failures are the norm. Finding and exposing those shortcomings through track testing is a vital part of the development process before they’re fixed and finalized for mass production and use in competition.

Given the option, learning of those issues in March would definitely be preferred over June, or later, where time to react to problems is increasingly limited.

All involved parties are fully aware that the delays encountered so far, which have been heavily attributed to the global shortages in labor and materials due to COVID-19, might not be the last. RACER has learned that as a result of the continual supply chain delays with major components, at least one of the engine manufacturers is actively lobbying IndyCar to delay the entire 2023 hybrid package until 2024.

If the request, which is said to have been made on multiple occasions, is accepted, the series has been asked to shift strategies and continue using the current 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6s through 2023. The reasoning behind the desired 2024 move is said to give the series and its manufacturers more than enough time to absorb any new delays while readying the 2024 package without placing undue stress on teams and their personnel.

RACER understands the series would not make a unilateral decision on staying with 2023 or pushing to 2024. It means the next step in the process is for its auto manufacturers to make a determination among themselves and present IndyCar with their preference.

And somewhere in the middle of the “2023 or 2024” debate is the possibility of a third manufacturer entering the picture. Through one of its sub-brands, Toyota is known to hold significant interest in becoming IndyCar’s third engine supplier but its 2.4-liter TTV6s would not be ready to go until 2024. This, too, could weigh heavily in IndyCar’s final decision.

The new hybrid era for IndyCar is coming. It’s just a question of which timeline for introduction is best for its current and future manufacturers, and its teams.

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