PRUETT: IndyCar's hybrid delay is the right call

Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: IndyCar's hybrid delay is the right call

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: IndyCar's hybrid delay is the right call

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IndyCar made the right call to delay its new hybrid powertrains until 2024. The decision was born out of necessity rather than desire, and comes with a few inescapable negatives, which is often the case when delays are involved.

Overall, the one-year postponement had to be made to safeguard the series’ short- and long-term future. Beset with constant delays with the major components that will complement the new internal combustion engines made by Chevy and Honda, holding firm to the 2023 introduction timeline became too great a gamble. Any additional delays meant IndyCar would run the risk of sitting idle with incomplete power units, unable to run its 2023 championship unless an immediate decision to postpone the hybrids was taken.

For the sake of the series’ team owners, their sponsors, and all the important members of the IndyCar community, this shift to 2024 had to happen. Behind the scenes in recent weeks, mounting pressure to act was building, and by the middle of last month, I’d heard a change of plans was inevitable.

At the frequent urging of Chevrolet, and a late and somewhat begrudging agreement from Honda, all parties reached a consensus leading into last weekend’s St. Petersburg race. Finally, the two auto manufacturers came together and gave IndyCar the green light to move off 2023 as the year for hybrid introduction. It buys everyone an extra 12 months of deadline relief that should ensure the new era launches in a proper manner.

To preserve the 2023 season, IndyCar, Chevy, and Honda turned their attention towards keeping the existing 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6s in rotation for one more year. Think of it as an insurance policy. Thanks to the long production windows required to keep the 2.2s going, the manufacturers told IndyCar that if they wanted to have motors next year, they’d need an official decision on the delay by the end of February.

And so here we are, with parts commissioned for the 2.2s so they can be rebuilt and ready to go for ongoing service once the offseason arrives, and a plan for the manufacturers to start testing the 2.4-liter twin-turbo V6s in the background as they wait for the rest of the hybrid package to materialize. Testing fires off on March 30-31 in Sebring.

We chronicled on a few occasions how the rest of the hybrid drivetrain, namely the energy recovery systems (ERS) and magnesium gearboxes, have been subject to major supply chain dramas where the series hopes they’ll arrive at some point in June. Rather than wait for the complete hybrid package to be assembled, IndyCar is letting Chevy and Honda start to put mileage on their new motors, and as the first MAHLE ERS units show up, and the lightweight Xtrac transmissions are received, they’ll be incorporated into future track tests.

The manufacturers budgeted for one year of 2.4-liter track testing, not two, so at some point, IndyCar will need to place an end date on the test programs so Chevy and Honda do not overspend and keep visiting road courses and ovals with the new powerplants well into 2023.

The delay has the support of both of IndyCar’s current manufacturers – and might help smooth the way for a third. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

When it comes to supply chain delays, the ERS and transmission components have been the central figures in the timeline slippage, but I continue to hear Chevy and Honda are facing similar issues on the engine side. Making something in the range of 40-50 2.4-liter motors to start – and bumping that number closer to 60 in time – would be expected for both brands. And with the global supply problems in mind, there’s been a few strong suggestions that if IndyCar went forward with the hybrids in 2023, its engine partners might struggle to provide more than 15 engine leases apiece. Each lease comes with four motors per car.

Offering to power 15 Chevy- or Honda-affiliated cars might not be a bad thing for the season-opening race, but at 30ish combined leases to offer, it would jeopardize filling the Indianapolis 500’s traditional field of 33 starters.

On every level, the delay is the right call being made at the right time.

As well, the shift to 2024 can only help IndyCar in its quest to land a third engine partner. There’s no new news to report on whether Toyota has signed on to build and badge 2.4-liter motors under the Gazoo Racing (GR) name, but as we’ve been reporting since September, the first opportunity for the brand to join the series is 2024 which, prior to the delay, meant it would be one year behind Chevy and Honda. If Roger Penske can get Toyota’s signature on a contract, the Japanese brand has a new opportunity to enter the series on equal footing with Chevy and Honda.

Had IndyCar’s plans gone uninterrupted, its hybrid powertrains would have debuted at the same time as IMSA’s new hybrid GTP cars in 2023. That’s two significant domestic series, embracing hybrids for the first time… at the same time. If there’s a positive here with the delay, at least they won’t cancel each other out in the marketplace. For IMSA and its growing fanbase, it has 2023 all to themselves to promote and celebrate its hybrid prototypes with no on-track opposition from IndyCar.

In fact, when we get to Long Beach and Detroit next year where IMSA is the co-headliner, the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s new GTP cars from Acura, BMW, Cadillac, and Porsche will be the only hybrids in action and the highest-tech cars in the show.

Once the primary 2.4-liter engine and ERS testing is complete by the end of the year, or early into 2023, IndyCar, Chevy, and Honda should have some interesting options to explore if they want to avoid losing out entirely to IMSA. Both 2024-spec Dallara DW12s are extensively modified for the testing program and are unlikely to be retrofitted to 2.2-liter specification, and if all three groups agree, the test cars could present opportunities to showcase the upcoming formula at marquee events next season.

Picture Chevy- and Honda-branded DW12s with compelling liveries touting the new-for-2024 technologies onboard, performing demo laps at St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Indianapolis, and other important stops on the calendar to showcase the more powerful engines and stout ERS systems. Consider it a preview tour, of sorts. How about having the two cars run a lap or two on camera right before the races and try something trick by pitting and going the length of pit lane in complete silence while using the ERS units to drive the rear wheels?

With 2023 serving as the new transition year to hybridization, IndyCar needs to come up with something to get its fans interested and educated about where it’s headed in the future. Parking the test cars for the year certainly isn’t the answer.

IndyCar has a free year on its hands as it hits the pause button in its ‘fast and loud’ formula and the promise of 900 combined horsepower. It has a lot to figure out between now and the first race of 2024, and if we’re lucky, the downsides of the delay will be forgotten and three manufacturers will fill the grid. Anything less will be a grand disappointment.

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