“Hybrids? We don’t need no stinkin’ Hybrids!”
That sentiment, blatantly stolen from the Mel Brooks hit “Blazing Saddles” , summed up how many people connected with the Indycar series felt about opening up the engine formula to hybridization. That included most team owners, engine manufacturers, drivers, and fans. At one time it included me.
It was a perfectly defensible attitude in 2012 when the current 2.2-liter turbocharged engine formula debuted. It was perfectly defensible two years ago when Indycar, Honda, and Chevy decided that the next engine formula would be a 2.4-liter turbocharged V6. That was done to keep costs down while increasing power and performance. Admirable goals that seemed reasonable at the time.
Like a lot of things, shunning hybrids in Indycar was defensible … until it wasn’t.
Whether anyone in the Indycar offices realizes it or not, that day for Indycar came during the weekend of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. Sometime that weekend Indycar’s long-rumored wooing of Porsche came to an end. In case you missed it, Porsche told Indycar that it would not compete in the series UNLESS Indycar went to a hybrid formula.
The reasons for Porsche’s decision make all kinds of sense. In case you have not noticed, everyone is developing hybrid drivetrains, all-electric drivetrains, and fuel cell drivetrains for their future cars. It is the future and automakers are loathe to commit untold development millions on any racing series that does not yield results applicable to the coming alternative powertrains. And there is nothing about the 2.4-liter plan that is forward looking.
This is just the most obvious reason for Indycar to drop the present powerplant and move toward hybridization NOW . The weight of world developments is going against Indycar’s “ FAST and LOUD” montra. And very soon, there will be no room for automotive racing series that eschew what carmakers call “relevant” formulas. Read on. It only gets worse.
What are other series doing?
It is widely known that IMSA (US Sportscar racing series) is moving towards a new top-level DPi specification for the 2022 season. That formula will be a version of the current engine formula with a hybrid element. It could be announced as early as August, 2019, when IMSA does its “State of the Series” event at Road America. Who participates in that series? None other than GM (as Cadillac) and Honda (as Acura), among others. It’s been widely reported that nine OEM manufactures are participating in those talks. Ford hinted strongly at Le Mans that they are climbing on board Dpi as well. The idea is to produce a cost-effective formula with “relevance”. Both DTM and Super GT are exploring hybrid formulas for the same 2022 season.
At Le Mans, the FIA and ACO (who jointly sanction the WEC ) confirmed the hybrid “Hypercar” formula. Other sportscar communities are exploring hybrids for their GT platforms beginning in roughly the same timeframe. The FIA and ACO will begin allowing fuel cell vehicles to compete in 2024. All the garages at Le Mans are being renovated in the meantime, and all of them will support the distribution of Hydrogen fuel.
Even NASCAR , safe harbor for Luddites of automotive engineering, is discussing moving to some kind of hybrid formula in the 2022-to-2025 timeframe.
What are Indycar’s plans, again?
As things stand in mid-June, 2019, Indycar’s plan is to introduce a new 2.4-liter twin-turbo V6 in the OLD 2012-spec Dallara Chassis for the 2021 season. So the engines must be approximately the same size and weight as the current engine. Then in 2022, a new chassis would be introduced, presumably manufactured by Dallara. This would give the teams the ability to phase their investment over two seasons: new Installation packages for 2021, followed by new cars for 2022.
The series (as well as Honda and Chevy) hoped that this reasoned approach would attract at least one more engine manufacturer. But there are signs that this will not be the case. It was widely rumored, to the point where it was expected, that Indycar would announce a third manufacturer on Carb Day at Indy 2019. Instead, we got “crickets”. The rumor now is that they have one OEM that will join if they move to Hybrids (Porsche), and a potential fourth that will join if the third manufacturer joins.
I know of no one willing to join Honda and Chevy in competing with a 2.4-liter Turbo v6. No one. So while series that are talking Hybrids are getting more interest from car companies (its even been rumored that Honda might be interested in NASCAR if they add Hybrids to the formula), there has been no one beating a path to Indycar’s door to do “ FAST and LOUD”.
Indycar’s Choice: Grow with Hybrids or die with FAST and LOUD
Is that kind of Rash? Life or death for a series that has been around in one form or another for more than 50 years? Let me explain the simple options and their not-so-obvious consequences.
Alternative 1: Call timeout on the 2021/2022 process and re-evaluate the powerplant options, with the idea of moving to a hybrid powerplant for 2022 or even 2023.
They need to look no further that the offices of one of their current partners to find reasons to do this:
“With the world rapidly changing, with electrification being one of the legitimate ways to have a future sustainable society, how can racing continue to lead, because we’re always at the pointy end of things? We have a responsibility to challenge, not only to go fast but to give back to the future.”
Who said that? None other than Ted Klaus, the head of Honda Performance Development, which handles the Honda Indycar program from design and manufacturing to service and support. That statement was clear enough, but he went on:
“In general, just so you all understand, as a corporation at Honda, we’ve wanted to race an electrified sports car ever since we were imagining the original NSX . … We have to find the balance between the economics of doing such a thing and then building that bridge to the future.”
Alternative 2: Go ahead with the FAST and LOUD plan as is, knowing that there is now very little chance of attracting a new manufacturer with a continuation of the old formula.
The advantages? It’s cheaper. Ilmor (Chevy’s partner) and HPD have been working on designs for the engines since last October (when the rules were finalized). The plan as I understand it is to begin track testing the engines this winter and have them ready for full field tests next winter ahead of introduction in 2021. If Indycar changes course now, that throws a big ol’ spanner into the works.
Potential implications: Automotive Industry
At this point, you may be thinking that staying with the original plan might not be such a risky thing. At worst, the series will stay the same. Then by, say, 2028, Indycar could move onto truly relevant technology, perhaps even fuel cell cars.
While doing nothing is often seen as safe, sometimes it is the most risky decision you can make. This is one of those times.
First, the idea that you could have another new formula in 2028-2029 runs against Indycar’s recent history with Specs and Formulas. The present 2012 spec was supposed to last FIVE SEASONS . 2020 would be the ninth season, and having a new formula in 2021 is no sure thing. Neither is replacing or updating it in the later 2020s.
Going beyond that, it does not recognize that technology in the automotive business is moving very fast. And there is not guarantee that either Honda or Chevy will stick it out with the FAST and LOUD formula. In fact, you could say that automotive tech is moving along two timelines. The first is what is apparent to us as observers, circa 2019. With that reference, it is hard to see what the rush is. The second is the world five or six years out.
Automotive engineers don’t work in the world we see now, where hybrid and electric technology commands less than 10% of US new car market share. They are working in the anticipated world of 2023 or 2024. They see a world that has reached at least one tipping point. A world where this is no price difference between hybrid and non-hybrid from a purchase price perspective. In that world, it’s very reasonable to assume 30% or more of the new car market will be electrified in some manner.
In the course of its Indycar involvement, Honda has garnered some engine technology from the Indycar project and applied it to engines we can buy in a showroom this afternoon. HPD staff often speak of combustion chamber design, engine management, etc. But in the future, it’s harder to see where the “ FAST and LOUD” tech would have much relevance (there’s that word) in the 2025 timeline.
In a nutshell, this is why Indycar is having trouble selling “ FAST and LOUD” to potential new OEMs.
Potential implications: How Indycar and its teams will (or won’t) do business
The Automotive consequences of this are serious enough. The business consequences are more along the lines of life and death for Indycar, its teams and its other stakeholders. For this I am leaning on real world experience as a business development manager for a large corporation.
Imagine it is 2022. You are in business development for an Indycar racing team. Imagine you are calling on a qualified potential sponsor and you are meeting the president of the company, who happens to be a amateur sports car driver. And other divisions of the company sponsor motor sports. The numbers you have talked about ($5-to-$7 million a season) did not scare the potential client off. And the president of the company invited you to the corporate headquarters to present your program to his marketing and sponsorship committee.
You drive up to the corporate campus and park under what looks like a canopy. Soon you realize it is a solar array the size of a 300-car parking lot. You walk towards the building entrance and you see that there are 10 charging stations for various brands of electric cars.
As you look at the building you see an interesting architectural feature at the point where the top of the glass wall of the office building meets the roof. They look like drums, and they are spinning.
You enter the lobby and check in. Behind the greeter is a 10-foot by 30-foot LCD display which, among other things, celebrates that company’s commitment to sustainability. While you are waiting, you notice that the first few pages of the company’s glossy annual report has a piece about the US subsidiary’s commitment to sustainability, with a photo of the president plugging in his car to one of the charging stations you just walked past.
Your escort arrives and takes you up a couple floors in the glass elevators. As you are walk out of the elevator, you see two warehouses that have not only solar cells on the roof, but also more of the horizontal revolving drums you saw on the main office building. Your escort tells you those drums are horizontal windmills. Part of the sustainable energy program.
At this point the trip is looking less and less sustainable with every step toward the meeting room. In your bag is a laptop with your presentation. Since that presentation leans on a mantra of “ FAST and LOUD”, how confident would you be of landing that multi-million dollar multi-year sponsorship? How do you feel about your chances if you know that this company is also talking to an IMSA team about a sponsorship for a DPi car that has a hybrid element?
The answer is obvious, and that answer isn’t good for you or the future of the series.
Wait a minute! How common is it to run into a company like that?
It’s more common than you think. The company I described above is a real company. In this country. The canopies with solar cells? They have been in place since 2017. The dedication to sustainability has been in this company’s annual report since 2015. The re-charging stations exist now. There are plans for 40 more by 2022. The windmills are planned but do not yet exist. The LCD screen is in development and the wall is ready for it as is the sustainability animation.
You would recognize this company’s name.
This is the true threat to Indycar if it goes forward with its “ FAST and LOUD” plans. Not only would Indycar be out of step with the automotive industry, it would be out of step with corporate America. And make no mistake, it is corporate America which pays the bills in Indycar.
In short, staying with the “ FAST and LOUD” formula for even a day past 2022 is PROFOUNDLY INSANE . Switching to a hybrid formula is a necessity for the long term health of the sport and its participants.
IF they don’t, Indycar will die a death that will happen faster than any of us realize. But it won’t be very loud.
NEXT WEEK: We’ll talk about how Indycar can move to a Hybrid formula. And why the oval problem is Indycar’s biggest opportunity.