Why IndyCar’s engine backtracking is causing widespread frustration

There are so many reasons to get excited about the 2023 IndyCar season, and we’ve outlined the potential exciting and intriguing storylines here. But there’s another reason IndyCar and its supporters need to thoroughly absorb this year; It can help distract from the series fumbling and stumbling about the launch of its next engine formula.

Let’s recap. On the eve of last year’s season opener in St. Petersburg, IndyCar announced that the 2.4-liter with hybrid formula has been pushed back to 2024. Of course, we understood that hybrid power unit maker Mahle was struggling with global supply chain issues – hey, this was predicted across many automotive-related industries in 2018-19 and was greatly exacerbated by COVID-related production issues. It seemed a little late in the day for an announcement – just 12 months before the new engines and their hybrid units were due to make their race debut, but… OK.

On March 28, just 25 days later, both Honda (in a Chip Ganassi Racing car driven by Scott Dixon) and Chevrolet (in a Team Penske machine shared by Will Power and Josef Newgarden) tested their 2.4 -liter cars – sans their hybrid power units – on a rarely used configuration of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway street course. Even without the hybrid’s excess electric boost, and with engines not yet optimized, these angry-sounding engines put out over 100 horsepower more than the current 2.2s.

Then, over the summer, there were “no comment” — or “ask IndyCar about it” — responses from HPD and Chevy folks when asked about the planned first test of their 2.4s with the hybrid component added. It turned out that there was more and more urgent discussion behind the scenes that the Mahle design might not be suitable for extreme use – i.e. in racing – and Chevy and Honda became very restless.

Autosport knows on good authority that faced with this issue, Chevrolet wanted to delay the introduction of hybrid power units and push the 2.4-liter engines for 2024 given 1) their performance advantage over the 2.2s and 2) the fact that Chevrolet/Ilmor – and presumably Honda Performance Development – had invested millions of dollars and two years developing these larger engines.

But HPD, after consulting Honda Japan, said no. In order for IndyCar to become relevant to their road cars, increasing the capacity of internal combustion engines was far less of a priority than introducing hybrid power units. Put the 2.4 ICE on hold and let’s work with Chevrolet and an alternative outside supplier to develop a hybrid unit with new specifications.

The 2.4-liter engines were tested at IMS last year, but without hybrid aggregates. Now they’ve been paused, with hybrids being added to the existing 2.2-litre engines

Photo by: Honda Racing

On December 6th, IndyCar issued a press release talking about the launch of Shell’s 100% renewable fuel in 2023 – very impressive – and Firestone, the rubber made from guayule, a biocircular material from the woody desert shrub, for everyone street racing used. Very worthy again. The third disclosure point seemed “sideline” but was understandably the focus of most IndyCar correspondents. The series would stick to the proven 2.2-litre engines when introducing hybrids for 2024, and development of the 2.4s was ‘paused’.

One angry engineer told Autosport: “Obviously the 2.4s had to be paused: the next 12 months is about making sure we both develop an alternative hybrid unit that doesn’t embarrass us at St Pete in March 2024. It’s sooo frustrating.

“I don’t know why it took so long for IndyCar to start ringing alarm bells that the hybrid power unit we had before just didn’t work anymore. I think if they had admitted that sooner we might have found a solution that didn’t involve tracing. With more lead time we may have – and I stress ‘can’ because supply chain issues were very real – we may have found an alternative hybrid supplier and could be running the 2.4s next year.”

10 years after Formula 1, we will only progress with hybrids. I can only imagine how we are perceived from the outside

A senior spokesman for the other manufacturer said: “It’s just sad that we as OEMs and the series as a whole have been forced to fix an issue rather than generate an entirely positive narrative for 2024: ‘Here are our new engines, here are the hybrid units”.

“Everyone would have forgiven us for postponing the new formula until 2024 if we had kept what we promised – more powerful engines and hybrid power suitable for road cars. Instead, 10 years after Formula 1, we will only advance with hybrids. I can only imagine how we are perceived from the outside.”

When the green flag drops in St. Pete, and throughout the year at IndyCar’s wonderfully diverse circuits, the excitement of the series’ next performance formula will give way to the excitement generated by the on-track action. IndyCar has produced some of the best motorsport action of the past decade, and its 2020 acquisition by Penske has generated far more hits than misses. There is a sense of direction, signs of prosperity and not just survival.

Insight: Who Needs a Big Year in IndyCar 2023?

But I hope that while IndyCar’s perhaps mythical “third engine builder” does its due diligence, it doesn’t delve too deeply into how the series handled its move to the next formula. Also, hope the folks in Detroit and Tokyo who wrote the checks for the current OEM participation in IndyCar will be of a lenient nature when it’s next time to commit.

The on-track product should provide enough distraction from backtracking, but key stakeholders were irritated by the experience

The on-track product should provide enough distraction from backtracking, but key stakeholders were irritated by the experience

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

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