Will IndyCar's new hybrids attract more manufacturers?

It was a day of days on Sunday. After 945 fruitless sunrises, seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton awoke and won a grand prix for the first time since 2021. Hours later, Pato O’Ward, IndyCar’s most popular driver, led the field to the checkered flag for the first time in 715 days, ending a winless streak dating back to 2022.

And at the same event, IndyCar crossed an important developmental finish line of its own. Exactly 1,802 days after the series announced in 2019 that it would shift to hybrid powertrains, it finally raced them.

Joining the likes of F1, IMSA and the WRC as a championship with a combination of internal combustion engines (ICE) and battery-based energy recovery systems (ERS), IndyCar is hoping the launch of its hybrid era will spur newfound interest among auto manufacturers and tech companies to join its series.

Its vast history includes all manner of innovative engine solutions in the 1900s ranging from early racing diesels to jet turbine propulsion and even a few twin-engine cars. But the new marriage of small and powerful 700-plus-horsepower turbo V6 engine with electricity-generating motors, giving IndyCar drivers an extra 60-horsepower kick, is a first for America’s defining open-wheel racing series.

Marcus Ericsson, the five-year F1 veteran who joined IndyCar in 2019 and won the Indianapolis 500 in 2022, has more hybrid experience than most in the series and raced his way to fifth place on Sunday at the Mid-Ohio road course set in the center of the Buckeye state.

“I think IndyCar should get some credit,” Ericsson told ESPN. “I think me and many others, we were worried about introducing the hybrids midseason in a hectic schedule, but all cars finished the race, and that’s very impressive. From the driving perspective, it’s very different to what I’ve driven before, because it’s a lot more manual. When I was in Formula One, the hybrid was always very automated into the combustion engine so you didn’t really think that you had a hybrid. It was very engineer driven; they optimized the settings of the hybrid system and there is very little that the driver can do with inputs.

“Whereas in IndyCar, they made it so the system is automated in some ways, but it’s a lot more manual, so you as a driver can change a lot of settings on how much the hybrid is regenerating under braking, or off throttle, or whatever you want it to do when it regens. You can always change those settings, which was quite fun, because it’s another tool to balance your car. Depending on how you set that up, how you use it in braking zones, it really changes the way the car behaves. As drivers, we always want more control, and this hybrid lets us have it.”

Although it was by no means the first domestic championship to embrace hybridization, the timing of IndyCar’s switch was an important change for its current and potential future manufacturers.

Supported by General Motors’ Chevrolet brand and by Honda, who supply the field of 27 Indy cars with the ICE and the ERS, the oft-delayed process to go hybrid was a necessity for the series as it sought to add some of the technological relevance it was lacking. With the first race completed, American Honda Motor Company motorsports manager Chuck Schifsky said the company was pleased with the on-track product.

“The first race of this hybrid electrified era was very much a success,” he told ESPN. “I think the best part about it was the weekend itself. The race was wonderful. Lot of fans at Mid-Ohio, a lot of interest in the hybrid, and the racing was spectacular. Honda didn’t win, but … we heard from several of the drivers in their interviews afterwards, and in some of the conversations I had with them, that they love to have another type of technology to play around with in the cockpit, another tool they could use to their advantage. I think it was overall a success, and we were very, very pleased to see that happen.”

Along with Chevy, Honda’s powertrain supply contract with IndyCar runs through the 2026 season. Migrating to hybrids came after years of requests to incorporate some form of ERS by Honda, and with the conversion complete, the series is on the clock to try to secure an extension with the American arm of the Japanese brand, and with GM, and to sign at least one more manufacturer to share in supplying the grid.

“Honda feels that fans will find this as another thing to for them to think about, watch and experience, especially as they watch their favorite driver and how they use the system,” Schifsky added. “For us, we were eager to have the hybrid in IndyCar because we wanted to race what we sell, which is hybrids and electrified vehicles, and line those two up for the benefit of the fans.

“Basically, every automaker is selling some type of electrified vehicle, so having electrified IndyCars certainly helps as IndyCar goes out and talks to other manufacturers and tries to entice them to come into the series. The electrified IndyCar lines up with electrified vehicles they’re selling. It helps position IndyCar as an even higher-tech, more advanced form of racing, and we think that it’s one that could very well help to bring other automakers in.”

The implementation of IndyCar’s ERS wasn’t flawless, but expecting perfection for the rollout of any major new technology would have been unrealistic. Among the 27 entries, two were known to have been struck with ERS problems in the race, starting with six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, whose car stalled and died while preparing to take the start of the 80-lap race.

He’d lose 22 laps while the problem was resolved and eventually joined the race in progress. Elsewhere in the field, Rinus VeeKay’s ERS battery was reluctant to charge, which hampered his performance, but the fact that none of the 27 drivers fell out of the race for any reason — including hybrid failures — defied all expectations.

“From a technological introduction perspective, this could be one of the more successful ones in motorsports history,” said IndyCar president Jay Frye. “Chevrolet and Honda and a bunch of companies were phenomenal partners in this whole project. So many people were involved, and we’re just getting started. There’s way more to go and there’s way more to come, but for a launch for something as involved as a hybrid, we cannot be more pleased with the outcome. Everybody pitched in, and everybody should be proud.”

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