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PRUETT: Time for a rethink on how IndyCar, IMSA approach hybridization

The auto industry finds itself in an awkward transitional phase. And in its push-pull relationship with motor racing, its technological identity crisis is wreaking havoc on the sport’s ability to plan for the future.

While we don’t know what the immediate future holds for relevant engine technology, we’re firmly aware changes are coming with how our cars, trucks and SUVs are going to be powered. What will a visit to the showroom floor look like five years from now?

Will your next showroom purchase feature a naturally-aspirated internal combustion engine (ICE), a small-displacement turbocharged hybrid that makes use of an ICE with electric assistance, or will it be something fully electric? And where does hydrogen propulsion fall on future timelines? Do hybrids have a meaningful lifespan ahead, or are they close to being phased out?

The same questions you’ll face at the dealership in the coming years is currently being felt by some of your favorite racing series as the rapidly-changing needs of that auto industry make writing the rules for 2022 and beyond an act better done in chalk than stone.

Consider IndyCar’s regulatory whiplash since 2018 as a prime example of the auto industry’s shifting desires.

The series announced a new 2.4-liter twin-turbo V6 engine formula in May of 2018. Other than moving to a slightly larger displacement for its ICE specifications for 2021, hybridization was nowhere to be found in the rules it created with direct input from Chevrolet and Honda. One year later, in May of 2019, an epic change was announced as the formula would now include a small, spec kinetic energy recovery system (KERS), and be pushed back to 2022.

Admittedly, IndyCar’s non-hybrid 2018 announcement felt strange as hybridization was a common piece of tech found in plenty of road cars. But Chevy and Honda representatives were adamant at the time that racing with hybrid powerplants wasn’t wanted or needed.

The message soon changed, and by the end of 2018, IndyCar was hurriedly working on a revised and hybridized 2022 formula in the background, once again using input from Chevy and Honda as their corporate objectives shifted in a pro-hybrid direction.

Of late, and even with a solid hybrid solution being developed by IndyCar for 2022, a new initiative is quietly afoot by at least one of IndyCar’s engine suppliers to eliminate the use of a spec KERS which, if adopted, would lead the series in its third regulatory direction change in three years.

With no promotional or educational value found in adding an electric horsepower system it can’t touch or modify, the newest desire is to open the electronic control side to give manufacturers a chance to demonstrate their expertise with extracting performance and efficiency with hybrid powertrains.

In feeling the effects of the auto industry’s evolving needs, IndyCar has gone from no hybrids to spec hybrids to, potentially, semi-unlocked hybrids in a span of 20 months. And we’re still 24 months away from when the new regulations will hit the track for pre-season testing. How many additional changes might we see before January of 2022 arrives?

Hybridization of IndyCar engines is still a couple of years away – plenty of time for the rules to change again

Hybridization of IndyCar engines is still a couple of years away – plenty of time for the rules to change again. Image by LAT

To IndyCar’s credit, its willingness to adapt to the latest tech and marketing goals of its manufacturers is exactly what the sport needs in this transitional time for the auto industry. The luxury of planning deep into the decade with unbending racing rules simply won’t be possible. Not until one form of technology, like the ICE represented for more than a century, is established as the clear winner adopted by the majority of manufacturers in the coming years.

IMSA was the first North American racing series to throw in with hybridization as a mandatory technology for its cars. Its predecessor, the American Le Mans Series, should be credited with opening the door to the subject.

Thanks to a largely forgotten entrant by the name of Steve Pruitt, whose Corsa Motorsports team fielded an LMP1 Zytek 07S powered by a 4.5-liter Zytek V8 with modest electric boost from a battery-based Zytek KERS system, the ALMS was first to deploy the technology.

Generating something in the range of 60 electric horsepower, the hybridized Zytek prototype made its debut at Lime Rock in 2009!

If you’re wondering why some manufacturers haven’t warmed to the idea to going hybrid in 2022, the nearly 13-year gap between its ALMS introduction and its pending arrival in DPi 2.0 might be driving the old-timey sentiment some brands have attached to its future introduction.

Not long after launching its Daytona Prototype international formula in 2017, former series president Scott Atherton took the first step forward in privately declaring IMSA’s intent to go hybrid in 2022 with its second-generation DPi regulations. By 2018, the hybrid DPi 2.0 concept was all but codified, despite facing significant pushback from a number of its manufacturers.

Although some DPi manufacturers were skeptical of the need for the same style of spec, low-power KERS units IndyCar would eventually pursue as well, IMSA remained vigilant. Ongoing efforts to espouse the benefits of going hybrid slowly won over some of the holdouts as DPi 2.0 steering committee meetings drew upwards of 10 brands to the table in 2019.

In a general sense, hybrid road cars were still a solid part of the sales and promotional programs for numerous manufacturers during those 2018 and 2019 talks, and some of the skeptics were swayed in IMSA’s favor.

Corsa Motorsports opened up the hybrid wormhole in 2009.

Corsa Motorsports opened up the hybrid wormhole in 2009. Image by Marshall Pruett

In time, especially through the early stages of 2019, more – but not all – from the anti-hybrid camp fell in line with the series’ view of the increased technical relevance for DPis in 2022. Some interested manufacturers who’d been sitting in on DPi 2.0 planning sessions were also supportive of hybridization.

And then that general feeling of goodwill and relevance attached to hybrids took a sharp turn for some who’d come to join the pro-hybrid lobby. The mood on hybridization began to sour for some of IMSA’s current DPi manufacturers, leaving the series with a curious problem to ponder. Some within the auto industry had, seemingly overnight, decided hybrids were canceled, and either committed to sticking with ICE or going full-electric with their next production cycles. Racing with a hybrid was not an option.

Like IndyCar, IMSA’s existing plan to require spec, low-powered hybrids no longer fits the times. Left unaltered, the 2022 DPis would bring hybrids into play for five years, meaning the technology would run through 2026 with zero changes. It’s akin to telling people they must ditch their latest iPhone 11s, revert to iPhone 7s, and use it into the second half of the next decade, all while ignoring the rest of the world as it jumps ahead to using iPhone 16s. To think IMSA’s manufacturers would welcome anything spec and untouchable two years from now, and then keep it for five more years, is pure fantasy.

Drawing back to IndyCar one last time, IMSA will need to follow a similar practice and heed the technology changes its manufacturers call for with DPi 2.0. It cannot bake today’s tech – or yesterday’s tech, in the case of hybridization – as must-use components into future regulations and expect the series to be viewed as relevant by large swaths of the auto industry.

The debate about where hybrids fit into future DPis is ongoing.

The debate about where hybrids fit into future DPis is ongoing. Image by Galstad/LAT

Removing the mandate on the KERS unit being spec, and allowing new technology to be deployed well before DPi 3.0 is expected to land in 2027, would give car makers more reasons to sign up for 2.0. Some brands have been loud and declarative about wanting hybrids, and that’s not a bad thing. For those who insist upon having it, their wishes should be honored. But the last thing IMSA needs is to tell manufacturers that, like it or not, entering DPi 2.0 requires being stuck with ageing tech at a time when the auto industry isn’t sure where it’s headed. Making hybridization optional might be the smartest play altogether.

On a final footnote that’s come to light in recent weeks, the disinterest some DPi manufacturers expressed towards hybridization through the latter portion of 2019 has, as I continue to hear, changed in the wake of convergence talks ramping up between IMSA, the ACO’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the FIA World Endurance Championship.

If you’d asked some of the key DPi players who are currently in the series, and those on the outside looking in, about their fondness for hybridization entering December, you’d have heard the same tune: at least in North America, forced hybridization was a show-stopper for some big brands.

That tune has changed, and sharply so, as the possibility of a unified set of top prototype rules builds momentum. With a chance to take DPi 2.0s to race at Le Mans, and other international WEC rounds, as the core feature of converged IMSA/ACO/WEC rules, breaking out of the American market to showcase hybridized prototypes has been warmly received by some of the holdouts. Racing at home with hybrids held limited appeal; the prospect of taking a hybrid DPi onto the world stage has changed the conversation.

Provided convergence comes to pass, IMSA could find itself with a nearly unanimous opinion among manufacturers on going hybrid two years from now with DPi. Pre-convergence talks cast significant doubt on gaining the buy-in IMSA needed to push DPi 2.0 through to the finish line, but that notion has, thankfully, changed dramatically in the last month.

The need for reactive technology changes hasn’t, however, and that’s why IMSA and IndyCar will be left in difficult positions to adapt and rewrite their respective rules while the auto industry hunts for a long, straight piece of road to follow.

Until manufacturers know where they’re going, IndyCar and IMSA can’t afford to to alienate the brands they serve by dictating which technologies they must employ. For the foreseeable future, it’s time to listen and act.

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