Q&A with IndyCar president Jay Frye on 2022 hybrids

David Malsher

The news that IndyCar will be pushing back its new engine regs by a year to allow Chevrolet and Honda to develop their products to work with a single-source hybrid unit – and hopefully attract more manufacturers – appears to be bringing the series more in-line with how OEMs wish to market their products within IndyCar. That, of course, remains in stark contrast to the ethos within NASCAR where manufacturers are marketing their brands.

At least until NASCAR introduces the Gen-7 rules, Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota are content to run bodywork shapes that are similar to each other but which bear hardly a passing resemblance to the cars they represent. Certainly the vehicles we see in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series belie the decals Mustang, Camaro and Camry. For that matter, it appears to matter not a damn that there is (sadly) no such thing as a V8 rear-wheel-drive Camry streetcar, something which Toyota could pretend benefited from the considerable work done by Toyota Racing Development and Joe Gibbs Racing. So NASCAR is all about the tribal one-upmanship battle between the Blue Oval, the Bowtie and the, er…Three Ellipses, much as Supercars down under thrives on the Holden vs. Ford rivalry.

Such brand competition exists in IndyCar, too, but in this case the marketing efforts of both Chevrolet and Honda runs deeper, emphasizing that there is a great deal of knowledge about small-capacity direct-injection turbocharged engines that can be learned from an OEM’s efforts on the racetrack and transferred to their streetcar divisions. Adding a hybrid unit to the powertrain in the near future would appear to make IndyCar engine specs yet more roadcar relevant. For a manufacturer’s marketing department, that’s important now that society no longer regards hybrid streetcars as simply for those who feel they must be seen to be green or for the high-mileage drivers who want to save a lot of gas. Two decades into the 21stcentury we live in an era where hybrid tech has been adopted by certain manufacturers – Honda/Acura, Lexus, Volvo, Porsche, Ferrari are obvious examples – as a genuine performance enhancer, but one which happens to have extra benefits such as improved fuel economy and greater refinement at low speed.

To digress a little, it’s worth pointing out here that IndyCar’s original plan for its next-gen engine – same architecture as the current one but increased in capacity to 2.4-liters – was already probably going to be enough to attract at least one more manufacturer. Although no one will go on the record with the story, it is Motorsport.com’s understanding that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was a long way down the road toward entering the series with the Alfa Romeo brand, when the abrupt retirement and shocking death of CEO Sergio Marchionne in July 2018 iced that idea.

Marchionne, a smart and decisive man who had a keen eye and a sharp blade for cutting loss-making projects had been convinced by the validity and structure of IndyCar’s five-year plan. But doubtless, too, he had recognized that with all three of Alfa Romeo’s U.S.-sold models (4C, Giulia and Stelvio) using small capacity turbocharged engines – and twin turbo in the case of the Quadrifoglio versions – the IndyCar engine regs would provide Alfa with one of those rare authenticmarketing tools.

Is roadcar relevancy hugely important to an IndyCar fan? That seems doubtful: we want to watch fast and sexy open-wheel cars steered by ace drivers who can be seen to be working hard at their craft, and we probably aren’t too fussy about how we reach that Valhalla. Will hybrid technology satiate the branch of IndyCar fans who have long lamented the spec car era and who have been crying out for more tech intrigue? Hmm… It may help, but the hybrid unit will be a spec part.

No, the most important aspect of these new regulations is that they should 1) provide IndyCar with better leverage when trying to entice more car manufacturers, and 2) provide an even more entertaining product, which should give IndyCar the chance to maintain its current fanbase while also hopefully luring in new viewers. The next breed of chassis will maintain the philosophy of less downforce (particularly from the top surfaces) while the new powertrains will see a big step up in horsepower, and a stronger and more instant delivery of torque and horsepower, thanks to the hybrid units. In addition, there will be circumstances when tiresome caution periods can be avoided because a driver with a stalled car can restart without the aid of the AMR Safety Team.

That’s the idea. Here IndyCar president Jay Frye reveals why and how it should work.

One of Frye's best attributes is regularly consulting with IndyCar team principals and paying heed to their thoughts, hopes and fears. Here he chats with Team Penske president Tim Cindric on pitlane at IMS.

One of Frye's best attributes is regularly consulting with IndyCar team principals and paying heed to their thoughts, hopes and fears. Here he chats with Team Penske president Tim Cindric on pitlane at IMS. Scott R LePage / LAT Images

Scott R LePage / LAT Images

DM: Is there any indication yet from Chevrolet and Honda as to the ideal engine capacity for the new powertrain? I assume that 2.4-liters, as per the original plan for the next-gen engines [announced in May 2018], is not necessarily the case now.

JF: We’ve come up with the criteria we’re looking for from the hybrid units in terms of the self-starter, the increased push-to-pass, and other things that we think the new powertrain can offer. We’ll examine what that looks like going forward, and then what implications that has on the internal combustion engine part of the powertrain. Could it remain the same size? Absolutely. Could it change? Yes, possibly.

We’ve been working on this route for the last six-to-eight months, maybe even a year, and today we drew the line in the sand and declared what we’re doing. We’ve created an RFP [request for proposal] of the type of thing we’re looking for when we talk to the suppliers and we feel good about our ideas. But we’re also aware that the technology is changing almost every day so by 2022 it could be a little different to how it looks right now.

So are you confident that this revision to the plan will open up more OEM doors?

Yes we are. Chevy and Honda have been very helpful throughout this process, this is hugely important to them, and if it’s important to them then hopefully it’s hugely important to other OEMs too. As you know, we speak to several OEMs regularly and treat their opinions like we treat those of our current manufacturers; we listen to them and respect what they say.

Well now I think we’re in a much better position for the future. What we’ve announced this week maintains our criteria which are about staying true to our roots – fast, loud, authentic and unapologetic – while also making the package more appealing to manufacturers who want to market their products on the back of participation in IndyCar.

Think about this technology going 240mph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway; that’s cool, that’s new, it hasn’t been done. Then the diversity of this series in terms of tracks will see this technology applied in a variety of disciplines. We think that too is appealing to OEMs.

There are still details to investigate and finalize but pushing this back to 2022 gives us the chance to come up with the best and fully-rounded product.

On that point, I’m impressed that it wasn’t delayed by more than a year. Clearly the current manufacturers, as well as IndyCar, are confident that they can create a very viable product pretty rapidly. I mean, on-track testing is probably only 20 months away…

Yeah, but we’ve done our due diligence in terms of time frame for investigating the starter part, the safety part, the push-to-pass part and some other ideas that are possible, so we’re confident that we will get it done. It’s now a case of doing it. We’re putting out an official formal RFP to parts suppliers who we’ve already been talking to and then there’s a process we’ll go through over the next 12 months to verify the best methodology for turning concepts into something real, the actual product.

What’s a realistic timeframe for another engine manufacturer to commit to IndyCar to ensure they’re in at the start of the new regulations – testing in 2021, racing in 2022?

Honestly, the first quarter of next year. A new OEM needs would be building their internal combustion engine from scratch and then need to integrate it with the hybrid component and hit the track at the same time as the Chevrolet and Honda. So that’s another reason to get these regulations announced now: it turns from talking about it privately to then making it concrete. By the fall, OEMs who are seriously considering entering IndyCar will want to be talking to us and confirming details and timelines and so on. Again, I should give credit to Honda and Chevrolet for being so helpful in guiding us regarding realistic timeframes.

More power, no reduction in noise, and no increase in downforce... The ideal sounds achievable.

More power, no reduction in noise, and no increase in downforce... The ideal sounds achievable. Gregg Feistman / LAT Images

Gregg Feistman / LAT Images

There are going to be some fans who look at what’s happened in Formula 1 in the hybrid era and start to worry, be that about rising costs hurting the teams, or how muted the cars sound now, or how tiered F1 has become. Mercedes hit the ground running in 2014 and no one has quite caught up despite this being the sixth season of the formula. IndyCar, on the other hand, has never been more competitive.

Well on that last point, you’re not comparing like with like there because obviously our hybrid system for all engines is coming from the same supplier. So the competitive balance which is great now should continue into the next era.

Regarding the sound, we made sure that our criteria to remain fast and loud was maintained and these new rules should enhance both of those aspects.

As for the cost implications for the teams, we do look at everything from a team perspective, including the economics. So like with the next-gen car, we look at parts that the teams agree can be made obsolete, parts that can be retained from this car to the next. It’s all part of the cadence that we go through, and we always talk to the teams when we have the facts and prices from suppliers so that we can inform them. And before that we’ll consult the team owners about costs, listen to their ideas, and we sometimes ask them about certain suppliers. It’s a very open forum to allow everyone to have their input before we make a decision.

People will ask about push to pass on ovals – something we discussed two years ago. Is that now a possibility? Or will the fact that there is almost no braking on ovals mean there is no regenerated energy for ‘creating’ push-to-pass?

Hmm, possibly… and we’ve tested it in a couple of places over the last two years, but the problem is more about when you turn it off – how does that work. Pushing it and getting it isn’t the problem; it’s what happens when you cut it – how does a driver manage it? Does it gradually shut off or does it shut off abruptly? If the second answer is true and that happens as you’re turning into a corner, that may not be good. I mean, could we look at it again? Absolutely. But there’s a lot involved, and to be honest we were looking at that at a time when we had too much downforce on the short ovals, particularly Phoenix where the cars were pretty much flat all the way around and so there wasn’t much passing. But we shelved it and we no longer see it as necessary: our short oval racing is good now with less downforce because there’s a much bigger gap between straightline speed and cornering speed.

Back when the new engine regs were first announced in May 2018, you stated the target of 900hp would be reached by the end of that era, which at that point was set to be 2026. With these latest engine regs, could we reach that figure right from the start of the era, in 2022?

Well, I think it will be close. The ultimate goal is 900 and I think these rules will accelerate us toward that – maybe we’ll be starting the next era at 880hp or something like that with push-to-pass. Until we get there, I don’t want to make firm predictions, and yeah, it may happen right out of the box; we just don’t know at this stage.

But it will be a big jump from current horsepower levels, and we’ll still be keeping the downforce levels low, so it will still be a very demanding car for the drivers. That was our original philosophy with this era of the car.

With the new engine arriving at the same time as the new chassis, does that mean the tests will see both the new car and the new engine testing simultaneously? Or will the summer of 2021 see a couple of development mules of a current car [DW12 with IR18 aerokit] testing with the next-gen engines? Will the next-gen powertrain fit in the current car?

Engine testing may or may not run simultaneously with 2022 car testing.

Engine testing may or may not run simultaneously with 2022 car testing. Phillip Abbott / LAT Images

Phillip Abbott / LAT Images

Well the next chassis is going to be an evolution of the current car, not a complete revolution. We like what we have, the fans were part of the process of getting what we have, and we think they also like it in terms of the racing, the look of the car, and so on. The safety enhancements we’ve added to this car mean they are… well, add-ons… so the new car would incorporate those enhancements, or develop them further and integrate them. They could be lightened but also strengthened – there’s technology developments and material solutions emerging all the time.

Also, if we look at the IR18 car we maybe only achieved 70 percent of our ‘ideal world’ aims when we started the project so the next car will be a chance to complete the remaining 30 percent. So like I say, the next car will be an evolution, not revolution.

But there’s also a cost element to be considered: what period of time do we spread these changes over? So over the next six months we’ll start coming up with a plan to ensure the economics are right for the teams. That’s very important.

First of all we need to test and clear the aeroscreen. Everything there is going great and over the next 30-60 days there should be pieces we can test with, and once that project is complete we will be full speed ahead with the 2022 car – which will of course be designed with the aeroscreen already integrated into the design. Anything we can do to use the existing piece and integrate it into the 2022 car, we will do that.

And all the teams firmly support the addition of hybrid power from 2022?

I certainly think so. We talked to them as a group back in May, they understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, and there seemed to be great enthusiasm for it.