What IndyCar can learn from F1’s engine mistakes

The first public comments on IndyCar’s next generation engine formula emerged this month. They provided an early insight into discussions between the series and its existing engine suppliers.

Importantly they suggest the series is poised to learn from the mistakes made by the world’s leading open wheel racing series – Formula 1 – during its most recent change of engine regulations.

HPD: we don’t want an IndyCar hybrid

Honda Performance Development’s race team principal Alan Miller confirmed to Autosport that an F1-style hybrid power unit is not Honda’s preference: “We don’t have a desire or even a marketing reason to want to put a hybrid unit on it. It comes up in discussions but I don’t believe it will go that way.”

IndyCar Andretti Sato Hunter-Reay Pocono
Honda’s Alan Miller does not want IndyCar to adopt an F1-style turbo hybrid engine. (Image: IndyCar/Bret Kelley)

As the series and its partners discuss options, the trials and tribulations of F1’s current engine formula offers a valuable insight for the series.

The adoption of turbo hybrid power units has been less than successful and offers IndyCar the opportunity to learn from F1’s costly mistakes.

How not to do it: back the wrong engine technology

F1’s astronomical costs and imbalanced payment structure has made the presence of  auto manufacturers all but essential to keeping the sport afloat. Maintaining the interest of manufacturers was a primary driver behind the adoption of hybrid power units in 2014.

Hybrids were considered the next evolution of the engines powering road cars. Utilising the hybrid concept was expected to give brands like Renault and Mercedes a direct synergy between F1 and the hatchbacks and SUVs on sale in their dealerships.

Hybrid is dead, long live the all-electric

The hybrid engine did prove to the be the next step in road car technology but it has also proven to be a short-lived one. European auto manufacturers including Volkswagen, BMW and Renault are pressing forward with ambitious plans for all-electric road car ranges.

Volkswagen – still mired in the diesel emissions scandal – is aiming to feature at least 50 battery powered road cars in its range by 2025

The drive for all electric has made hybrid technology somewhat irrelevant before it has had the chance to become established. Which illustrates a key point for IndyCar as it considers its next engine formula. 

Backing the right technology will be critical in maintaining interest from the existing official engine manufacturers whilst protecting the series against the risk of adopting irrelevant, costly engine regulations.

But that does not mean IndyCar must embrace emerging technology.

Technology versus entertainment

The relevance of cutting edge racing technology in F1 and IndyCar has long served as a means to keep auto manufacturer cash rolling into each series. F1 in particular has clung on to the belief that racing technology translates in to the advancement of road car engineering, including engine development.

Sadly that has led – throughout the modern era of F1 – to technology compromising the entertainment value of the racing. Think the dominant early 90’s Williams with active suspension or Mercedes with their all-conquering turbo hybrid engine. Furthermore the links between F1 technology and road cars has become increasingly tenuous.

Advances in exotic materials and aerodynamics find their way on to the hypercars manufactured by the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes. Beyond that, road car technology has deviated significantly from F1.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1 AMG
Hybrid power has ushered in a period of dominance for the AMG Mercedes team in F1. (Image: MotorSportNotes)

Auto racing is a marketing tool

F1 is a marketing tool for auto manufacturers for their top of the range sport brands. The prominence now given to the AMG brand within the Mercedes F1 effort is a case in point.

For Mercedes their presence in F1 is about brand awareness and making their AMG styled and tuned road cars more desirable despite their hefty price tags.

IndyCar is entertainment

In terms of engine technology IndyCar is now facing a similar, new reality: the technological relevance to auto manufacturing is all but gone. Entertainment is the key now.

For IndyCar that means any future engine formula requires a greater focus on how it can compliment efforts to increase grid size and/or enhance the series as a product and a source of entertainment.

A more entertaining and engaging series draws greater attention and more attention means sponsors and auto manufacturers have reason to be involved.

Barber Motorsports Park IndyCar Alabama
Full grids are more important for IndyCar than direct road car relevance. (Image: Team Penske).

Engine regulations that open the door to new manufacturers and lower costs should be the focus. By contrast embracing emerging technology will likely be approached with caution. Something that F1 failed to do in the stampede to embrace hybrid power units.

You cannot please everyone

F1 tried to make itself more green with the introduction of hybrid engines. Instead it has disappointed loyal fans, driven up costs, ushered in the dominance of Mercedes and done little to appease environmental lobbyists.

Those who love F1 love it for many reasons but saving the environment will never be one of them. Similarly the groups most vocal about F1’s complete disregard for environmental considerations – burning fossil fuels for fun, tires that last 10 laps, air freight criss-crossing the globe – will never be silenced until the sport no longer exists.

Vandorne McLaren Honda F1
F1: unlikely to be sponsored by Greenpeace. (Image: MotorSportNotes)

Hybrid engines were never going to be enough for the green campaigners and the many and costly compromises have angered fans. To rub salt into the wound several auto manufacturers have opted for Formula E instead of F1.

For example Audi and Porsche – pioneers of hybrid engine technology – view the all electric open wheel series as a better option than taking their highly relevant technology to F1. For them Formula E is the means to further their electric ambitions, improve their green credentials and sell more all-electric road cars.

The balancing act facing IndyCar

The challenge for IndyCar is to zero in on the most relevant considerations for a new engine formula. Understanding who the new regulations need to appeal to – fans, team owners and their existing partners – will be vital in getting another major building block for the series in place.

This month’s comments from Alan Miller offer cause for optimism. IndyCar has paid attention to F1’s foray down the hybrid dead-end and it looks like it will heed the warning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.