Friday, August 9, 2019

IndyCar Commits To Hybrid Power Units for 2022 Race Cars

Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Car FYI Canada



Auto racing has long been a showcase forecasting the advancement of automotive technology. Countless aspects found in modern passenger cars owe their existence towards innovative engineers, designers and drivers finding a competitive edge on the race car.

Even though the technology transfer is less pronounced in an era where rules in motorsports is more policed then in earlier racing decades, a push remains by auto manufacturers and racing leagues to give audiences the impression that the vehicles on track have some connection to the production cars attached to a brand. As automakers are pushing towards greater use of electric-powered or electrified powertrain vehicles present a new opportunity for motorsports to promote a new future for road cars. In preparation for their 2022 season, the NTT IndyCar Series has announced intentions to introduce hybrid powerplants.

When competitors take the grid for the 2022 IndyCar Series, their vehicles will contain an internal combustion engine paired with a single-source hybrid unit. Consisting of a multi-phase motor, inverter and an electrical storage device gaining energy through regenerative braking, the single-source setup means a sole supplier will provide the electric propulsion system to all manufacturers. Specifications for the internal combustion engine portion of the power unit remains unannounced.  The two current IndyCar engine suppliers Chevrolet and Honda have both committed support for the upcoming adaptation for hybrid power units. IndyCar is also hopeful that the new propulsion guidelines will entice an additional manufacturer for the 2022 season.

Targeting a maximum performance potential greater than 900 horsepower, the upcoming hybrid power unit for IndyCar competition cars is eagerly welcomed for providing several benefits. Along with improving the efficiency of a liter of fuel, hybrid technology grants an enhanced burst of power currently referred to as push-to-pass in the racing series. Another major upgrade coming with the 2022 introduction of a hybrid powertrain is the inclusion of an on-board starting system that is mentioned as the first time for the IndyCar Series. An on-board starter will lessen the amount in stalled cars stopping on-track and reduce full course cautions. Though IndyCar Series (relating back to the Indy Racing League) have retained a manual starting system since its formation, this was not the case if counting the Champ Car World Series in which IndyCar merged with in 2008 concluding what was a draining war between two major North American open wheel series. In 2007, Champ Car series competitors exclusively campaigned a Panoz DP01 chassis with a Ford-badged Cosworth engine that utilizing an on-board starter.

While an energy recovery through braking works on road course and street circuits, a drawback in such a hybrid system would currently appear when the IndyCar Series is running on ovals. High-speed ovals such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or Texas Motor Speedway are far less dependant on braking therefore reducing the effect of an electrified performance. IndyCar has not stated in their announcement whether the hybrid technology will only be employed on non-ovals for the 2022 season but the limitations of a braking-based recovery system could provide a challenge for part of the IndyCar Series.

Back in 2010, another more innovative option for hybrid power unit hardware was mentioned when I was composing an article for Performance Racing News magazine looking ahead at the conceptualization for the 2012 IndyCar vehicle. With a multitude of options on the table (including the radical DeltaWing) the series senior technical director Les Mactaggart eluded to adapting a thermal energy recovery (TER) system that would convert heat into electrical power. This technology is currently being utilized by Formula 1 cars and is known as the MGU-H. For the time being, this hybrid technology is untapped on passenger cars but automotive supplier and longtime IndyCar Series supporter BorgWarner has recently shown an engine heat recovery system designed for long-haul transport trucks. For IndyCar racing, energy recovery using this method could potentially supply ample electrical power for a hybrid gasoline/electric powertrain to function effectively on oval and road courses.

The transition to hybrid powertrains in auto racing has presented a fair amount of growing pains. In sports car racing, vehicles powered by hybrid power units have achieved successes by beating non-electrified race cars taking the 12 Hours of Sebring as well as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In fact, since Audi’s 2012 victory with the R18 e-tron quattro, the overall winner at the big race at Le Mans has remained hybrid powered. The biggest issue with hybrid technology in sports car racing has been the cost of developing the systems that are unique to each vehicle. Resulting some highly elaborate hybrid race vehicles including an Audi R-18 e-tron quattro variant that used an electric turbocharger, the World Endurance Championship (WEC) had seen the departure of Audi and Porsche at the end of 2016 and 2017. 

The new IndyCar Series powerplant specifications in 2022 will coincide with the debut of a next generation chassis that is also under development.

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