Analysis: Could IndyCar’s 2.2 V6 turbos dig F1 out of its engine hole?

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Might IndyCar engines solve Formula 1’s quandary if an existing manufacturer were to pull out of the sport? American Editor David Malsher investigates…

In light of Red Bull's public struggles to get along with an engine producer and with two of the four manufacturers - Renault and Honda - needing massive gains, F1 could find itself needing more power unit suppliers.

And given that IndyCar also features a V6 formula, could its manufacturers be able to make a foray into F1 if there was suddenly an obvious demand for it - or if the proposed low-budget power unit idea becomes a reality in the written regulations?

Superficially, the answer to this question is ‘yes’. IndyCar’s engines are proven 2.2-litre twin-turbo units that deliver 700bhp and are designed to last 2500 miles – and a one-car/one-season engine lease in IndyCar costs in the region of $700,000.

That specification seems to tick all the right boxes in Formula 1’s drive to find a low-budget engine supplier to fill the void that the sport might be facing. 

However, the IndyCar units built by Honda Performance Development and Ilmor (Chevrolet) are unlikely to be compatible with a simple Energy Recovery System.

“I probably don’t know enough about Formula 1’s ERS systems,” says Chris Berube, program manager for Chevrolet Racing, “but I’m fairly certain they’re not just like Lego where you just connect one piece to the other!

“There needs to be a lot of integration into the original design, so the idea that F1’s proposed low-budget formula would be interchangeable with IndyCar’s seems far-fetched.”

Even if the engines were supplied as is – in other words, without ERS – how would they be marketed? If the proposal was to make them grid-fillers, part of a two-tier system in F1 (in the manner of the normally-aspirated runners in the final couple of years of the first turbo era) that idea is surely going to be of zero interest to either Honda or Chevrolet.

Mixed messages

In Honda’s case, it’s inconceivable that California-based HPD would supply “customer units” which might even outperform Honda Japan’s cutting-edge units in the McLarens, at least in terms of reliability and maybe even performance on long straights.

Besides that, it would surely make for one confused marketing message.

As for Chevrolet, the brand is disappearing from Europe next year with the exception of its top GTs, the Corvette and Camaro. Using the 2.2-litre turbo V6 (KERS-assisted or no) to promote two deliberately old-school, normally-aspirated V8-powered cars would require some tortuous marketing.

Would GM use F1 to at least increase brand awareness, as Toyota use NASCAR despite having nothing resembling a 5.7-liter V8 in their streetcar range? Or could GM use its European brand Opel on the Ilmor-designed Chevrolet unit?

Again, it seems unlikely that any major car manufacturer, whatever its perceived stature in the marketplace, would sign up to promote its brand via a clearly defined lower tier in F1, and thus have its butt kicked every race by Mercedes and Ferrari.

How would you equalise them?

It’s equally unrealistic to expect an equivalency formula to work. The IndyCar engines are unlikely to match F1 governors’ requirements for power output and revs, so there would need to be drastic cutbacks in the current fuel allowance and recovered energy allowance of Mercedes and Ferrari.

That is not going to appeal to manufacturers, teams, drivers nor F1 fans, who have become ever-more vocal in their cries for quicker, louder, more spectacular-looking F1 cars. 

So if the 2017 proposal for low-budget 2.2-litre twin-turbo engines is forced through – despite being met with unanimous disinterest by engine manufacturers in their Geneva meeting last week – it will be a case of starting from scratch for whichever company’s tender wins favour with Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone.

Late on Friday, Cosworth co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven confirmed with Motorsport.com that he is in talks with F1 bosses, but emphasised, too, that such a project would require subsidising by a manufacturer.

He disagrees with Berube on the ERS issue, though: “I don't think MGU-K would require a complete redesign of an existing engine, but MGU-H is another story.”

IndyCar engines in F1? No. Chevrolet entering F1? Unlikely.

As Berube observes, “Just because there’s suddenly speculation that F1 may use the same engine displacement for a low-budget formula in 2017 doesn’t mean our IndyCar engines are compatible with F1’s formula, nor that General Motors will suddenly be interested.

“If we’d wanted to be in F1, we could have been there…”

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Series Formula 1 , IndyCar
Article type Analysis