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Opinion
IndyCar Mid-Ohio

The verdict on IndyCar’s hybrid engine debut

OPINION: IndyCar’s highly-anticipated race debut of the new hybrid engine era at Mid-Ohio provided a spectacle and talking points aplenty. While it wasn’t a flawless introduction, lessons can be learned from last weekend as other points of debate popped up

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Patricio O'Ward, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, David Malukas, Meyer Shank Racing Honda, Colton Herta, Andretti Global w/ Curb-Agajanian Honda, Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet, Marcus Ericsson, Andretti Global Honda, start

The long wait for the new era of the IndyCar series came to an end last weekend with the race debut of its hybrid engine at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the midway point of the 17-race 2024 season.

A collaborative effort between IndyCar, Chevrolet and Honda paired the 2.2-litre, twin-turbocharged V6 internal combustion engine – a stalwart in the series since 2012 – with an electrical low-voltage (48V) motor generator unit (MGU) and a 320 kilojoules-per-lap supercapacitor energy storage system (ESS).

The first-of-its-kind unit operates at a maximum of 12,000rpm and allows the driver to deploy and harvest energy for up to an additional 60bhp. When combined with push-to-pass on road courses and street circuits, the output combines to over 120bhp extra, bringing the grand total to more than 800bhp.

But was it really all it was anticipated to be? Honestly, I am still struggling with that answer. On one hand, it should be celebrated that the 27 entrants completed an astounding 2115 of 2160 total laps, which comes out to a respectable 97.9%. Additionally, the self-start software, arguably one of the biggest attractions of the hybrid system as it allows stalled drivers the ability to start and restart the car with a press of a button, continue on and keep the race from being interrupted with a full-course caution, climbed from struggles that led to temporary deactivation to operating successfully on race day.

But other elements are more complex to assess. The deployment provides 4.5 seconds of boost, which looks good on paper when this year's fastest race lap at the 2.258-mile, 13-turn road course was 122.167mph (66.5386s) versus 2023's 119.643mph (67.9419s). However, that's tougher to judge considering the track underwent a repave between the two events, ending up, as several drivers stated, smoother and with inherently more grip.

Then we must take into account that last year's race featured 158 total passes, with 120 for position. This year, there were 116 total passes, with only 78 for position. Why, despite having more than 800bhp for the first time in over two decades, is it even more difficult?

Arrow McLaren's Alexander Rossi referenced the roughly 100 additional pounds of weight due to the hybrid components. "I don't think the hybrid really changed anything," Rossi told Motorsport.com. "It's really hard to pass with the weight of these cars; same for everyone."

Alexander Rossi, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet

Alexander Rossi, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

While these are very early days with hybrid technology, Rossi doesn't have any immediate solution to make the cars lighter and, in theory, easier for drivers to create passing opportunities. However, the reliability aspect provided some hope that this debut weekend established a strong foundation to build from.

"What's amazing is, apart from one car, the reliability was there," Rossi said. "I think it was a very successful debut of the hybrid. It's a work in progress. It'll continue to get better and we'll use it to more of its potential and one day we'll maybe have a new car. It's the same for everyone. It just magnifies the importance of track position."

That "one car" that Rossi alludes to, though, happened to be six-time champion Scott Dixon. A six-time winner at Mid-Ohio (an all-time record), Dixon was set to roll off 13th but ended up stalled on track at Turn 5 on the formation lap. His Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara-Honda was hampered by a suspected issue related to the ESS discharging, but IndyCar continues to investigate the incident. Although Dixon returned, he was 22 laps down and ultimately retired with what was listed as a 'mechanical' issue after 40 laps.

Dixon had been second in the standings with a 32-point deficit to team-mate Alex Palou, the reigning and two-time series champion. Following the issue that led to a lowly result of 27th (last), he has dropped down to fourth and now trails by 71 points to Palou, who finished a close second in the 80-lap race.

Even with all the time spent in preparation, there was still a feeling that the switch to the new hybrid unit felt rushed and would have been better served to launch in 2025

The difficult part about coming to grips with what happened to Dixon is how predictable it was throughout the paddock that there would be growing pains with the hybrid and that it increased the likelihood of impacting the title fight.

Ultimately, I can't help but feel that the introduction of the hybrid unit on a race weekend should have happened in a non-points exhibition event. And with over 32,000 miles logged in testing, with Andretti Global, Arrow McLaren, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske privileged with handling roughly two-thirds of the mileage, it's no wonder the best finish at Mid-Ohio by anyone not associated with those teams was seventh (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's Christian Lundgaard).

Even with all the time spent in preparation, there was still a feeling that the switch to the new hybrid unit felt rushed and would have been better served to launch in 2025 after more testing, and maybe even with increased power and less weight.

There has been a massive amount of money, resource and time put into IndyCar's first hybrid unit, with a selling point of it being a modern marvel of motorsport. Time will tell if that's true or not.

Dixon was the sole victim of the hybrid debut teething problems in the opening race

Dixon was the sole victim of the hybrid debut teething problems in the opening race

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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