IndyCar shelves 2.4-liter engines scheduled for 2024, moving forward on hybrid technology
A four-plus year saga that saw a series of exciting announcements regarding IndyCar's technical future, only to be followed by a series of delays reached a pivotal conclusion Tuesday.
Rather than roll out a brand-new 2.4-liter V6 engine — previously scheduled to be the series' first engine change since 2012 — paired with an energy recovery hybrid component, IndyCar, along with Honda (and Honda Performance Development) and Chevy (and Ilmor) elected to shelve the 2.4-liter internal combustion units altogether and prioritize the development and rollout of the hybrid components for a 2024 debut.
Already finding themselves trailing major sportscar series worldwide — as well as Formula 1 — in its jump to hybrid technology, series decisionmakers, when faced with rising cost concerns, production delays and uncertainties and the very real possibility of a forced shrink of the IndyCar grid, declared with today's news that hybridization had to be the priority, rather than the increased horsepower the 2.4-liter engine alone was expected to deliver along with the hybrid technology.
"The 2.2-liter IndyCar engines supplied by Honda and Chevrolet have provided the mostcompetitive racing in the world. The 2024 hybrid engine package will provide even moreexcitement with horsepower increases over the current engine," IndyCar president Jay Frye said in a news release regarding the change.
This latest development comes more than four-and-a-half years after IndyCar originally unveiled its 2.4-liter engine plans in the leadup to the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. Originally, that engine formula was to be tested in the summer of 2020, debut in 2021 and be the series' power plant formula through 2026. Then, in August of the following year, the series announced Honda and Chevy would soon be racing with hybrid technology. To streamline the development process, IndyCar elected to delay the rollout of the new 2.4-liter engines to 2022 when they could simultaneously be paired with hybrid components.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the production and shipping delays that came with it worldwide forced the series to push back its new formula again until 2023 — announced in October of 2020 in conjunction with Honda and Chevy's multi-year extension with the series. More than a year later in March of 2022, the series again said it was forced to delay the rollout with continued "global supply chain issues" hampering the development and production process. Later that spring, Honda and Chevy tested the 2.4-liter power unit without the hybrid element on the IMS road course, calling the initial on-track program "successful", "productive" and in some cases "flawless."
Said Chevy engineering program manager Rob Buckner at the time: "We could race this engine tomorrow, which is the highest praise possible for a new engine."
After several more months of painstakingly waiting, Honda rather discreetly put the full program together — hybrid technology and new 2.4-liter engine — for a private two-day test on the IMS road course in October. As HPD president David Salters said Tuesday in a statement, the manufacturer "covered several race distances to date in the prototype phase" of the hybrid system.
"To do this in the current timeframe of development, we will keep the current race engine and focus our priorities and resources on collaborating on the new IndyCar hybrid system," Salters continued. "Focusing on electrification and sustainability is certainly one of our key goals, and our engineers and technicians are very motivated to work together and help move the hybrid system onto the next phase. We all have a lot to learn, but that's exactly why we go racing: we actively search out the next challenge."
In recent months, the latest challenge had been the continued struggle of an outside manufacturer to mass produce, and in consequence, develop the new hybrid unit. Honda and Chevy then elected to take a larger role in the process — at expense to both sides that only further enflamed the costly process of developing and producing a new engine formula themselves with the 2.4-liter power unit. Eventually, a series of semi-related concerns reached a tipping point.
In the best scenario, the 2.4-liter engine programs have long been set to cost Honda and Chevy far more to produce than the 2.2-liter ones that have existed over the past decade. In recent years, a full-season engine lease has cost teams more than $1 million, with Honda and Chevy subsidizing those with a six-figure loss on each. Without dumping millions of dollars more in expenses to develop and produce a new, more sophisticated engine onto the teams, Honda and Chevy would then have had to be saddled with far more losses — at a level that would've prevented them from being able to help serve all of the 27 full-time cars forecasted to be on the IndyCar grid in 2023. Even still, multiple teams have their eyes on further expansion for 2024 and beyond. At most, both sides were prepared to field roughly a dozen full-time 2.4-liter engine programs at an absolute limit.
At the moment under the present formula, Honda fields 15. So without the promise of a new engine manufacturer on the horizon, an IndyCar series, whose perhaps best boasting point in recent years has been its growing grid, would've been forced to contract without change. When you add in the present day struggles of the hybrid development and the impact it has on Honda and Chevy's ability to then develop the new power units to pair it with, the decision was made to fit the energy recovery technology into the current engine. Though not without its costs — and still with the troubling hybrid delays — now, Honda and Chevy can go about the far simpler and cheaper task of focusing more closely on the hybrid component of it all and fitting it to the engines they've run with for more than a decade.
Delaying such a decision much longer — as was the case with the move from 2023 to 2024 in March of this year — would've brought legitimate concerns of enough 2.2-liter engines being capable of being ready for 2024 in place of the 2.4s. Because Honda and Chevy have been preparing to retire their respective 2.2-liter engines on ever-evolving timelines, both sides have in recent years begun ramping down production of that technology in hopes of not having parts laying around that were soon to go unused. In part, it's why we've seen the Indy 500 grid struggle to — or fail altogether — to reach more than 33 prospective entries the last three years. With their respective caps in mind, neither Honda or Chevy have been particularly keen in fielding more than what it would take to get to 33 without the final entries including a particularly intriguing element to them — like, for example, a current NASCAR driver like Kyle Busch or Kyle Larson.
So, waiting much longer without a decision such as this while still relying on those involved to be able to polish the hybrid technology needed to then further develop the 2.4-liter engines would've run the risk of there not being enough said engines available to drop into cars in a year. And, in turn, a late switch back to 2.2-liter engines for 2024 would've risked not having enough of those up-and-running to be able to service the field as it currently stands.