How the Lotus 2012 situation was the start of the dominoes to lead us to where we are today

INDIANAPOLIS — On Tuesday, the NTT INDYCAR Series announced their intentions to still move with hybrid power for the 2024 season. However, they also made a caveat to that decision too. With the introduction of the hybrid motor, the 2.4-liter engine that was initially supposed to be introduced but will now be paused to allow the innovative hybrid technology to be paired with the proven 2.2-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 engines.

“We are most proud of the many advancements that the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has made in leading the motorsports world toward a more sustainable future”, INDYCAR President Jay Frye said. “The 2.2-liter INDYCAR engines supplied by Honda and Chevrolet have provided the most competitive racing in the world. The 2024 hybrid engine package will provide even more excitement with horsepower increases over the current engine.”

So how did we get here to this move? On the surface, this is a second major failed attempt to making these cars faster. Derrick Walker had a big plan that he unveiled several years ago in Belle Isle that never fully came to fruition. This new endeavor has long been in the making but in order to just get it off the ground, this is the route that INDYCAR has had to take.

Before you just blame INDYCAR for this, stop. This isn’t a Roger Penske, Mark Miles or Jay Frye doing. It’s a combination of factors which has led us to where we are today that spans over a decade ago in the making.

Lotus is the first domino to all of this. Honda was the sole engine provider for years but in 2012, Chevrolet and Lotus joined. For the bowties, it was a successful pairing. For Lotus, it was far from it. They didn’t even last a full season and that is far more noticeable than to what Chevrolet has done in the last decade in the sport.

Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in today. The failures sing a louder tune than the ones of a success story. Ever since that failed Lotus attempt, INDYCAR has tried several times to lure a third OEM to be Chevrolet and Honda’s dancing partner. Ask anyone in the paddock and the first order of business needed for this sport to go to a new level is a third OEM.

Scott Dixon leads the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

From Randy Bernard to Walker to Miles to Penske, they all have tried. This isn’t an easy feat to accomplish. Walker’s plan never worked. Miles and Frye’s plan had great vision and if not for a pandemic, was likely going to be off the ground by now. But that pandemic and the tough time pursuing a third OEM led INDYCAR to delaying the hybrid technology multiple times now.

2024 was the new plan. It was to give INDYCAR time to lure a 3rd OEM, to give Honda and Chevrolet time to develop and the suppliers time to build up a stock and inventory to make the parts.

See, from all along, Honda and Chevrolet never wanted to be a 50-50 split here. They wanted to be 1/3-1/3-1/3 at the very minimum. The ultimate goal was for at least three engine suppliers and each to produce 8-10 entries worth of engines. That’s how you get to 24-30 full-time entries and a healthy bump day at Indy.

However, as Honda and Chevrolet were tasked to produce more and more, then you factor in spending even more money on going from 2.2L to 2.4L, it wasn’t worth it for them to continue on with pushing 15 full-time entries each. The threat was real for 2024. If INDYCAR went with the 2.4L hybrid package, there was no way Honda and Chevrolet could produce the same number of engines are they are for 2023.

There’d been some downsizing in the paddock with what I’ve heard was a very real chance that we’d struggle to fill 11 Rows of 3 for the 2024 Indy 500.

This announcement on Tuesday was the safe haven to ensure that didn’t happen.

Which leads us to why is it so hard for INDYCAR to land a 3rd OEM? Well, multiple factors in fact. First is that Lotus fear. Honda and Chevrolet have been so good, a 3rd OEM doesn’t want to come in to get their ass kicked. By being on a level playing field for 2024, it could help a 3rd OEM come in and not be behind. But the fear was real.

The other factor was that INDYCAR doesn’t have hybrid already introduced. That’s the direction the car world is heading and these OEM’s not already involved wanted to see it. That’s the main reason INDYCAR is even moving to hybrid power was in hopes to being attractive to a new OEM.

However, INDYCAR is largely a North American based series. It’s hard to attract a global engine supplier to want to be in a series that gets most of their attention on one side of the hemisphere.

Then you have the ROI factor. INDYCAR is growing. That’s a fact. However, are they growing fast enough to attract a third OEM and for them to gain a strong ROI? That’s a big part as to why they need to land this marketing hire right and to why they need to release more of a budget for them to work with.

Which leads us to the chicken or the egg factor. You need a third OEM to grow but in order to grow you need a 3rd OEM first. In order to get both you need to have a strong ROI to offer and in order to have a strong ROI you need to continue to grow in the TV ratings department.

This decision isn’t one that INDYCAR is taking lightly but the conclusion today is the right one to keep the 2.2L for 2024 to at least not go backwards. It’s up to the fans to stay locked in and help this series grow further because if you see some jump ship, it’s hard to keep the numbers growing the way they should to lure a third OEM.

Penske, Miles and Frye have a vision but it’s hard to get to that vision without help and in order to get the help needed, everything has to line up perfectly. The frustration now is, coming up with a potentially new vision. Is hybrid truly needed if you can’t get a third OEM? What about a new chassis that’s been around since 2012? What’s the future truly hold and where do they realistically want to go for it?

A 3rd OEM is a necessity but if you truly can’t get one, you have to evaluate why and what steps you can take to ensure the next round you land one. You can’t strike out here and we’re down to one strike left. Walker’s formula never came to fruition and the aero kits era wasn’t as successful as initially hoped. The new car design for 2018 (UAK) then the Aeroscreen (2020) have helped, but that’s not the end gain here. A new chassis, a new engine package, a new OEM all has to be but it has to be done right and not prematurely.

I can see the frustration by another season with the same car with the same rules with the same engine and no real outlook for the future, but luckily these are smart people in place that can guide this ship in the right direction still. Luckily it has been turned and steering forward. It’s not as fast as most of us would have liked, but this is where these folks make their money.

Miles took over a sunken ship and Frye has taken it to new heights. However, everything was so bad, it was expected to get to this point, but in order to not maintain and remain a niche sport, something has to be done and this makes it seem like the sky is falling.

A new plan is needed and these are the right folks to do it.

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