IndyCar

IndyCar hybrid engine helps create closest Firestone Fast Six qualifications in history

IndyCar hybrid engine helps create closest Firestone Fast Six qualifications in history

STEAM CORNERS, Ohio – It may be too early to clearly determine the value of IndyCar’s hybrid engine, but it created some history Saturday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The 0.0024-of-a-second margin between pole winner Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing and second-place Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren in qualifications for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio was the closest in the history of the Firestone Fast Six (road and street courses).

The Firestone Fast Six format began at St. Petersburg in 2005 and Saturday’s qualifications surpassed the previous tightest margin of 0.0027-of-a-second when Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing edged Felix Rosenqvist, who at that time was with Arrow McLaren, in the 2023 GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (top 10 closest margins below). 

Season

Event

Difference

2024

Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio

00:00:00:0024

2023

GMR Grand Prix

00:00:00:0027

2021

Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio

00:00:00:0031

2024

Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach

00:00:00:0039

2012

Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix

00:00:00:0044

2024

Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

00:00:00:0058

2023

Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

00:00:00:0097

2012

Edmonton Indy

00:00:00:0108

2016

Chevrolet Dual in Detroit

00:00:00:0119

2018

Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

00:00:00:0128

If the hybrid engine used at its current capacity creates two-tenths of a second difference a lap, then Palou’s ability to properly use the extra boost of horsepower created by the Electronic Storage System and the Motor Generator Unit was a blink of an eyelid better than O’Ward.

After this record-setting qualification session, in terms of tightest margin, the two drivers that comprise the front row sat side-by-side in the media center. O’Ward was asked how he can put the margin of 0.0024-of-a-second in perspective?

“It means he went to the bathroom before going to qualifying,” O'Ward said as he patted Palou on the back.

“That's enough,” Palou responded.

“We're all out there pushing, pushing, pushing,” O’Ward continued. “That's the beauty of it. That's what makes it exciting and fun.

“Yeah, looking forward to tomorrow.”

Palou won the pole with a best lap of 124.387 miles per hour in the No. 10 Ridgeline Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. O'Ward qualified second at 124.382 mph in the No. 5 Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren

There is a new element and another variable that has been added to the NTT IndyCar Series with the introduction of the hybrid engine. Although the amount of extra horsepower created by the system only creates about 4 seconds of extra energy when deployed, it can quickly recharge, and a driver can use it as often as they want.

That also makes it extremely complicated.

NBCSports.com asked each driver how that changes the dynamics of the engineering debriefs, when each driver sits with team’s engineers to analyze the data and formulate a plan for the race.

“They will be longer, for sure,” O’Ward said. “Longer meetings, just more to talk about, more to analyze. You've got more options.

“Like on the dials, we used to have basically eight different maps. Now we have like 24 or something. It's super weird.”

Palou chimed in about how many more variables those dials now represent.

“Yeah, yeah, it's a lot longer,” Palou said. “There's too much stuff to look at it now, too many options to get a bit distracted, because the mixtures, it's big.

“We used to have to pick the mixtures we wanted before each session but especially the race where we would have only eight. One is more, let's say, the max and one more the yellow, so you only have six to try and look around, and now we have 24, which is a crazy amount.

“When you have to go from like 2 to 11 on the rotary dial, it takes you forever. Like it's a full swing. So, it's tough.”

How difficult is it for a driver to cut though all the noise and just try to simplify an already difficult task?

“The engineers have the ability to focus on what is really important,” Palou recalled. “Like this morning, I was like, let's look at the deploy and regen, and Julian Robertson, my engineer, said, ‘Don't look at that, let's look at your driving first and focus on the percentage of charge and all that stuff.’

“There's stuff that is more important than others, but having that said, it's always going to be a talking point for you guys on media, for TV, and for us as drivers because it keeps on changing.

“There's always a way to try and improve it and try and make it suit better for the car or for the driver.”

As if driving a race car wasn’t already hard enough, now the addition of another competitive tool has been added that can determine success and failure in IndyCar. And the difference can be so minute, so tight, that a driver has to make the right decision at precisely the right moment.

INDYCAR%20Hybrid%20-%20Honda%20Indy%20200%20at%20Mid-Ohio%20-%20By_%20James%20Black_Ref%20Image%20Without%20Watermark_m111026.jpg

The 27 drivers that will compete in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio got to experience that in competition during Saturday’s qualifications.

“Obviously whoever doesn't use it was going to be a tenth or so slower,” O’Ward explained. “That's the delta. So, whatever you do without it, go down one- and a half-tenths, and that's probably where you'll do it with the boost.

“I think tomorrow, it will be a challenge for everybody. It will be a challenge to see are you going to keep the same strategies, are you going to maybe change it up a little bit?

“Ultimately, it has become a tool for obviously the drivers and the teams to make either your life easier or your life a lot harder.

“I think it will be interesting.”

Palou understands the hybrid engine is essentially “free speed.”

He’ll take it.

“We saw how close qualifying is, so you don't want to give up one-and-a-half-, two-tenths for free that's available for you,” Palou said. “It's a lot of work to get those, whether you regen here or deploy here, whatever you do. It's free lap time, so you need to take it.

“Tomorrow is going to be tough. It's a lot more work that we do. Cars are heavier, steering wheel is heavier. It's going to be warm.

“It'll be interesting.”

Saturday was certainly more interesting than Friday’s debut of the hybrid engine in a 90-minute practice session that included rain and two red flags leaving the IndyCar paddock with more questions than answers.

But after a full practice session Saturday morning and an entertaining Firestone Fast Six that included three drivers that have yet to win an IndyCar Series pole, the hybrid assist has some positive possibilities.

NBC IndyCar power rankings

“I'm pretty sure if we were able to compare our data, like 100 percent of it, we would see differences in ways to get half-a-tenth here, half-a-tenth there, not from driving, just from the pure regen and deployment,” Palou said. “I’m pretty sure we are — I don't know if 70 percent or 90 percent there, but I'm not sure we're 100 percent of getting 100 percent of it.

“It's interesting. It's a lot of work, but at the same time, you don't want to forget about the principal stuff. You cannot focus so much about the percentage of battery and where do we recharge and deploy and then forget about the balance being really bad and losing three-and-a-half tenths because of balance.”

The principles of racing remain the same — car handling, getting through the turns properly, finding an edge over the competitors.

In Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, that edge over the competition may be the driver who understands the hybrid engine the best and uses it to spark his path to victory lane.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500

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