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'There’s a learning curve': IndyCar hybrid system brings new challenges to the Milwaukee Mile

WEST ALLIS – The first full-field test of IndyCar’s new energy recovery system at the Milwaukee Mile included several categories of drivers:

  • Those who had competed at the Mile, which hasn’t had an IndyCar race since 2015 but will host a pair on Labor Day weekend.

  • Those who had done some testing with the hybrid system, which allows drivers to recapture energy during off-throttle times and then use it much for an extra kick of power as they do the push-to-pass system they already have on road and street circuits.

  • And those who had done little or none of either.

It turns out their opinions on the system were even more varied than their experience levels with it or the track.

“You’ll get more used to it with time, that’s for sure,” said Graham Rahal, a veteran of seven Milwaukee races who finished third last time. “Even for me today, in my car, they changed basically my entire steering wheel from two days ago to today to add the buttons and change things around.

“There was a lot in my brain today as far as to figure out in a short period of time. … It will get better.”

Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin (3) and Arrow McLaren driver Alexander Rossi (7) lead a pack of cars into Turn 1 during the NTT IndyCar Series hybrid test Tuesday at the Milwaukee Mile.
Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin (3) and Arrow McLaren driver Alexander Rossi (7) lead a pack of cars into Turn 1 during the NTT IndyCar Series hybrid test Tuesday at the Milwaukee Mile.

Milwaukee Mile, back on the IndyCar schedule, ‘is going to race fantastic’

The Mile opened in 1903, eight years before the first Indianapolis 500, and has been the site of 113 Indy-style championship races, but in recent decades various promoters were unable to run a profitable IndyCar event.

The return this year, with two 250-lap races sponsored by the Hy-Vee grocery chain, is being promoted by State Fair Park, which owns the facility, with the help of IndyCar. Nearly $3 million in state and private money has been spent on revitalizing the track.

“I love it,” said Pato O’Ward, one of the drivers who hadn’t driven on the Mile before Tuesday.

“I think this is going to race fantastic. It’s very enjoyable. It really is. It reminds me of Iowa, but just obviously less banking. It’s a bit old-school like that.”

Marcus Ericsson, the 2022 Indianapolis 500 winner, also was turning his first laps at the track he described as rough and “slidey.” He enjoyed the challenge.

Andretti Global driver Marcus Ericsson enters his pit.
Andretti Global driver Marcus Ericsson enters his pit.

Deploy of the hybrid affects handling

And as for the hybrid?

“You can feel it deploying; it depends when you deploy,” Ericsson said.

“If you deploy in the middle of the corner, you’re definitely going to put yourself in some trouble, or potential trouble. You need to be precise in when you deploy and be smart about it. Same with the ‘regen.’ That does things for the handling of the car. Whether it’s in the corner or wherever you want to regen.

“So it’s definitely a tool, from team to team, track to track, manufacturer to manufacturer, will have techniques on when you want to use it. It’s what I like about it. It’s something you can do different to your competitors.”

That’s the best case scenario. But O’Ward hadn’t seen much of it by the time he spoke with reporters after the first few hours.

“Right now, we’re all working within certain limits that we can work in and it’s just … it doesn’t really change the wave, if that explains it,” O’Ward said. “A lot of the guys are probably not even using it. I wasn’t really touching it.

“I would like it to be a bit more of a shift in terms of performance, in terms of just what we get to feel.”

Graham Rahal leads Kyle Kirkwood off pit road during the NTT IndyCar Series hybrid test Tuesday at the Milwaukee Mile.
Graham Rahal leads Kyle Kirkwood off pit road during the NTT IndyCar Series hybrid test Tuesday at the Milwaukee Mile.

IndyCar hybrid debuts in July 7 race at Mid-Ohio

The hybrid system is scheduled to debut two races from now on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on the July 5-7 weekend.

After that, six of the final eight races of the NTT IndyCar Series are scheduled for oval tracks, including a doubleheader July 13-14 on the seven-eighths-mile Iowa Speedway and Aug. 30 and Sept. 1 at the Mile.

“On the simulated restarts we were doing, when you utilize it, it's a clear boost,” Rahal said. “I would also say in traffic when you get really bogged down, it was nice to be able to pull the deploy and really feel a lot of gain.

“That can make racing quite interesting, I think. As challenging as it is to remind yourself of it all the time, I think the net effect is going to be positive.”

Over the course of further testing at Iowa, Nashville Superspeedway, Worldwide Technology Raceway and elsewhere, teams will continue to gain an understanding of the best ways to use the system on various types of tracks.

“There’s definitely optionality with it,” said Josef Newgarden, who won the pole the last time the series was at the Mile. “There’s a learning curve. There’s a strategy to it.

“How do you utilize it? It’s not just a set thing for everybody and it’s there. You can use it a lot of different ways. There’s definitely going to be a learning curve and I think optionality for people to use it differently.”

Team Penske driver Will Power gets ready to take to the track for the Milwaukee Mile IndyCar hybrid test. He ran a session-high 188 laps.
Team Penske driver Will Power gets ready to take to the track for the Milwaukee Mile IndyCar hybrid test. He ran a session-high 188 laps.

Milwaukee Mile hybrid test runs smoothly

Tuesday’s test was delayed by nearly an hour for inspection and work on several areas on the catch fence. Then teams spent the morning working on their own. In the afternoon they simulated racing conditions, complete with restarts and pit stops, in groups of 10.

They combined to complete 3,563 laps with a half-hour break for a sprinkle but otherwise without incident.

Team Penske Chevrolet driver Will Power, who has seven races’ experience at the track including a victory in 2014, turned the most (188) and posted the fastest lap (22.6001 seconds, 161.521 mph). Power also drove in the hybrid’s first test at the Mile last fall.

“It’s the same system,” Power said, when asked about the evolution. “Just we’re not having issues with it. We’ve got to a point where I think it’s working well.”

Newgarden was second-fastest and Scott McLaughlin third as Team Penske matched its 1-2-3 finish Sunday at Road America in Elkhart Lake. Colton Herta of Andretti Global had the best lap among Honda drivers, fourth. O’Ward was fifth.

Handling is still a key at Milwaukee

Speeds were down almost 10 mph from Newgarden’s 2015 qualifying run, in large part because the cars have considerably less downforce. Then drivers barely lifted off the throttle in the long, flat turns. Now they do, and that’s an opportunity to recapture energy with the hybrid unit.

The gap should close some by August, but the hybrid unit isn’t going to make up all the difference.

“The gains that it gives you aren’t big enough in order for you to shift focus on trying to use it in the most efficient way possible vs. just trying to make a perfect lap with a good setup and everything,” O’Ward said.

“Right now, there is more lap time in making sure your car and your setup is good and perfecting how you get through a corner, vs. ‘Oh, I need to engage it here.’”

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee Mile test prepares IndyCar for hybrid debut, series' return