Supercars Needs Hybrids
And it needs to take their introduction seriously
Supercars are openly assessing hybrid powertrains for 2022’s Gen 3 regulations. It's a move that would no doubt upset a substantial proportion of the series’ key fan base, but it has to happen.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you'd have noticed that the car industry is rapidly adopting hybrids and EVs. Well, rapidly by car industry standards. Wherever the car industry goes, motorsport has to follow. F1 and WEC, as the leaders in motorsport technology, have had hybrids for several years now. Manufacturers are flocking to Formula E. Over the next few years, hybrids will seep into every major motorsport category in the world. Except for NASCAR, which remains firmly stuck 40 years in the past. Supercars needs to be prepared if it wants manufacturers to remain interested in their product.
This is Supercars, however, an organisation with a history of technical blunders. 2013’s Car of the Future regulations allowed new manufacturers to enter for the first time since 1992. Any new sedan that would fit on the control chassis could be entered, running a V8 engine from the same manufacturer or a generic LS-derived Supercars engine. The trouble was that the engine rules, specifically the 7,200rpm rev limit favoured the old Ford and GM pushrod V8s over Nissan and AMG’s respective DOHC VK56 and M157 engines. Both Nissan and Erebus struggled to simultaneously match the power, driveability and fuel economy of the established engines. Somehow the Volvo B8444S, stroked from 4.4 to 5.0 litres worked instantly when it arrived a year later. At last this year Kelly Racing's Nissans have managed to equal the pace of the Ford and Holden teams.
2016’s Gen 2 changes (actually the fourth generation Supercar) allowed turbocharged engines and two door bodies. The engine change was intended to appease Holden, Nissan and Volvo. Volvo toyed with the idea of a twin turbo four cylinder before dropping out at the end of 2016. Nissan stuck with V8s and let Holden be the guinea pig. Holden, via Triple 8 and Cadillac, made a serious attempt at developing a 3.6L twin turbo V6 from Cadillac’s GT3 engine but gave up earlier this year. Nissan has since pulled out, leaving Kelly Racing to carry on with the Nissan V8 and Ford has returned but is sticking to V8s. The problem is likely to be that it's too hard to adapt a twin turbo V6 to the same cumulative horsepower rules as the V8s. There's a fair chance there'll be nothing new on the engine front until 2022.
For 2022 there needs to be a serious attempt at a new set of engine regulations that are more attractive to manufacturers in 2022. The V8 rules were set out back in 1993 and won't be relevant 29 years later. Supercars needs a set of engine regulations relevant to this century. That means hybrids. Prospective e new manufacturers have told teams that they would be interested if hybrids were allowed. Ford Australia CEO Graeme Whickman has offered his support to the proposal.
Supercars have learned from past mistakes and will be involving manufacturers from an early stage.
“We will include manufacturers in those discussions to get their feedback and their inputs, and in terms of what works for them, and make sure that we understand what their long-term product roadmap looks like,” CEO Sean Seamer said.
“They’ve asked what hybridisation might look like. Do we have the ability to do it? Is it something that we will consider as part of Next Generation? To which we have said, ‘Yes, we will look at that as part of the program and the planning’.”
This is an important part of the process that was overlooked for CotF and Gen2. Both were developed around what Supercars assumed manufacturers wanted. To some extent they were right, but the way it was executed placed limits on what could be done. The control roll cage isn’t as coupe friendly as it could be and expecting different engine configurations to achieve exact parity with asking too much. There’s actually nothing in the current rulebook that explicitly precludes hybrids. What prevents them from entering is minimum weight, weight distribution and minimum fuel drops at most rounds. A hybrid system under the current rules would simply be an expensive ballast.
Gen2 was developed without manufacturer consultation
Supercars has acknowledged that hybrids would need to be mandatory to work. This is important, because a reluctance to do anything that might disadvantage the incumbents is what’s prevented anyone from trying anything new. A KERS retrofit to the existing V8 engines or any other configuration a manufacturer chooses to run would be one option. The electric motor could potentially make it easier to achieve cumulative horsepower parity. Another option being investigated by Supercars is to throw out the V8 entirely and mandate a 2.0L turbo four cylinder hybrid with a V8 equalling 650hp. Initial investigations suggest that such an engine would be cheaper to build and run than a V8. The trouble is that it would likely be too expensive to implement without manufacturer support.
Fans will be concerned about a lack of noise, but it's not worth worrying about yet. Current generation F1 engines aren't quiet because they're hybrids, they're quiet because the new turbo V6 engines don't rev as high as the old V8s. In any case, the noise is only relatively minor element of motorsport. The addition of a KERS-style hybrid system would add to the spectacle, not take away from it.
Supercars needs to take hybrids seriously for 2022. It needs to be willing to take risks and upset a few people. Having manufacturer support beforehand is crucial, however.