INSIGHT: WEC's hydrogen future

INSIGHT: WEC's hydrogen future

Le Mans/WEC

INSIGHT: WEC's hydrogen future


The 2020 hypercar regulations are clearly the ACO and FIA’s priority right now. There’s been plenty discussed, announced and written about them over the past year, and with the final set of regulations set to be released soon, it’s proved to be a topic capable of dividing sportscar racing’s paddocks, fan bases and media, right down the middle.

ACO President Pierre Fillon and WEC CEO Gerard Neveu are still locked in negotiations and discussions with major manufacturers about committing to its upcoming hypercar formula; it’s the topic du jour, and rightly so. But that hasn’t stopped them from planning further ahead and doing so in the public eye.

During last year’s annual press conference on the Friday of Le Mans race week, the ACO revealed a 2024 target for cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells to be racing at the 24 Hours. It is hugely ambitious, but that hasn’t stopped them in the past, and there is clearly a hunger for it among some of the major manufacturers.

Then came the ELMS round at Spa last month and the Paris Motor Show (which is still ongoing), where the H24 GreenGT LMPH2G, Adess-based hydrogen electric prototype has been used to provide us with a glimpse into the longer-term future of the ACO’s plans.

So what is Mission H24, and what does it mean for the future of ACO endurance racing beyond the current melee of the 2020 regulations?

Image courtesy GreenGT

The prototype, named LMPH2G, is based on the Adess LMP3 chassis developed by GreenGT, which in 2013 attempted to field a Garage 56 effort at Le Mans with a hydrogen-powered prototype. Its H2 concept did eventually run, but not in the Le Mans 24 Hours; the technology simply wasn’t ready back then.

This is not all pie-in-the-sky though, as the LMPH2G prototype is more than just the static concept car on the show floor of a motor show — because it has already hit the track.

During the European Le Mans Series (ELMS) meeting at Spa, those on hand saw former Le Mans winner Yannick Dalmas drive it several times around the Ardennes circuit during the weekend, not at full speed, but not far from it. It wasn’t a faultless run, but this is early days.

GreenGT also showcased the car in pit lane and completed a refueling demo, in which those working on the car were able to wear normal clothes, because there’s no real risk when simply fitting a value to the side of it!

The car’s hydrogen is contained in sealed tanks at 700-bar pressure. Those tanks’ seals and contents are systematically checked before the hydrogen is injected. It was fueled with hydrogen produced using a carbon-free process obtained using water electrolysis where the electricity is generated by renewable sources (water electrolysis applies an electrical current to split water into oxygen and hydrogen).

It all sounds like black magic, doesn’t it? But the technology is here, and in a similar fashion to the development curve Formula E’s cars have undergone over the past few years, the tech involved will improve, become more affordable and therefore prove to be suitable for racing very quickly.

Fillon has made it clear that planning beyond the next set of regulations is now a priority. This level of forward thinking is encouraging as the ACO has, in part, appeared to learn from the missteps of recent years, during which its hybrid LMP1 era peaked and troughed within a very short space of time.

“Things are now starting to happen,” Fillon said after H24’s launch at Spa. “We believe in hydrogen, just like we believed in hybrid technology and the introduction of a limited energy allocation.

“Today, hybrid cars are driven on public roads across the world. Research is an ongoing concern for us as the organizers of the 24 Hours, and encompasses the fields of safety, performance, lower fuel consumption and environmental protection. At the ACO, we have always worked alongside manufacturers and other stakeholders in the automotive sector, and we see Mission H24 as a genuine commitment to future mobility.

“With assistance from GreenGT, we will rise to this new challenge and will keep you regularly updated, at every step of the way to our ultimate goal in 2024.”

Going forward, the zero-emission H24 will continue to hit the track in public. Fillon explained at the Paris Motor Show that the next step is to have the car compete in the ELMS-supporting Michelin Le Mans Cup for LMP3 and GT3 cars in 2019. It won’t be eligible to score points, but the target is to enter every race, including, it would seem, the Road to Le Mans races on the full Circuit de la Sarthe during the build-up to the 24 Hours.

Fillon added that five unnamed manufacturers are working with the ACO to define the 2024 regulations. Who are they? It’s hard to say with much confidence right now, even when studying the public-facing future strategies of some of the potential key players.

I’d imagine one would be BMW. The German marque is already a WEC stakeholder in GTE and has taken a regular stance in recent years that fielding a zero-emissions car at Le Mans is a target.

And another might well be Audi. Le Maine Libre, the French newspaper for the La Sarthe region, reported last month online and in print that the former LMP1 giant is “secretly” preparing to return to Le Mans around 2022, with a target of fielding a hydrogen-fueled prototype.

If interest is there from major manufacturers who have the sort of resources required, it would appear there is real potential for this to take off, and for the picture to become a lot clearer as we edge closer to the target of date for this tech to debut.

Will manufacturers commit? Will it be too expensive to sustain long term? Where does it leave the prototypes from 2020 onward, which we haven’t even seen yet? Will privateers be involved in the dialogue?

There’s so many questions, and few answers right now.

What we do know is that the ACO is willing to bet its future on hydrogen power, in the same way it did with Hybrid technology, and attempt to seize what could be a colossal opportunity for sports car racing and its viability down the line.