INSIGHT: Hydrogen takes another step towards Le Mans reality

Images by ACO/Mission H24

INSIGHT: Hydrogen takes another step towards Le Mans reality

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Hydrogen takes another step towards Le Mans reality

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Last October, RACER took a look at the future of the FIA World Endurance Championship, beyond the 2020 ‘Hypercar’ regulations and toward the relevance of the the ‘H24 Project’, which aims to develop hydrogen technology for use in top-class ACO racing from 2024 onwards.

Five months on, there’s been a significant update to the ACO’s joint venture with the H24 team after the alternative-fuel-powered car ran for the first time at Le Mans yesterday.

In a rather symbolic demonstration, the H24 LMPH2G lapped the Bugatti Circuit at La Sarthe as part of a conference about future mobility, and looked to be running faster than it did during its public demonstration at Spa-Francorchamps last year.

When the hydrogen tech becomes eligible for the WEC and Le Mans (slated for 2024/25), the ‘Hypercar’ formula will be either midway through or nearing its end, depending on how things pan out. DPi Gen II will be underway by then too, and prototype racing could well look very different.

But that fact has done nothing to curb the ACO’s ambitions for the future and its drive to showcase zero-emission technology at its crown jewel event: the Le Mans 24 Hours.

The ACO’s sporting director, Vincent Beaumesnil, has stated publicly that the target lap time (during the race, not in qualifying) at Le Mans for hydrogen fuel-cell prototypes is 3m30s, which is significant. Not only does that pose a real task for those involved in developing the technology (the H24 team and other, prospective manufacturers), but it puts them very much in the performance window of the 2020 Hypercars.

With the Hypercar rules set still very much a work in progress (though the latest version of the draft regulations are expected any time now), this poses an interesting prospect. Prototypes featuring manufacturer-relevant styling cues, and race-going versions of road-going hypercars/concept cars are both now permitted, with both hybrid and non-hybrid solutions also an option. So could we see the hydrogen-powered top-class cars race in the same class within just a few years?

That would mean zero-emissions race cars being added to the growing list of eligible solutions for the incoming rules, which crucially, will be governed by Balance of Performance, replacing the Equivalence of Technology that has been used in the current LMP1 era. This change could streamline their transition into the WEC’s next generation of top-class challengers.

That’s not to say this solution would be simple. The many challenges the ACO now faces must be considered, and the increase in resources needed to manage the balancing process for such an array of different technologies and philosophies is surely the most pressing one.

The negatives that arise from the (almost-certain) potential for budget disparity is another aspect that must be considered. Cutting-edge hydrogen-fueled cars racing against the more financially restrained hypercars could lead to aspirant factories spending money on the scale of Porsche and Audi in LMP1 over the past decade, competing against factory teams and privateer efforts expecting results at a fraction of the cost.

That’s not to say that manufacturers won’t want to sign up, though. BMW and Audi are continuing to express interest in the proposed 2024 formula, and other manufacturers will also likely be keeping a close eye as their own road-going ranges evolve from internal combustion to more sustainable technology.

Make no mistake: If done right, a zero-emissions formula with hydrogen fuel cell technology could be the most relevant and marketable form of motorsport for manufacturers by the time we reach 2024.

“Work is progressing well,” Beaumesnil said when asked about the state of the 2024 regulations at Sebring this month. “We have people coming from all around the world for this working group. The last meeting was Thursday (before Sebring) and we are progressing better than I expected on this.”

The 2020 rules are very much designed to get as many manufacturers as possible to come and play at more controlled levels of expenditure, and to see the ACO and FIA through this transition period for the automotive industry.

The 2024 rules model, meanwhile, have a very different aim: bring back manufacturers willing to push the boundaries, and use Le Mans as a test bed.

And the Le Mans 24 Hours could look very different by 2024. Much depends on how the coming months pan out in shaping the FIA WEC’s top class in the short to medium-term. But the race itself could feel very different for another reason: The pit/grandstand complex at the Circuit de la Sarthe is set to be replaced for the 2023 edition, in time for the event’s centenary celebration. The renovations will ensure an up-to-date facility for the teams and drivers in the paddock, and potentially allow for a bigger grid to compete.

The grid size for the 24 Hours has quietly been growing over the past three decades. Gone are the days when the maximum capacity was 46 cars, set by the current complex when it was built in 1991. The grid expanded to 48 cars shortly after, and then 50 in 2002 when the Michel Vaillant movie helped fund additional garages at pit out.

It then jumped to 55 in 2007, 56 in 2010, and 60 in 2016, the pit-out end of pit lane becoming ever more crowded with the annexed pit boxes installed.

Could we see further expansion? Yes. Pressed on the matter at Sebring, both Beaumesnil and ACO President Pierre Fillon acknowledged the desire and potential for additional cars.

Currently, the Le Mans 24 Hours is heavily oversubscribed, leaving the selection committee with increasingly powerful headaches at the end of each calendar year.

While that has become a real problem, particularly ahead of this year’s running due to the number of WEC full-season entries and automatic invitations having left some key players without entries, the ACO hopes the level of interest remains as high, if not higher, going forward.

If more than 60 cars are racing at Le Mans into the next decade, and a considerable number of them are blue-chip manufacturers racing for the overall win, then all the current planning and persistence shown by those in charge to move forward will have been worthwhile.

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