While the upcoming 2020 Hypercar Prototype regulations are the talk of the paddock in the FIA WEC right now, work in the background continues to progress on the implementation of hydrogen fuel cell technology in 2024.
The European Le Mans Series’s trip to Spa-Francorchamps last month provided the ACO and the H24 project a chance to showcase real progress. 2024 might seem like an age away, but it’s not that long when you consider just how much work is required for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to be developed for competition at a global sporting event like the Le Mans 24 Hours.
That hasn’t fazed those behind this initiative, though. At a time when the automotive industry craves progress in zero emissions technology, and as climate change continues to feature prominently in news cycles, the ACO’s level of commitment is welcomed by OEMs.
“Yes, there are a good number of OEMs (interested in hydrogen regulations for Le Mans in the future),” ACO President Pierre Fillon told RACER. “I can tell you at this time that we have five manufacturers involved in the working group on the fuel cell regulations.
“But we have other manufacturers who are also engaged, asking us questions about that. You have French [manufacturers], you have U.S., you have German and for sure you have Japan and Korea.”
So what took place at Spa? The Green GT LMPH2G prototype – H24’s Adess LMP3-based hydrogen prototype – ran in the ELMS-supporting Le Mans Cup free practice sessions, lapping significantly faster than it did during its demo laps at Spa back in 2018, when the car somewhat struggled to complete a clean lap.
“This morning was the first time that the car ran on the track in the same session with classic competition cars, LMP3 and GT3,” Fillon said. “And in terms of performance it’s been a big improvement on last year.”
The target for next year is that the car will race in the Le Mans Cup, and run at GT3 pace. As it stands, its big disadvantage — beyond the current limitations of the technology — is weight. The car is far heavier than the other LMP3 chassis.
But performance is not the main focus right now. At present, reliability and the technology behind refueling is the main priority. Once the H24 Project can take field a race car anywhere in the world without having to pit more frequently than internal combustion-engined cars and/or lose additional time during refilling at each stop, the performance increase will follow.
In addition to the car running in competitive sessions at Spa, TOTAL – a major partner to the H24 project – brought with it a new transportable filling station, the first of its kind. This demonstrated how the car can be refilled at circuits without the necessary permanent infrastructure.
A fitted-out shipping container, TOTAL’s station is a technological achievement in itself, especially when you consider that it was commissioned, designed, manufactured and shown to the public in less than a year. It can be transported easily between circuits, and shortly, will be able to function in a live pit lane.
“The plan for the ACO is to promote hydrogen technology for the future in competition and to compete, you need of course a race car,” said Fillon. “But you need to have a race car that is able to go far. And to go far you need to refuel. And that’s why this day is very important because with TOTAL we developed a mobile station able to refuel this car on all the tracks in Europe, because this car will compete in Michelin Le Mans Cup next year.”
In partnering with the ACO for this, TOTAL is showing real foresight. In today’s world fuel companies are widely seen as “the problem” when it comes to climate change. But this initiative from TOTAL is a way of future-proofing its business and telling the world that it can be part of “the solution”, not just in motorsport, but in the automotive sector as a whole.
“We are developing a hydrogen network,” Romain Aubry, TOTAL’s motorsport technical coordinator explained. “We have one in Germany and the Netherlands. We want to lead the way and expand our hydrogen capabilities – we don’t want to be a spectator, we want to be a big part of this. The hydrogen station with H24 is part of this, it’s something completely new.
“Developing this technology is not cheap at all, but the money isn’t what we should be focusing on, it’s the knowledge. TOTAL has a dedicated affiliate in its group based in the Netherlands, specialized in hydrogen and natural gas. They already have some networks, some refilling stations for buses and trucks. We’ve built on that to create the H24 station.
“The refilling time we want to achieve for H24 is not what we are doing for buses, like half an hour. For this our target is less than a minute. Today it’s not feasible. What we did in Spa was around four minutes for four kilos. But, it is twice as fast as what we could have done in a normal station a year ago.”
Looking ahead, the target remains for hydrogen-powered cars to compete at Le Mans in 2024. Right now the technology is way off, but the ACO and its partner TOTAL with the H24 project, aren’t lacking in ambition.
Fillon feels that the cars should run to the same performance level of the current top class cars, though maybe not right away. A hydrogen car capable of winning Le Mans is a goal.
Many members of the motorsport and automotive industries will be keeping an eye on the progress made here. Getting this technology to the point where cars can run to the level of performance levels envisioned will be a monumental task that requires huge amounts of financing.
But, as with all major technological motorsports advancements, an arms-race of sorts between multiple manufacturers could pave the way to rapid progress. It could lead to achieving and exceeding the targets set by the governing bodies of the world’s most prominent sports car race.
“The main preoccupation of people now is climate change,” said Fillon. “And we are obliged to respond to where governments and manufacturers are working. They are working on zero-emission vehicles.
“(2024’s developing regulations) are a challenging target. But competition is here for that.”
It will be a huge challenge, which will be difficult to achieve in this timeframe. But there is momentum, and there are people working around the clock to ensure the technology edges closer to its potential.
“Look at what happened with hybrid cars, and how quickly that moved on. We have four years and we have to think about H24 and 2024 constantly,” Aubry added. “The target is to have hydrogen cars racing on track at Le Mans.”