Is hydrogen the answer?

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A dwindling pool of manufacturers at the pinnacle of the World Endurance Championship has forced the rule makers to backtrack on technology. But the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the WEC promoter and organiser of the Le Mans 24 Hours, still insists that the top prototype class will continue to be a laboratory for future developments in the road car industry. That explains why it wants to have zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell technology on the grid by 2024.

Had first Audi and then Porsche not quit the LMP1 ranks, the category might have looked very different at the start of the new decade. There were plans to permit a third energy retrieval system, a move that appeared likely to come into force in 2019. That was followed by the idea of an electric-only kilometre after every fuel stop for a 2020 introduction. Each time the ACO and the FIA, who jointly write the rules, were forced to rethink.

The scope of the hybrid technology in the ‘hypercar concept’ rules that will come into force for the 2020/21 WEC winter season has been cut back in the name of cost reduction. Just one retrieval system will be permitted. But the ACO wants new technologies racing at Le Mans and eventually the WEC from the middle of the 2020s. And top of its list is the hydrogen fuel cell. 

“We have a clear goal: from 2024 it should be possible to drive completely CO2-neutral at Le Mans — and that is only possible with certain technologies,” says ACO president Pierre Fillon. “I’m probably not the only one who doesn’t believe in battery-powered systems as the ultimate and comprehensive solution. We have our sights set on other engines for 2024.”

Fillon is talking about hydrogen power. For the moment, though, that talk about a technology in which the ACO has long held an interest is in the broadest possible terms. The GreenGT experimental car was pencilled in to fill the ‘Garage 56’ slot at Le Mans as long ago as 2013. Exactly how hydrogen power will be incorporated into the WEC rulebook has yet to be determined.

It is not clear whether fuel-cell technology would become part of the ‘hypercar concept’ rules or whether a hydrogen-powered car would race at Le Mans as an invited ‘Garage 56’ entry. But at least two major manufacturers believe that it will be possible for someone to hit Fillon’s 2024 target.

BMW has already investigated what it calls a “long-haul” technology for an application in motor sport. It reckons it would be possible to race a hydrogen-powered car right now, with certain constraints. Technological developments might remove many of them by 2024.

“We did a concept study to check if it is possible or not, and we came to the conclusion that with a few constraints it was feasible,” explains BMW Motorsport boss Jens Marquardt. “It would be a technology to consider for a race application in endurance racing and it is something we could look at in the future from a prototype point of view.”

Audi, the brand within the Volkswagen Group chosen to focus on hydrogen power, claimed just prior to its withdrawal from LMP1 that it already had the capability to build and race a prototype with a fuel cell.

It appears that the big manufacturers have the technology to go to  Le Mans with a hydrogen-powered car. The question is whether any have  the intent to make the ACO’s dream a reality?

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