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How close is widespread adoption of hydrogen in motorsport?

Momentum is building behind hydrogen as a solution for zero-emissions motorsport. But what challenges face those taking the plunge, and how long will these take to iron out?

MissionH24 LMPH2G

Hydrogen has long been touted as the silver bullet to answer motorsport’s sustainability problem. Water is the sole byproduct of fuel cell vehicles using green hydrogen – that is, hydrogen produced by a process of electrolysis using renewable energy sources, rather than derived from natural gases where carbon monoxide is also emitted in its production – and a growing number of programmes are seeking to exploit its credentials. They range from internal combustion engines (ICEs) converted to run on hydrogen, which still emit some nitrogen oxides (NOx), to fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) that use hydrogen to power electric motors.

The first racing championship to run on fuel cell technology, Extreme H, will kick off next year, but there is little consensus on whether hydrogen will become widely used in racing, let alone at what stage. Significant hurdles must be overcome to fully win over sceptics yet to be convinced by factors of cost and safety, while battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have reached a point of technical maturity that seems a long way off yet for hydrogen, which is still in the early stages of being optimised.

Fuel cells are especially complicated. Through a process of reverse electrolysis, hydrogen meeting air is converted into electrical power, which uses up energy that contributes to making it less efficient than EVs using power stored in batteries. This factor, and the limited number of commercially available options using hydrogen propulsion as a consequence, goes some way to explaining why Toyota is the only major OEM to have publicly demonstrated the technology in a motorsport setting so far.

Those who have taken the plunge aren’t blind to the challenges, but they are optimistic.

“There’s a lot to do and a lot to have a look at, but it’s like a snowball at the moment,” says AVL Racetech motorsport director Ellen Lohr. “You see this snowball gets speed and suddenly there will be the point where it’s just rolling and being big and there. I personally think the ball is rolling already.”

AVL Ractech has produced a hydrogen combustion engine which it hopes will be used to make club-level series more sustainable

AVL Ractech has produced a hydrogen combustion engine which it hopes will be used to make club-level series more sustainable

Photo by: AVL RaceTech

Why hydrogen interest is gathering

While Formula 1 has pursued sustainable fuels for a net zero exhaust emissions and a hike in the electrical contribution of its powertrain for its 2026 engine rules reboot, the impending 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles in the UK means the push for zero-emissions motorsport is gathering pace.

Hydrogen and BEVs become the two clear approaches to satisfy this criteria, but as hydrogen consultant to the Automobile Club de l’Ouest Bernard Niclot explains, BEVs are “not adapted for endurance racing”, with four laps at the Circuit de la Sarthe reckoned to be enough to drain most batteries. By contrast, hydrogen permits refuelling rates and range that are closer to conventional ICE cars and work in collaboration with battery technology used in EVs. While Niclot concedes that “it’s a huge challenge”, he is convinced that the zero-emissions solution for endurance racing “is a hydrogen option”.

His view is shared by Green Corp Konnection (GCK), the team behind a hydrogen fuel cell assault on the 2024 Dakar Rally, and which concluded that hydrogen is the best-suited zero-emission alternative to fossil fuel for long-distance cross-country rally raids.

"For me the great thing with hydrogen is the same feeling as the normal internal combustion engine and you get the sound" Jari-Matti Latvala

There are emotive factors involved in a pursuit of hydrogen too. Lohr, a DTM race winner with Mercedes in the 1990s, has overseen the creation of a hydrogen-powered ICE that is the first engine built in the history of AVL’s racing department, which until now has only sold software in its own name. The two-litre engine, which is anticipated to produce 300kW, is set to begin dyno testing soon and it is hoped to be sufficiently reliable by the end of the year to put into a physical car.

“I personally see a great future in hydrogen combustion and now the racer is speaking, because I love that with this technology you can keep the sound,” she says.

Toyota World Rally Championship boss Jari-Matti Latvala agrees. The Finn raced a Corolla powered by hydrogen ICE in the Fuji 24 Hours last year, while Toyota company president Akio Toyoda demonstrated a hydrogen ICE GR Yaris on a stage of the Ypres Rally last year. Toyota has also developed a liquid hydrogen-powered Corolla, but it was withdrawn from the opening round of the Super Taikyu season at Suzuka earlier this month following a testing fire.

“Hydrogen is something really interesting, it would be great to have in motorsport,” enthuses Latvala. “For me the great thing with hydrogen is the same feeling as the normal internal combustion engine and you get the sound.”

Toyota gave H2 ICE-powered Yaris a public demonstration on Rally Ypres last year

Toyota gave H2 ICE-powered Yaris a public demonstration on Rally Ypres last year

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Projects currently under way

MissionH24 has been at the vanguard for hydrogen motorsport, racing against conventional combustion LMP3 and GT3 cars in the European Le Mans Series-supporting Michelin Le Mans Cup series with its fuel cell racer. Built by GreenGT as part of a joint venture with the ACO, its ADESS LMP3-based H24 made its race debut last year and is evolved from the original LMPH2G that first appeared in practice sessions in 2019.

The goal, GreenGT technical manager Bassel Aslan explains, is “to be more competitive and to the level that you cannot even distinguish between a hydrogen car and a classical car”. But so far reliability and ironing out the foibles in the enormously complex system has been an equally important focus.

Insight: Under the skin of the mobile lab for hydrogen at Le Mans

“You can imagine, we just got in the races and we will lose our credibility, lose our image if you see the car just stopped on the circuit, and this is why we put a huge effort there,” he says.

“Six months before the first race in Imola we worked a lot on this and we did a lot of tests tracing all the anomalies to work on them one by one, solving them, avoiding them stopping us on the circuit. All the sensors, all the actuators in the system and the accessories of the fuel cell and the actuator can really stop the whole car.”

According to Niclot, the ACO has considered hydrogen as a solution since GreenGT pulled its Garage 56 entry for the 2013 Le Mans 24 Hours, deeming its H2 car to be not sufficiently developed. To that end the ACO set up a working group, which first met in May 2018, with the goal of creating a hydrogen category for the World Endurance Championship and Le Mans.

It was originally planned for 2024 with suppliers for spec chassis, hydrogen tanks and electric powertrain communicated in January 2021. Manufacturers would be able to develop their own fuel cell technology. But delays induced by COVID mean a start date of 2026 at the earliest is anticipated.

“It’s clear that from this learning programme with H24 we have understood some tricky points that were not so obvious from the beginning, and we know we have to be attentive to these points for the development of the H2 category,” says Niclot. “So for me, this H24 programme is really doing the job we wanted.

“When you see where we were two years ago in terms of performance and where we are now, it’s really impressive. Now we are very close to GT3 cars and at that time we were 10 or 15 seconds behind.”

MissionH24 programme fields a fuel cell electric racer against conventional ICE technology in the Le Mans Cup series

MissionH24 programme fields a fuel cell electric racer against conventional ICE technology in the Le Mans Cup series

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Having made a splash on the World Rallycross Championship by retrofitting a Lancia Delta to run on electric power, GCK plans to do the same with the Dakar-winning Peugeot 3008 DKR, which forms the basis for its e-Blast H2 hydrogen challenger. The final regulations have yet to be agreed with organiser the ASO, but project leader Cedric Challine of GCK Performance says significant progress has been made since a show car was revealed at last year’s event.

“We have the last evolution of tanks into the vehicle and also the last evolution of our fuel cell, which is at the moment on the [test] bench,” reveals Challine. “It will run in hard conditions really soon.”

The same hydrogen fuel cell that Guerlain Chicherit will use in the gruelling Saudi desert will also power snow groomers patrolling the Alpe d’Huez ski resort, which Challine points out will mean it has data from both temperature extremes that should “permit a lot of fast development”.

"You cannot say ‘I multiply by two the power’ because you need to have much more hydrogen on board if you want to make enough laps in a stint, and then you become embarrassed by the weight" Bernard Niclot

Meanwhile, a hydrogen offshoot of electric off-road series Extreme E, called Extreme H, is on its way for the second quarter of 2024. The brainchild of Formula E founder and alternative fuels visionary Alejandro Agag, its first prototype built by Spark Racing Technologies is set to begin testing in June. Having used hydrogen to power the Extreme E paddock, championship manager James Taylor is optimistic and feels that Agag’s track record makes for a good omen.

“We feel confident we understand it, we feel confident we know how to handle it, how to transport it and understand the risks as well,” he states. “Alejandro is a trailblazer, what he achieved with Formula E was so far ahead of other championships. We want to do the same with hydrogen.”

The hurdles

Weight is arguably the first major obstacle when it comes to comparing hydrogen vehicles to conventional combustion.

“If you take fuel cell technology today, you can get some good power but fuel cells are quite heavy in respect of standard ICEs,” says Niclot. And hydrogen storage is another related headache.

“If you want to have enough hydrogen on board you need to compress it,” Niclot explains. “The pressure is 700 bar, which is huge, and you have to keep this hydrogen at this pressure. If you want an image, it’s the weight of an elephant on a postal stamp.

GCK plans to field its hydrogen fuel cell e-Blast H2 on the Dakar Rally next year

GCK plans to field its hydrogen fuel cell e-Blast H2 on the Dakar Rally next year

Photo by: DPPI

“For each kilogram of hydrogen that you have on board, you have more or less 18 to 20 kilograms of tank. So to remain competitive, you have to find a compromise between the quantity of hydrogen you have on board, which defines the quantity of energy, and the weight and all the other parameters of the car. You cannot say ‘I multiply by two the power’ because you need to have much more hydrogen on board if you want to make enough laps in a stint, and then you become embarrassed by the weight.”

The challenge of packaging and cooling hydrogen effectively presents further difficulties. It’s not as though one fuel cell will produce enough power. Most FCEVs arrange multiple fuel cells in stacks – the H24 has one fuel cell system with four stacks. GCK’s Delta RX project would not have been possible with hydrogen given the constraints of the bodywork, says Challine.

“The volume you can put into the car to have it driven by an electric motor and energy is quite limited,” he explains. “If you want hydrogen technology put inside this car at the moment, with the technology we know and the volume it takes to have a few kilos of hydrogen into a car, it’s becoming more difficult.

“Maybe it will be possible later on if the technologies evolve and as we had before with batteries. The batteries are less heavy now than they were 10 years ago and take less volume, so maybe hydrogen will be the same in 10 years. At the moment the only way is to have [the Delta] electrical.”

Cost, naturally, is also a stumbling block. Hydrogen tanks that can withstand that enormous pressure and are leak resistant don’t come cheap. And the same goes for platinum, the most common catalyst in fuel cells. All told, truly green hydrogen requires significantly more resources to produce, and significant investment in infrastructure, all for inferior efficiency to EVs. So those serious about hydrogen propulsion have begun investing in their own power supply.

AVL has developed its own containerised electrolyser using solar panels to produce its own green hydrogen, which Lohr believes will be “a very good solution, especially when it comes to race tracks”. And GCK, a diverse company of which its motorsport arm is only one part, has stepped up its work on the distribution of electric and hydrogen power as it seeks to roll out a fleet of coaches – currently being homologated – and Renault Master utility vehicles converted to use its own in-house fuel cell. This will also be crucial to make its Dakar programme feasible, Challine says, “because at the moment we know it’s difficult for organisers to be in the middle of the desert and to provide the hydrogen to 20 teams”.

The H24 car has a mobile hydrogen filling station built by TotalEnergies that cools and compresses the stored hydrogen. But to run more cars on hydrogen at the same event could pose logistical issues, Niclot explains, because currently “you need to have more or less such a container per car in the race”. That would be problematic with a 62-car grid at Le Mans.

“Six to 10 cars in Le Mans is something we can do,” he points out. “To go from 10 cars in Le Mans to the complete grid, you need to have an update in the technology.”

Constraints of cooling and packaging hydrogen fuel cells means GCK's EV Delta would not be viable with that propulsion method

Constraints of cooling and packaging hydrogen fuel cells means GCK's EV Delta would not be viable with that propulsion method

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

But not all industry figures anticipate that infrastructure will be a significant stumbling block in the way it has been with electric charging, which may smooth its adoption in motorsport.

“People think hydrogen infrastructure is complicated and it doesn’t have to be if you look at it in stages,” reckons Cosworth CEO Hal Reisinger, his company one of many including ORECA to have invested in hydrogen test cells. “Internal combustion engines can be very easily converted to hydrogen; put different injectors in, remap the ECU and there’s this entire infrastructure of engines that are available. It’s much easier to establish a hydrogen infrastructure than an electric infrastructure.”

Asked how far away a hydrogen-powered engine is for Cosworth, Reisinger cryptically replies: “It’s the present.”

Niclot believes the ultimate validation of hydrogen’s potential will be if it can one day beat conventional technology. To do that, significant investment from manufacturers will be needed to improve the standard of technology currently on offer

Hydrogen is “one element of an overall strategy” for the battery supplier for the British Touring Car Championship that through its Delta Cosworth arm has over the past several years developed a catalytic generator that interacts with hydrogen to provide portable power generation and produces no emissions. It is used as a range extender on Ariel’s newly released electric Hipercar.

Lohr agrees that hydrogen combustion “will come much quicker than everybody is thinking”, particularly as she recognises a great need to “democratise sustainability in motorsport” and help future-proof lower categories that lack the investment afforded to F1 and the WEC.

“We have to do something, that is very clear,” she declares, explaining AVL’s decision to embark on its hydrogen engine project. “We should not forget when we talk about motorsport that we have hundreds and thousands of cars on a lower level and we cannot forget them because then motorsport at a point will only be the top classes, because the other classes will be forbidden. Look at 2030, so what do we do for them?

“That’s the key idea with this engine, to really bring it to a customer level. We started with a two-litre now because it fits to many needs. But there will be a wider range of hydrogen combustion engines as well, for sure.”

Using hydrogen to power the full Le Mans field looks like it is still some way off, even if some industry figures are optimistic about the infrastructure required

Using hydrogen to power the full Le Mans field looks like it is still some way off, even if some industry figures are optimistic about the infrastructure required

Photo by: Rainier Ehrhardt

Will it ever be widespread in racing?

Niclot believes the ultimate validation of hydrogen’s potential will be if it can one day beat conventional technology. To do that, significant investment from manufacturers will be needed to improve the standard of technology currently on offer.

“It’s always difficult to say exactly when, but I imagine that one day a hydrogen car could be the top category in Le Mans,” he says. “What we want to do from 2026 is to demonstrate that these cars are competitive and able to win the race.

“Will they win? I don’t know, but we would like to have cars able to, and one day, in some more years, it could be the only winning car. But from the beginning, of course, they will have to compete and demonstrate that this technology can be competitive against gasoline cars.”

Niclot’s prediction that “you need at least 10 years if you want to have hydrogen quite mainstream” isn’t universally shared, however.

“We are not talking about decades,” reckons Aslan. “I think it’s a matter of years. In the beginning when we started, our refuelling station was put away as far as possible from the paddock and other facilities. It’s psychological – ‘it’s hydrogen, it’s dangerous’. People are programmed like this. And gradually, when they saw that it’s as safe as any other refuelling, gradually we got closer. In Le Mans [last year] we were next to the paddock.”

Challine believes that it could be as little as five years if enough rulemakers are sufficiently inspired to take the plunge.

“It all depends on the regulations and on the organisers, I think,” he says. “We’ve seen the electric technology growing and getting better and more powerful every year, and batteries less heavy and more efficient, and we are sure that hydrogen will be the same. The technologies are there and people are using the technologies, so now I think it’s more up to them.”

GCK's Challine believes hydrogen can be widely adopted if regulators are willing to open up the rulebooks

GCK's Challine believes hydrogen can be widely adopted if regulators are willing to open up the rulebooks

Photo by: GCK RX Team

“The powers in the different motorsport bodies need to have a better understanding of what hydrogen is capable of,” agrees Reisinger, who regards synthetic fuels as “an easy default”. “[F1] has thus far gone down the road of energy recovery and the like. I think when they want to maintain the visceral and emotional benefit of an internal combustion engine, and yet still then achieve the reduction in the climate footprint, then they’ll arrive at that as a solution.”

"Like with all new technologies it’s getting cheaper, it’s getting less complicated, it’s getting better understood in the future. There is more to come" Ellen Lohr

Hydrogen is still a long way from being fully optimised in motorsport. Even five years into the MissionH24 project, Aslan says “we are still in the beginning, we can really make jumps in a very limited time”. And while there are problems that have to be worked out, motorsport’s track record as a laboratory suggests it may be a fertile proving ground for hydrogen, especially as barriers to entry reduce with investment.

“Like with all new technologies it’s getting cheaper, it’s getting less complicated, it’s getting better understood in the future,” predicts Lohr. “There is more to come.”

“The world has not been built in one day and so we need to do it step by step,” adds Niclot. “That’s what we are going to do.”

Extreme E will launch a hydrogen offshoot next year, but is confident that both series will be compatible with one another

Extreme E will launch a hydrogen offshoot next year, but is confident that both series will be compatible with one another

Photo by: Charly Lopez / Motorsport Images

Why hydrogen and EVs aren’t mutually exclusive

Speaking at the Autosport International show about future propulsion methods for motorsport, Hypermotive strategy director Jonathan Brown made some telling remarks.

“Hydrogen is not necessarily the answer to everything and that’s one of the key things we need to understand as we move forward away from the ubiquitous ICE,” he said. “In the future, we’re going to have to be very much more willing as a society to understand that there will be much more specific solutions to different applications.”

It’s clear therefore that development of hydrogen technologies will not come at the expense of battery electric vehicles. AVL Racetech’s Ellen Lohr agrees that the two approaches “serve different purposes and both will exist in the near future and in the far, far future too”.

Where short, sharp sprint races in rallycross are ideally suited to EVs, hydrogen can be tailored for use in longer distance formats. With feet in both camps, having established Extreme E and working to prepare Extreme H for a 2024 start date, championship manager James Taylor believes “there’s absolutely space for both” forms of propulsion in motorsport.

Developments in electric motors and batteries will not go to waste if hydrogen takes off, believes GCK’s Dakar project leader Cedric Challine, “because anyway the electric motor will be the same” in a fuel cell vehicle or conventional EV.

“If you use only a battery, or you use hydrogen recharging the battery and then an electric motor, the electric technology will be the same,” he says.

He considers the multitude of options only as a positive.

“We have a lot of technologies in front of us that we can use either separated or all together,” Challine adds. “It’s quite fantastic to have everything in front of you, as is the case. If you have a customer then I can choose from one way to the other what we can do and what we can integrate into it.”

Fuel cell machines still need batteries and motors used for full electric vehicles, meaning the technology won't become redundant if momentum continues to gather behind hydrogen

Fuel cell machines still need batteries and motors used for full electric vehicles, meaning the technology won't become redundant if momentum continues to gather behind hydrogen

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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