BMW Plans To Return To Le Mans In 2018 With Hydrogen-Powered Fuel Cell Race Car
As the 83rd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans kicks off this weekend, BMW is reportedly planning a return to the world’s most prestigious endurance event with a new race car that would run exclusively on hydrogen fuel.
The speculation stems from a recent post made by the British publication Autocar, which states that while the project is still under consideration, it is in the advanced stages of evaluation and comes with tentative support from top Bimmer brass.
The post comes on the heels of conflicting statements made by BMW motorsport boss Jens Marquardt, who recently told Autosport.com that it was unlikely the automaker would join the ranks of the top rung in endurance racing competition, saying: “LMP1 is, at the moment, the big hybrid thing, and in there we wouldn’t be the leader. We wouldn’t even be the fast follower, we would be a slow follower now, as the fifth [after Audi, Toyota, Porsche and Nissan] manufacturer joining in. With our targets, I don’t see this really being something that we think about in a way that we are working on anything in that respect as a program.”
However, this downplay does not exempt the possible hydrogen racer from entering the catchall “Garage 56” category at Le Mans, which is a non-competitive class specifically designed for experimental vehicles. Previous Garage 56 entries include the 2012 Deltawing and 2014 Nissan ZEOD RC.
With a likely unveiling in 2018, the proposed hydrogen racer would build visibility and credibility for BMW’s hydrogen technology ahead of the launch of a new fuel-cell passenger vehicle. While details are sketchy, it’s believed BMW plans to release the new FCV sometime in 2020.
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Why it matters
BMW has a long history at Le Mans, beginning in 1939 when a 328 took victory in its class and fifth place overall, completing 236 laps in the 24-hour time period. Further Bimmer representation came in the form of the V-12 used to power McLaren’s famous 1995-winning McLaren F1 GTR, while other standouts include the competition-spec 3.0 CSL in 1973, 3.5 CSL in 1976, M1 in 1980 and 1981, and 1999-winning V12 LMR prototype, which clinched victory in the face of stout competition from Audi, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, and Nissan.
Suffice it to say, BMW knows what it takes to race and win at Le Mans. However, factory support has been less than exuberant over the last decade or so.
Suffice it to say, BMW knows what it takes to race and win at Le Mans. However, factory support has been less than exuberant over the last decade or so, probably due to the outrageous costs associated with developing a front-running prototype, and the high standards set by dominating makes like Audi.
Hopefully, that will change over the next few years. In many ways, Le Mans is the perfect test bed for new technology – not only is it widely publicized, the race is known for being extremely demanding on machinery. With huge speeds, long stints, and constantly changing conditions, there are few places where a vehicle’s weak points are so clearly exposed.
What’s more, Le Mans has a tradition of hosting new, cutting-edge technology. Most recently, Audi introduced things like hybrid and diesel power to the fray, but Le Mans is also the place where racing got a taste for superchargers (1929), disc brakes (1953), and the Wankel rotary engine (1970). Other Le Mans-developed techs include aerodynamics and carbon disc brakes.
So it would make a lot of sense for BMW to bring its hydrogen development to Le Mans for testing, gaining a good deal of publicity in the process.
It would make a lot of sense for BMW to bring its hydrogen development to Le Mans for testing, gaining a good deal of publicity in the process.
But with four manufacturers currently duking it out in the LMP1 class, it’s probably smart for BMW to test the waters a bit before diving in with a full competition program. After all, Porsche rejoined the battle last year in a bid to defend its title as the most successful manufacturer at Le Mans, butting heads with the intimidating presence of Audi.
Audi, meanwhile, hopes to extend its impressive reign even further with a 14th overall victory gained over the course of the previous 16 events. Not far behind is Toyota, which won the World Endurance Championship (of which the 24 HOLM is a part) outright last year, while Nissan is developing its hybrid chops with the radical 2015 Nissan GT-R LM NISMO. Meanwhile, both Ford and McLaren are rumored to be prepping their return to Le Mans, with a new 2016 Ford GT racer from the Americans and a 650S racer from the Brits.
It’s a tumultuous environment to enter. Complicating matters even further is BMW’s partnership with Toyota, which sees the two marques co-developing hydrogen technology, making an LMP1 bid from BMW a direct rival to efforts from Toyota.
Details on BMW’s progress with hydrogen tech are hazy at best, but it’s believed the Bavarians are currently busy testing a 5 Series Gran Turismo outfitted with an experimental hydrogen drivetrain. Future fuel-cell passenger vehicles from BMW are expected to fall under the company’s “i” division of eco-friendly models, of which the i3 and i8 are also a part.