Extreme E pulls back the curtain on hydrogen testing

By | December 19, 2023

Only one season of Extreme E remains in its current form. The 2024 campaign will be the swan song for the battery-electric Odyssey 21 before its successor, the as-yet unnamed Extreme H hydrogen fuel cell car, arrives.

The transition to hydrogen is not easy. There is no hydrogen motorsport series yet, so while Extreme H is developing a new car, the series is also working with the FIA ​​to create new rules and safety standards for hydrogen racing.

“[It’s] very similar to all the work that has been done in Formula 1 for many years and that has obviously flowed back to all the different championships,” said Extreme E technical director Mark Grain, speaking to media such as RACER at the recent season finale in Chile. “We are doing this work for the first time, because it is the first hydrogen car. We look at side impacts, low impacts and impacts from above. The chassis is designed in such a way that the metal element of the chassis is much more robust in that area.”

“They are still defined in collaboration with the FIA, and they are bolt-on parts. Again, something similar to what you’ve seen in various racing categories. So they are screwed to the side and are also replaceable. These elements and collaboration have been carefully considered.”

Figuring out how to build and race hydrogen vehicles is one of the many challenges Extreme H faces. Another example is safety stigma. It’s something series director Ali Russell is well aware of, having faced similar outside doubts during Formula E’s gestation.

“Hydrogen cars exist, but this will be a championship dedicated to hydrogen. Hydrogen can be one of the solutions, not only for e-mobility, but also for electricity and green energy,” he says. “So I think we have a responsibility, we have a North Star, and what we want to do is accelerate that growth in that adoption.

“We have a number of challenges, and the biggest one is the education system, because every time you talk to someone about hydrogen, they talk about the explosive nature of hydrogen, and the Hindenburg and its connotations. What we need to do is break that down, we need to show the performance of the vehicles, but also the fact that they can be so resilient in some of the crashes that you have in this championship and multi-car championships. .”

It is also important to find out how the hydrogen cars will be supplied with fuel. The paddock setup will obviously be the first of its kind, but it could also have legitimate relevance in the real world.

“There will be a tailor-made setup in the paddock,” says Grain. “We expect two gas stations and a line of cars that will come, fill up, drive, and then.

“It gives us a platform to demonstrate that refueling with hydrogen is very common and very simple. We would just have the two gas stations in the back, which is like a gas station these days.

Hydrogen fuel cells could also open up the possibility of mid-race refueling, Russell explains.

“I think the challenge we will have is: how do we evolve as a championship? Because what hydrogen makes possible for us is refueling during the race,” he says. “So you stop and do it [driver] change and refuel? Do you have another one? [stop]? How do we do that?”

Although a lot of attention has understandably been paid to the transition from cars to hydrogen, the evolution does not stop there. The new vehicle will be almost entirely new and benefit from the lessons learned in the first three (soon to be four) seasons of Extreme E racing, especially with regard to the suspension – something that has undergone extensive development with the help of Fox , which came on board during Season 2.

“The three years of [data] that we now have in Extreme E have not been forgotten, they have been thought about,” says Grain. “Spark has done an excellent job with the H car and the revised suspension geometry. They’ve worked with a number of technical partners in the US who are also experts in off-road racing, Baja, and so on, so [we] definitely expect improvements in the driver experience, improvements in geometry, different damper ranges, spring ranges and so on.”

However, the battery technology, which will serve as a ‘buffer battery’ to temporarily store the energy produced by the fuel cell until it is needed by the engines, will be carried over from the Extreme E cars. It won’t be a direct port, though, as WAE is working to repackage it into something smaller and more efficient.

“They’ve done a fantastic job of repackaging the technology they have,” says Grain. “So instead of being a cube, it’s more of a rectangle. All that technology is transferred, [but] there are no compromises when it comes to the hydrogen fuel cell.”

With revised approaches to bodywork and suspension, sights like this could be a thing of the past in Extreme H. Colin McMaster/Motorsport Images

The bodywork will change, and dramatically – from the large and expensive parts of the current car, to smaller parts that will reduce the enormous amount of cosmetic damage to which the Odyssey 21 is susceptible.

“The principles behind the major components of the Extreme E car were ease of maintenance, so if you take a major part off you can start working on it straight away,” Grain explains. “What we need from our H-car in the future is a body that is more modular. Smaller components, smaller sections, that could be replaced quickly; some parts are forgiving, such as deformable structures around the wheel arches for example.

“Should there be any contact, instead of breaking it, and then maybe having a big piece that we have to throw away – even if it’s made of green material – you can see how that starts the principle behind what we were to hollow out. trying to get there. “So there will be a lot more modular bodywork, making it much easier to swap out smaller components because we now have a better understanding of what kind of racing we want.”

That kind of racing has been intense, especially this season, with single-car qualifying runs being scrapped and teams running six multi-car races in a weekend. But rather than toning things down, Grain says, “we actually want the racing to be more intense.”

“We want the race cars to be faster, [have] more performance. We’ve taken some key metrics and goals from Extreme E and set them as absolutes – we don’t want to be lower. So when we talk about top speeds, power, acceleration, etc., that was our base minimum. In Extreme H we want to surpass all of these.”

In terms of performance, the Extreme H car will be basically comparable to the Extreme E car, despite its higher weight. It already meets these standards during testing, but the large-scale changes to the rest of the car, beyond the drive system, ensure that performance improvements will follow naturally.

“We have a limit in Extreme E because of the power delivery and the droop angles, so we artificially limit that power delivery in Extreme E – the car could make more power, but we limit it,” Grain reveals. “In Extreme H, those suspension geometry compromises have all been ironed out. So we will have a more powerful car. We believe we can easily compensate for that extra mass with the power and torque that will be available.”

Of course, the introduction of a new car and new technologies will inevitably raise concerns about costs. Extreme E in its current form is among the cheaper top-tier series, with sources indicating budgets for a full season are around $2-3 million. Russell suggests budgets will remain in the same ballpark.

“If you look at something like IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula E, it costs $20-30 million to run the teams in those championships,” he says. “What we want to be is a cheap option, but with a focus on the development of hydrogen technology, specifically around the fuel cell.”

Series founder and CEO Alejandro Agag says that after a year or two the rules could be opened up to allow the development of fuel cells, something that could lead to a slight increase in costs, but it won’t be anything prohibitive are, and may not even be worth it.

Extreme H will not soften the intense racing of Extreme E. Charly Lopez/Motorsport Images

“It will yield a little bit, but not that much, because they will already have the fuel cell developed for other uses,” Agag emphasizes. “So I think this will increase the cost, but the base car – or the customer’s car, if you want to call it that – will be ours. The one we will deliver with Spark and which will be available and cheap.

“If they want to grow, I don’t think the performance gains can be that huge,” he says, suggesting the only real benefit would be the brand recognition that could come from using in-house technology.

After the first system tests since the summer, the first full Extreme H prototype underwent its first shakedown this week. It marked a first major milestone for the car, which will be further tested in the first half of 2024.

“We’re operational, we’re not something ethereal like that,” says Grain. “We have a real car and it drives. We have an extensive testing program planned for the first and second quarters of next year.”

Russell adds that next season’s Extreme E calendar will also tie in with that testing programme, with a European-focused schedule allowing testing and racing to take place in parallel.

“What you’ll see is [that] next season is mainly about the transition,” he says. “So what that means is that we’re really going to focus on a lot of European locations because what we also want to do is test the H cars.”

The arrival of Extreme H in 2025 is very much on track and adheres to a timeline that other proposed hydrogen motorsport projects have not been able to achieve.

“We are going to hold the first, and I think for a long time, the only World Cup race on pure hydrogen,” says Agag. “I think all other plans with hydrogen have been very delayed everywhere. You also saw Le Mans, they wanted to make a car, but postponed it.

“Our car is running, we have done all the tests in France, we are going to test for another three months, but everything is operational. Everything is going well in terms of performance, reliability and safety.

“So we are going to start making the cars and in February 2025 we will have a hydrogen car race.”

The story originally appeared on Racer

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