top of page
  • Peter MacKay

Hybrid Power: Can it keep the good times rolling in global motor sport?

Every time we pick up a newspaper, there is a relentless flow of conflicting stories on the success or otherwise of the relentless push for “electrification” or “hybridisation” in the motor vehicle. The overload of seemingly contradictory information can be charged by political bias, propaganda and influence from the motor industry.

Whenever I visit the City of London, it is harrowing just how polluted the air is to breath in and out. Millions of Londoners spend their day rushing between appointments by foot or bike breathing in unacceptable levels of harmful pollutants in the air. Rickety old white vans and tired old diesel taxis trundle around all day long with their engines barely getting a moments rest, the conveyor belt of chemicals bellowing out their exhausts is barely interrupted. By the 18th of March 2019, an area near Vauxhall bridge had already exceeded the daily legal limit of pollution on 36 occasions since January 1st. Of course, London is by no means alone in its toxic air quality, it is a problem that plagues the majority of the world’s cities.

If I give even the briefest thought to this issue, I fully understand why a quest for alternative propulsion methods for our motor vehicles is essential.

Now that I have exhausted my ability to comment on current affairs, politics and solving the conundrum of urban personal mobility, I shall turn our attention to a subject I am much more comfortable with. Motorsport. But what does air pollution and alternative propulsion strategies have to do with our sacred sport?

For generations, the top level of motorsport has been intrinsically linked with the R&D and marketing strategies of auto manufacturers. Since the sports inception with the very first motor races like the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris in the late 19th century, motorsport never has and never will be anything other than biblically expensive. Therefore, the top level of motorsport has been reserved as the almost exclusive playground of the world’s auto manufacturers. Since 1950, the Formula 1 drivers champion has piloted a car directly entered by an automotive manufacturer on 45 occasions. Heroic ‘independent’ efforts like Red Bull, Williams, Benetton, Brabham, Tyrrell, BRM and Cooper will have relied heavily on the support of an auto manufacturer for engine supply.

In the 2017 World rally championship, Cumbrian outfit M Sport, led by Malcolm Wilson, achieved a lifelong ambition. To finally win a WRC drivers world title. Wilson reportedly dipped into his own pocket to buy himself the ultimate Christmas present at the end of 2016. A short film released by the team showed an ecstatic Wilson breaking the news to his team, the collective jubilation of the M Sport crew was a joy to see. For the 2017 season, Sebastien Ogier would be behind the wheel of their Fiesta world rally car. As a wide eyed young boy who watched Malcolm roar through the Perthshire forests in his Michelin Pilot Ford Escort Cosworth, I was overjoyed to see this independent team finally getting the break they deserved. Breaking the piggy bank to secure the hottest signature in rallying proved to be a bold, yet wise investment for Malcolm Wilson. Ogier, the 2nd most successful WRC driver ever, didn’t let Wilson down. Upon crossing the line in Wales, the Frenchman had delivered exactly what he had been employed to do, to claim that elusive crown for M Sport. Sadly, the partnership would reluctantly end with Ogier being plucked by the might of PSA group and Citroen for the 2019 season. However, Sebastien left “the best boss he has ever worked for” with the perfect parting gift, another WRC drivers world title in 2018. This story is almost unique in world rallying. All the drivers and manufacturers trophies are littered with the names of automotive giants like Toyota, Citroen, Peugeot and Audi. Despite a relatively small helping hand from Ford HQ, M Sport really had no business taking on, and beating, the manufacturer teams.

It does make me giggle imagining the head of motorsport of a major auto manufacturer begging the board level bean counters to sign off on “just one more year” of a motor racing programme. It must be soul destroying trying to convince corporate robots who have never stood in a forest and experienced the pure joy of a car resembling their best-selling super mini jumping 50 metres through the air, pedalled by a Scandinavian genius. Toyota motor company president, Akio Toyoda, appears to require no persuasion to sign off on the company’s extravagant motorsport activity. A reported $100 million per year Le Mans LMP1 Hybrid programme and a 3 car, full factory assault on the World Rally Championship fronted by Tommi Makkinen are the ultimate indulgences for Mr Toyoda. However, he can sleep well reminding himself that the spend can be conveniently apportioned between marketing and research and development spending pots. At the age of 63, the grandson of Toyota’s founder, Mr Toyoda clearly suffers the same affliction for speed as many of us do. In 2019, it was reported on that he would compete in the Nurburgring 24 hour race. His choice of steed for this conquest? The brand new Toyota Supra, a car he will likely have personally signed off on. He sounds like my kind of boss!

Looking back through the history books, the examples of full factory motorsport crusades linked carefully with marketing strategy are almost endless. Many of these efforts are often flash in the pan affairs, only staying in place while the adequate number of petrol heads serve on the company’s board. However, there are two very notable exceptions. Porsche and Ferrari. Porsche’s seemingly never ending commitment to sports car racing is highly commendable. Without question, this long term commitment has cemented the brands reputation for not only desirable but durable cars too. Ferrari on the other hand have remained loyal to grand prix racing for generations. Association with the prestige and glamour of the top level of motorsport has been a nut shell marketing strategy since the brands inception. And boy has it been effective. In October 2015, Ferrari shares were offered to the public as part of an IPO in the USA at a price of between $48 and $52 per share. Following this activity, the company was valued at $12billion. At the close of the market on the 13th of August 2019, Ferrari shares sit at $160.82 a share.

An ironic yet relevant example of motorsport and marketing strategies working hand in hand is Audi’s introduction of a TDI turbo diesel powered car for the Le Mans 24hr in 2006. Back in early 2001, Audi’s lobbying for alternative fuels had already begun. As with all good lobbying efforts, the conversation can be gently navigated in the desired direction with the assistance of alcohol. Ulrich Baretzky, engine boss for Audi Sport, was enjoying a convivial evening with two senior ranking ACO executives when the subject of a diesel powered LMP prototype conveniently came up in conversation. Meanwhile, the top man at Audi Sport, Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, had been doing some lobbying of his own. During routine consultation with series organisers, the ACO, Dr Ullrich spoke of his feelings that alternative technologies needed to become part of the sport sooner rather than later. Ullrich knew better than most of the necessity to keep manufacturers stimulated and engaged enough to keep bankrolling exorbitant prototype projects in endurance racing. Road relevance of a motorsport programme was everything for the manufacturers. In 2019, hybrid and electric powertrains dominate the conversation of road relevance. 15 years ago, diesel power was flavour of the month. At the time, Audi had big plans for “TDI” diesel powered road cars. The German marque was determined to prove the technology was attractive to customers, particularly in the USA. Enter the American Le Mans Series. Since the turn of the millennium, Audi had been competing with their R8 LMP prototypes in the ALMS. Moving to diesel power in their prototype racers in the ALMS would provide the ideal platform to showcase their new technology. Dovetailing a Le Mans programme in Europe with their stateside racing activity was a vital component of the carefully crafted pitch for approval from the Audi board. A few brave men who risked their own political standing in one of the world’s biggest car makers were to change the face of Le Mans for good. At Le Mans in 2004, the pivotal moment in the Audi diesel programme came. Development in Inglostadt had quietly begun but was very much in its infancy and far from sign off on a full Le Mans programme. During the French summers night, VIP guests of Audi were endlessly lavished with 5-star hospitality as they enjoyed a birds eye view of the greatest race on earth unfolding in front of them. Little did they know, that in a quiet corner, the corporate nod was given to Audi TDI at Le Mans. Baretzky, chaperoned by Audi Chairman Martin Winterkorn, pitched his hair brained idea to one of the most powerful men in the automotive business, Ferdinand Piech. Piech and Winterkorn both pledged their support and gave Baretzky the impetus to push forward with the programme. The following afternoon, Tom Kristensen and his Audi Sport Japan comrades chalked up another triumphant win. 2 years later, they would be taking to the grid in a very different machine indeed.

In 2003, the ACO gave the green light for diesels to enter in LMP racing from 2004 onwards. I would love to think that the pilsner fuelled lobbying from Baretzky contributed to this landmark decision.

To test a racing car to its absolute limit of durability, the choice of circuit in which you inflict this punishment is key. Sebring International Raceway in Florida has a notorious reputation for chewing up racing cars and spitting them out if they aren’t built to last. The former airfield is covered in vicious bumps and it is often said that finishing the Sebring 12 hour is more arduous than reaching the chequered flag at the Le Mans 24hr. In 2006, Audi chose the ALMS classic to debut it’s revolutionary new R10 TDI machine. Embarrassment at Le Mans a few months later was unthinkable for Baretzky, preparation had to be as rigorous as possible to avoid corporate humiliation. Baretzky’s worst nightmare occurred before the race reached quarter distance as the R10 TDI of Pirro/Biela/Werner was out of the running with mechanical failure. However, Audi had another horse in the race. McNish, Kristensen and Capello gently caressed their R10 TDI to the flag to win one of the endurance racing classics at the first time of asking. TDI had arrived. Unprecedented frugality and the avalanche of torque of the pioneering V12 TDI engine, powered the R10 to a dominance familiar with the 2018/2019 Le Mans winning Toyota TS050 Hybrid.

While Audi Sport continued their diesel powered crusade on the top level of sports car racing, TDI powered road cars flew out of the showrooms. TDI powered cars allowed you to have your cake and eat it. Less standing in the teapot and spout position at the pumps and bountiful performance to deploy while tearing down the M6 motorway like Emanuele Pirro on the Mulsanne straight. Baretzky’s vision had delivered on the promise of a perfect weapon for Audi’s marketeers to prove that TDI was the engine to have in your new road car. Audi’s investment in the overall diesel motorsport programme must be almost impossible to quantify, however I have no doubt this was recovered many times over when you contemplate how TDI powered cars have dominated our roads for over a decade.

By 2012, Audi Sport had made the switch to hybrid power at Le Mans but by 2015 the game was up. When news broke of the VW group’s criminal manipulation of diesel emissions testing of their vehicles, the nail was driven into Audi Sports Le Mans coffin. With billions of dollars of fines piling up and executives heading for the slammer, Audi raced for the final time at Le Mans in 2016. A decision was reached to shutter the programme and transfer the highly skilled workforce over to its fledgling Formula E programme, led by former Le Mans winner Allan McNish. Employing a frugal Scot is certainly a cunning tactic to keep budgets under control!

The irony is impossible to ignore when you consider that the diesel technology that is now so demonised by the worlds press and politicians led a path, via Le Mans, to hybrid power in motorsport. Dr Wolfgang Ullrich and Ulrich Baretzky’s drive to introduce alternative technologies back at the start of the new millennium laid the foundations for Le Mans to be the chosen motor racing test bed and promotional platform of road car relevant technologies. Curiously, at Le Mans this year, the ACO announced new “Hypercar” regulations. Hybrids are permitted to compete but are not compulsory. The narrative of the new regulations being one of cost reduction rather than technological advancement.

What Hybrid technology have we seen in motorsport so far? A toe was dipped in the water in F1 in 2009 when the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) was introduced. KERS systems recovered otherwise wasted energy generated during braking. This would be channelled as a brief power boost for deployment, once per lap, at the tactical discretion of the driver. New 1.6 litre, V6 turbocharged, hybrid powertrains were introduced in Formula 1 in 2014. Fans rued the loss of the screaming naturally aspirated engines and despaired at the dull drone of the new alternative powertrains. Auto manufacturers competing in F1 were delighted to have their political leverage in the sport boosted overnight as powertrains became an essential criteria on whether an F1 team would succeed or fail. In 2019, F1 still has the backing of works teams from Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault. Honda, although it does not have its own works team, is completely on board with F1 too via a close partnership with front runners, Red Bull Racing. Despite a stampede of manufacturers signing up for Formula 1’s electrically powered opposite number, Formula E, F1 still seems to have car manufacturer engagement. For now. However, it is clear that F1 has placed all its eggs in the manufacturer woven basket. Due to the biblical cost and complexity of the hybrid powertrain, independent teams like Williams and Mclaren seem to have been left out in the cold. Some may argue they are joined by previously loyal F1 fans who lament the loss of loud engines and close racing.

At the start of the 2012 Endurance racing season, Audi and Toyota introduced the use of internal combustion powertrains combined with flywheel or super capacitor systems for their Le Mans Prototypes. Le Circuit de la Sarthe is a unique circuit but was conveniently laid out for these adventurous new hybrid machines. Not many circuits in the world can inflict such punishment on the braking system of a racing car. Before you even consider how this onslaught on the engineer’s finest work will have to be endured non-stop, for a day. Engineers at both factories came up with their own interpretations of a system that could harvest the colossal energy generated under braking and convert this into a surge of propulsion on the recurrent full throttle blasts down the straights. In turn, this reduced the effort required from the internal combustion engine and reduced fuel consumption. Audi Sport’s Ingolstadt wizards delivered Le Mans winners with FSI and TDI. Le Mans 2012 would see them repeat the feat with E-Tron technology too. Andre Lotterer brought the milestone car over the line with the sister E-Tron in 2nd to complete a dream debut for the R18 TDI E-Tron. This watershed moment sparked a heavyweight spending slugfest between Audi, Toyota and Porsche for outright honours at Le Mans and the new World Endurance Championship. Many would say the brief 3 year tenure of LMP1-Hybrid at Le Mans is the historical peak of competition at the great race. I cannot disagree.

3 years of blow for blow competition with such complex technology that was in the early but rapidly progressing state of development comes at a crippling cost. Sadly, this excess destroyed what is all of a sudden a very empty category of motor racing. For the last two years, Toyota have cake walked their way to two, completely uncontested, Le Mans victories. Manufacturers crave opportunities to showcase their vehicle technologies to potential customers but eventually spending reaches an unacceptable level and the plug is pulled.

These anecdotes from F1 and Le Mans, the pioneers of hybrid technology in motorsport, teach us many lessons which we must take on board for the future. Clearly, hybrid technology in road cars is readily available but I have the suspicion that the general public still need to be convinced of the technology before they take the plunge. Perhaps, the same as the cynicism that surrounded diesels 15 years ago. Motorsport is the ideal platform to show consumers that hybrid is a viable and attractive option for road cars, especially if you have petrol and adrenaline coursing through your veins. F1 and Le Mans has learnt the hard way in recent years that hybrid technology can throw a multi-million dollar live grenade into the heart of the sport and has to be introduced carefully to deliver a successful outcome for all stakeholders.

So, which motor racing categories are we going to see hybrid power appearing in the near future? The World Rally Championship will step onto the tight rope of balancing satisfaction of manufacturer entrants and die hard fans in the forests in 2022. A “supplementary hybrid system” will be introduced which can be deployed for extra power on super special stages and silent, zero emission journeys on road sections between competitive stages. Potential benefits for manufacturers taking part are plentiful. No other motorsport short of the Dakar Rally can dish out such intense punishment on vehicle components. Imagine the flying Finn, Kalle Rovanpera, driving flat out over the craggy terrain on rally Turkey with a petrol and electric hybrid system working in perfect harmony delivering average speeds not seen since the heady days of Group B. Surely this is a mouth-watering prospect for any marketeer trying to prove the viability of hybrid, for the accountant though, perhaps not. All of WRC’s current and prospective manufacturer entries have begged for hybrid regulations to be introduced so the series promoters have no choice but to deliver. However, a technical solution proposal that won’t be laughed out of every manufacturer board room from Seoul to Shinagawa will be quite a challenge. In 2017, a brand new breed of WRC car took to the start line at the iconic Monte Carlo rally. Starting life has a humble Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai i20 or Citroen C3, these new 400 horsepower monsters had the swagger of street fighters with aero dynamic bodywork for knuckle dusters. The cars were an immediate hit and have treated us to some of the most tightly contested rallies in years. Costs incurred during the development and build of these latest generation WRC beasts have been eye watering. However, this ground work can have a much longer legacy than we may think. Integration of a supplementary hybrid system into the existing WRC car framework would save extraordinary levels of unnecessary investment. Going back to a blank sheet of paper again would be ruinously expensive. For once, existing manufacturers could be rewarded for their loyalty to the sport too. In 2019, as fans, we are truly spoiled in the WRC. Without a doubt, the current breed of WRC cars are the most spectacular we have seen since the Group B era. Keeping these ingredients of aggressive aerodynamics, huge power and big noise coupled with a hybrid system has to be the solution for WRC to balance on that tightrope between fan enjoyment and manufacturer return on investment. Picture it Ott Tanak, on the start line of the final “power stage” with a further 100 horse power at his disposal, for me this is a tantalising prospect.

We must remember as motorsport fans, auto manufacturers have always been the major backer of our hobby. Even if we only watch from the grandstand. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year on motorsport and we would be naïve to expect these companies to engage in motorsport purely for their own entertainment. Regardless of the era, there is always a message for car makers to deliver to consumers. In 2019, Hybrid is the message of the moment. As fans, we must embrace this technology in our sport. We must not allow motorsport to slip into permanent irrelevance for auto manufacturers because this is when the sport dies as we know it. I firmly believe that if “hybridisation” is delivered in a cost effective manner and combined with the rambunctious powertrains that we know and love, we can all have our cake and eat it.

12 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page