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BMW returns to Le Mans but with what intentions?

by / 0 Comments / 12/10/2016

The best car needs time and more importantly money to develop its full potential. Unfortunately, few companies are in a position to pay millions for perfecting Hybrid systems — unless you’re BMW, perhaps?

 

On the day Mark Webber drove his Porsche 919 through the streets of central London, BMW announced its intention to return to the Le Mans 24 Hours and World Endurance Championship with a GTE Programme.

As well as this, the German manufacturer has partnered with Andretti for the 2016-17 Formula E season in preparation for a factory effort in 2017-18. This comes as little surprise given BMW’s i8 and i3 are used as Formula E’s Safety and Medical cars.

Of greater interest though, is their return to Le Mans, a race which they won in 1999 with their V12LMR and assuming all the current manufacturers remain in GTE, Pro BMW will become the sixth manufacturer in a class that stands popular with fans for its diversity and close racing. As exciting as BMW’s return to Le Mans is however, it ultimately serves only to draw attention away from the WEC’s biggest problem.

There is a chronic lack of teams in the top LMP1 category that has recently split into , for manufacturers running Hybrid systems, and LMP1-P for privateer teams running conventional engine setups but who cannot compete for outright victories. The problem with both classes is essentially the same; lack of entrants with LMP1-H containing six cars and LMP1-P only three, and this has arisen through the most common problem in motorsport, the cost.

The hybrid systems in modern LMP1-H machines are extremely complex and require millions of euros worth of development in order to perform perfectly. Nissan discovered this in 2015 with their experimental petrol-electric front-wheel-drive biased GTRLM Nismo, a car that although clever, never received the testing time that would have refined its concept and possibly made it a race winner.

Not all companies are in a position to dedicate such resources to motor racing as the current manufacturers. Porsche and Audi for example are part of the VW Group, the largest car company conglomerate in the world as well as the wealthiest allowing it to invest in the revolutionary drivetrains powering modern Le Mans prototypes. Toyota is the second largest car company in the world, and like the VW Group is keen to invest in hybrid technology and to develop that technology through the medium of motorsport in order to improve the hybrid systems used in their road cars.

LMP1-P and its teams suffers a similar if slightly more confusing issue. The outfits that compete in this category cannot afford to develop their own hybrid systems and rely on conventional combustion engines, as a result making it more difficult to compete with the manufacturers. Unfortunately for the WEC, few privateer teams who might wish to enter LMP1-P can afford the cost of either developing their own car as the ByKolles team have done, or upgrade their existing LMP2 machinery that will become defunct as of 2018 when the new cars are phased in next year. Cost then as in other motorsport series is that which stymies competition and the level of such competition.

It is surprising, given their wealth and investment in electric vehicle technology, that BMW has not decided to enter the LMP1-H category given the progress the VW Group in particular has made with its road cars in recent years. However, recent history tells us that it is possible BMW are adopting an approach previously used by Porsche who, before re-entering the LMP1 class in 2014 spent 2013 relaunching their factory team in the GTEPRO class, a presence that continues alongside the LMP1 programme. As such it is rumoured BMW is planning to use an as yet undisclosed model known only as M8, a high-powered version of BMW’s i8 hybrid sports car. If we are correct that BMW is to follow this route, could we be seeing an LMP1-H BMW Prototype in 2019? Only time will tell.

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I am currently an Undergraduate student studying War Studies and History at Kings College London. I report on both politics and motor-racing.