Non-Homologated: Understanding The 2020 FIA WEC "Hypercar" Rules
With the announcement of the finalized rules for the 2020 through 2025 season of the World Endurance Championship, the long distance petrolheads the world over have rejoiced in celebration of the return of a legendary class: GT1.
The top level Grand Touring class was born from a desire to race roadworthy sportscars and supercars after the bloody demise of Group C back in 1993, in the purest tradition of GT-racing. Due to their recognizable, largely unmolested silhouettes, the cars present in the BPR Global GT Series propelled the championship into the limelight worldwide.
However, Porsche flipped the script in 1996, by coming up with a car that was racing prototype first, and road car second. The 911 GT1 set the stage for a regular onslaught of purebred racers with indicators, including efforts from Nissan, Lotus, Mercedes-Benz, Lister, Toyota, and Panoz. Naturally, budgets skyrocketed in the quest for barely legal speed, as cars became ever more extreme.
With the incredibly fast Toyota GT-One, GT1 had finally reached its zenith in 1998. The Toyota made no real effort to appear as a road car, even going as far as designating its empty fuel tank as the mandatory cargo space.
But the walls came caving in under the weight of the Mercedes-Benz CLK LM juggernaut at the end of that same year. Mercedes-Benz won all races in the 1998 FIA GT Championship, bullying every single other manufacturer out of the sport.
As a result, Toyota and Mercedes were forced into exile in the closed top LMGTP class, while everyone else started building open Le Mans Prototypes, or quit altogether.
Following the '98 meltdown, the crazy homologation specials were replaced by more sterile-looking, open top prototypes. Every single manufacturer apart from Audi left the sport, leaving the German company plenty of space to start racking up titles and Le Mans wins back to back.
Eventually competition appeared in the form of Peugeot and later Toyota, and LMP1 became a breeding ground for a wild variety of innovative racing technologies. Audi managed to make the diesel engine a winner with the R10 TDI, and hybrid technology appeared with the advent of the R18 e-tron quattro and the Toyota TS030 Hybrid.
In a few short years the WEC became the most forward thinking, environmentally conscious and advanced racing series this side of Formula E. In the process however, it seems LMP1 has run the same course as GT1 before it.
As hybrid technology became more and more pervasive, budgets ballooned in the same way as they had in the GT1 years. Because of this, the price of running a hybrid LMP1 car in the WEC was actually starting to rival the cost of racing in Formula One.
Considering the much higher level of media exposure the bite-size Grand Prix circus affords, and the emerging popularity of the much cheaper eco-minded Formula E, the unlimited hybrid prototypes seem to have outlived their usefulness. This mindset was made painfully clear with the departure of Audi and Porsche, leaving Toyota to take a hollow victory as the sole LMP1 HY competitor at Le Mans this year.
Though they offer the most high-tech and fastest package in endurance racing ever seen, the LMP1 HY machines simply aren't viable anymore: they rarely grace TV-screens in the world's living rooms, ordinary people cannot connect their strange silhouettes to anything, and hybrid cars have become old news in the quest for emissions-free motoring.
With this in mind, something drastic has to be done to stop the series from becoming the boring one team show it was under reign of Audi at the beginning of the century. But why then, would a return to a failed formula such as GT1 be the answer?
In short: it isn't. In their announcement of the 2020 regulations, the FIA has made it abundantly clear they do not aim to instigate another homologation war. In fact, the "Hypercars" will have very little to do with GT1 as we know and love it. A closer analogue is found across the pond, in IMSA's WeatherTech Sportscar Championship.
At the end of the 2016 season, IMSA abandoned the simple, clunky looking tube frame Daytona Prototype formula and adopted Daytona Prototype International. In a bid to attract more manufacturers other than Chevrolet, the sole DP brand left in competition, the DPi concept was based around cost reduction and more marketing potential.
As such, DPi based its design on readily available LMP2 chassis built by Dallara, Ligier, Riley-Multimatic and Oreca. These base shells could then be bought by a manufacturer, fitted with their engine and dressed in bodywork vaguely approximating the design language of their road car lineup.
With both lower costs thanks to pre-fabricated chassis, and marketing potential stemming from the styling cues taken from road cars, DPi aimed to provide the perfect platform for manufacturer engagement. So far the plan has been a success, as Mazda, Cadillac, Nissan and Acura have entered the class since its inception.
The Toyota GR Super Sport Concept showed a glimpse into the Hypercar world at the 2018 Tokyo Motor Show.
Although they'll likely never admit to borrowing an idea from the Americans, the FIA has essentially come up with an extrapolation of the DPi concept. In essence, the 2020 machines will be based around a traditional carbon fiber monocoque chassis just as the LMP1 cars before it. Because of this, manufacturers competing will not be required to produce a road legal equivalent of their Le Mans racer.
Instead, they will have to field a simplified, more restricted version of the old LMP1 cars. Like a Funny Car dragster, the cars will incorporate a shell on top of their chassis which resembles either a genuine road car, or just overall styling cues from the brand in question. Standardized aerodynamic elements will be found front and rear, with a lot of care taken to prevent big spending on aerodynamic development.
Underneath the faux road model silhouette will be a very heavily regulated set of systems. Though the layout of the combustion engines is still free, it is required to weight at least 180 kg (396 lbs) and cannot produce more than 520 kW (707 horsepower).
Similarly, the hybrid element of the powertrain is subject to strict regulation. A minimum weight of 50 kg (110 lbs) for the electric motor, and 70 kg (154 lbs) for the battery is mandated, while the power output is set at 200 kW (271 horsepower).
With this, the FIA has reduced influence of the electrical components, with their percentage of the total power output falling from 50% to 38% compared to the 2018 Toyota. The exotic materials seen in the current cars will be banned as well, and a limited amount of combustion engines and electric motors will be allotted, similar to the system in Formula One.
Additionally, only a singly electric power system mounted on the front axle is allowed, doing away with the electric assistance for the combustion engine seen in the old LMP1s. Finally, the cars will be required to weigh at least 1040 kg (2292 lbs) in total.
This already quite hefty figure will be added to in the form of success weight as well, punishing those who finish well with up to 50 kg (110 lbs) of ballast at all WEC rounds save for Le Mans. Testing will also be heavily regulated and restricted, and no more than 40 staff members are allowed to work on a two car team.
With all these figures in place, things aren't looking good for the Hypercars in terms of outright performance. Compared to the 2018 Toyota TS050 Hybrid, the 2020 Hypercar will weigh 162 kg (357 lbs) more, and provide 20 horsepower less. Aside from the tangible figures, the cars will produce significantly less downforce due to their control parts, allowing performance to plummet accordingly.
In fact, the FIA have outright stated in their press release they're aiming for a 3:22:00 qualifying lap at Le Mans at maximum. This is in stark contrast to the speeds currently seen in the WEC, as Toyota qualified for this year's race with a 3:15.377, a massive 6.623 seconds faster than the Hypercars will ever be.
For reference, the last time a lap around the 3:22 mark secured a pole position was in 2013, when the Audi R18 e-tron quattro of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval grabbed the top spot with a 3:22.349. And back in 1998, during that magical final year of GT1 the pole-winning time was a 3:35.544, set by the Mercedes-Benz CLK LM of Klaus Ludwig, Bernd Schneider and Mark Webber.
So what does it all mean?
Though it has a very evocative sounding name, the Hypercar formula is unlikely to usher in a new era of insanely fast, barely legal homologation specials terrorizing the world's roads. With no homologation requirement to speak of, the cars will likely never progress beyond thoroughbred racers.
But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Though Hypercar is in essence a silhouette-bodied, heavily restricted hybrid LMP1 car, the FIA has almost in passing mentioned the allowance of road versions of the new race cars.
However, since they are not required, the emergence of such vehicles relies on the willingness of the manufacturers taking part to double their development costs by producing a road car as well as a race car, a big part of the reason why GT1 eventually failed.
With the increased emphasis on slashing budgets, this seems like a bizarre step to take. In short, it all relies on the pockets of the super rich, and the state of mind of the bean counters at the world's biggest car companies.
Privateers are encouraged to enter by the set performance parameters, standardized hybrid systems, and spec chassis, but the odds of a small firm like Ginetta or ByKolles producing an extremely expensive road legal race car don't look too good.
As of right now, there is no reason to assume the Hypercar class will work as well as DPi did in the much smaller and more affordable IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship. Unlike the simple and effective LMP2-based cars present there, the specialized FIA machines still represent a large financial risk for anyone thinking of participating.
Even though the FIA aims for a 20 million euro budget cap per two car team per season, it's still not exactly small change, and the development of a road going variant will undoubtedly add a large amount to that.
But provided the formula gains several big players, and those companies have a large, wealthy customer base, the FIA Hypercar might actually be granted some licence plates, allowing it to proudly collect dust in some billionaire's private collection.