The case for both simplifying LMP1-H, and making it more complex

I feel like there’s room for a follow up to my previous piece on the Le Mans Prototype 1-Hybrid subclass, now that there’s been additional news, including the news that Porsche is terminating their LMP1 program after this season is over.

Those that see hybrid technology as being bad for LMP1 see this as vindication of their ideas, now that the best reasonable case for 2018 is that we get two or three Toyotas in the top class at Le Mans. I don’t think they’re right… but there’s some interesting points that they bring up. 

Really, this post is a reply to an op-ed by Stefan Johansson, that Racer ran on Tuesday, regarding the state of motorsport in general. In it, he suggests that racing should diverge from road cars, and drop any pretense of trying to improve the breed of road cars – instead, it should be a pure sport. He outright states that hybrid technology doesn’t benefit racing, and in fact is hypocritical due to all of the emissions from hosting a race meeting. He claims that LMP1 drivers hate the cars, claiming that they require too much manipulating settings to drive, rather than “just driving the car fast and hard” – but then he goes on to complain about aerodynamics making it too easy to drive a car fast.

There are some things in this piece that I don’t disagree with. For instance, he points out the amount of technology that’s banned in motorsport, yet is downright common on road cars. My $28,000 Prius has quite a bit of technology that would be banned in almost any race series in the world – active radiator cooling flaps would be illegal movable aerodynamic devices in most series, variable valve timing is forbidden in many series, the power split gearbox’s CVT-like behavior is forbidden in nearly every series, and even things that are mandated on modern road vehicles like stability control and ABS are forbidden in many series. Luxury vehicles now have active suspension as a common option, and that’s forbidden in every racing series.

Now, some of these may have safety reasons for being banned – a systems failure in some movable aerodynamic devices could, for instance, cause the vehicle to become dangerously unstable, without warning to the driver. (And, this was also a huge part of the rationale behind the 1994 ban of active suspension in Formula 1 – in fact, Alex Zanardi’s horrific crash in practice for the 1993 Belgian Grand Prix, due to an active suspension failure, arguably sealed the deal for the ban. That said, the proposed 2020 LMP1-H regulations have movable aerodynamic devices, so…) However, much of the opposition of these technologies comes from another place – the idea that with these technologies, the driver “isn’t really driving the car”. That’s what resulted in bans on things like traction control and ABS, and that’s what resulted in bans on automated transmissions, including transmissions like the van Doorne CVT that Williams tested in the FW15C.

And, here’s where LMP1-H should be made more complex. I’m personally of the opinion that, if we’re serious about racing improving the road car breed, we should allow these technologies, specifically so that they can be stressed in a racing environment. And, ultimately, I feel like manufacturers are more likely to be involved in top-tier motorsport if they can demonstrate and test their technology. If I’m right, without the manufacturer money, and just making motorsport a pure sport, I suspect that nearly everyone is going to be the kind of pay driver that Stefan Johansson laments in his op-ed – the garagistas of old often poured their own money into getting to the track to drive their own car, after all. Sure, you might see a manufacturer slap their logo on the side of a dedicated race car that has nothing to do with their road cars (*cough* NASCAR *cough*), and you’ll probably see some rich privateer paying some pro driver to drive their car, but even series like that are failing, and aren’t really top-tier. And, look at all the drivers going to Formula E, partially because of the paycheck that comes with manufacturer money.

At the same time, though, I want to go back to another comment that Stefan Johansson made – the comment that LMP1-H drivers can’t “just drive”. Well, why can’t they just drive? I can just drive my Prius, after all, even though it’s a hybrid – sure, it has a couple mode switches, but one of them is purely a throttle mapping for driver preference, and the other is for crawling around parking lots without using the engine. I don’t have to constantly have a race engineer in my ear running me through checklists on how to drive to work. Plug-in hybrids might have another mode switch, to determine whether to save battery energy for later, use the engine to charge the battery, or avoid using the engine altogether, but still, it’s not that complex.

And, I also want to point out this article about Fernando Alonso confusing his McLaren-Honda’s deployment systems at the Belgian Grand Prix this weekend, by taking a corner flat-out, making the hybrid system think he was elsewhere on the track. It seems to be rather common, actually, that hybrid race cars require programming by race engineers for the specific track, and if they get it wrong, deployment will be confused. It might use pedal, steering, or GPS inputs to determine when to deploy… and that’s insanely complex, of course.

So, here’s the first part of where I want to see LMP1-H be more simple – everything should be automatic, and not track-specific. If the drivers really do hate the cars due to their complexity, let’s make the hybrid deployment automatic, based on throttle position in this instant only, other than a mode switch so the driver can switch between normal operation, charging mode, or engine off propulsion (which is no more complex than a road plug-in hybrid that the 2020 LMP1 regulations emulate). Maybe you get a map to control how it’s blended in to the pedal, too, but that should be more of a driver preference thing. Similarly, let’s make hybrid recovery automatic. Let’s even make the transmission automatic – sure, there’s been a long tradition of manual transmissions in motorsport, but if top-tier motorsport really is about improving the breed… an automatic is actually more of a challenge for a manufacturer, it’s rapidly increasing in market share worldwide (to the point that in some major global markets, the manual transmission’s market share is low single digit percentages), and some types of automatic are more efficient than manuals. There’s still room for driver skill, even with fully automatic hybrid deployment, fully automatic transmissions, traction/stability control, ABS, and the like – you still have to properly choose your braking point, you still have to use proper racecraft to get through traffic. (He does bring up self driving… and I’m curious how that would actually go over. I feel like most attempts at self-driving motorsport have come off as very gimmicky so far, but at the same time, maybe self-driving racing would actually be interesting, if done right. I do watch motorsport largely for the technology, rather than the sport side of things, so…)

The other part of where I want to see LMP1-H be more simple is, I want it to be more simple for a team to run it, and for a manufacturer to make a LMP1-H car. Stefan Johansson correctly points out that racing aero has almost nothing to do with road car aero, and automakers have no real ability to market that technology – as I’ve suggested before, a spec formula for the chassis with its aero could allow more attention to be paid to the engine, hybrid system, transmission, and the various ancillary systems, the things that automakers can easily market. The hybrid systems could be designed to be easier to work on, with less specialized knowledge required for a team to operate them, making viable customer teams a practical possibility (and I do feel that the rules could enforce at least some of this, through some of the same provisions intended to make it easier for a driver to operate a hybrid, that I suggested above).

tl;dr: The solution to the problems in LMP1-H, IMO, is to open up the technology in areas where it’s actually road relevant… but to require that control of the technologies be automated to the same extent that it is in road cars, to remove burden from both drivers and teams.

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