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Hybrid Powertrains in Motorsport: Just a trend?

Written by Ollie Lewis, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

It is no secret that electricity is taking over, with some countries such as the United States of America outlawing the sale of new non-electric light-duty vehicles by 2035, with other nations following close behind. However, the sudden switch in interest from climate damaging gas-guzzlers, towards allegedly clean electric power led to the birth of another type of powertrain, combining the best from both worlds. Many motorsport disciplines have adopted and implemented hybrid powertrains into their vehicle regulations for a plethora of reasons, from attempts to improve racing, or just to help the series survive in an ever-evolving world.

Image Credit - Wikipedia

One of the pioneers of the hybrid system in motorsport was Formula One, which sees teams constantly research and adopt the newest technology. Teams were permitted to add a kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) as early as 2009, otherwise known as regenerative braking.

This system stored energy generated under braking in a battery, which could then be converted back to usable energy, thereby delivering a temporary boost in power. While it was an option, it was restricted merely to testing and development, and never really took off until 2012, when all the teams except Toro Rosso (now Alpha Tauri) and HRT used the system.

When technical regulations underwent a major overhaul in 2014, the hybrid system was more formally adopted into the power units. These regulations meant the engines were far more dependent on the electrical components than before.

On one hand, this led to the cars becoming heavier, as the minimum weight increased from 642 kg to 690kg between 2013 and 2014. This made the cars more cumbersome and therefore less manoeuvrable, which initially led to slower lap times, and less exciting racing. However, as the regulations evolved, and the cars became faster, some argue that the addition of the ERS systems actually improved the racing, as drivers had more to manage during a race, occasionally leading to more unpredictable and exciting racing.

Clearly, the addition of hybrid powertrains in Formula 1 has been seen as a success by the FIA, with the new technical regulations for 2026 dictating that each engine will have a mechanical/electrical power output of 50/50. This essentially means that the electrical components are no longer there to supplement the 1.6L V6 engine, but will work alongside it.

Image Credit – Formula One

The history of hybrid powertrains in the top class of the WEC is more complicated, not made mandatory until the recent LMH and LMDh regulation changes. While it wasn’t compulsory, teams still used hybrid engines in their prototypes.

Toyota returned to the WEC in 2012, introducing the TS030 Hybrid, which was powered by a V8 Gasoline engine with a hybrid system. Much like F1, this engine acquired energy through regenerative braking, later deployed under acceleration.

This new engine formula proved very successful, as Toyota took three Poles and race wins apiece in their debut season, followed by plenty of success over the next few years. Another team running a hybrid from the 2012 season was Audi, using a slightly different approach, in the form of a TDI Diesel V6, coupled with electric motors. Similarly to Toyota, Audi also experienced success, winning four races across the season, including the flagship event, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Even though Audi and Toyota were the only manufacturers using hybrids that season, it proved that hybrids were able to provide performance boosts, whilst being reliable enough to run for at least 24 hours straight at racing speeds, under incredibly harsh conditions.

Hybrid domination in the top class of the WEC continued, as Porsche joined in 2014 with their 919 Hybrid, leading to the creation of the LMP1-L class, consisting of privateer teams not making use of the hybrid systems like the manufacturer teams, who could afford it.

Be it due to the higher budget possessed by the manufacturer teams, or the engines, the LMP1-H cars were faster at every track, again displaying the strengths of hybrid powertrains. From 2021, a new class of top-level prototypes was introduced as Le Mans Hypercars, and made hybrid engines compulsory.

Image Credit – Wikipedia

From 2022, the World Rally Championship (WRC) introduced a new set of regulations, including a 100kW battery accompanying the 1.6 litre turbocharged engine used in the years prior. In total, the system can provide up to 500hp when boost is fully deployed, which can be used at certain points throughout the circuit.

As the hybrid system is still fairly new in the WRC, it is difficult to tell how successful the system will be in the future, and how successful it is now. However, the regulations also called for a higher minimum weight, whilst restricting the type of aerodynamics used, as well as changes to the suspension. All of this combined leads to a car that may be harder to drive, and slower on most stages, but could make it more entertaining for viewers, while also being more environment-friendly.

Image Credit – Top Gear

Another series converting to hybrid powertrains in 2022 was the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC). Much like WRC, they use a small hybrid system to provide varying degrees of boost when needed to supplement the 2 litre turbocharged engines. However, unlike most other racing categories with hybrid systems, BTCC takes a unique approach. In a race, the amount of boost a driver can use in a lap is dictated by their position in the championship.

For instance, the championship leader would get no boost throughout the race, whereas the driver in second would receive 1.5 seconds of boost per lap. This promotes better racing, and prevents a single driver from running away with the championship, a common occurrence in series such as Formula One.

Image Credit – SuperCell365

It's safe to say that hybrids and electric cars are certainly not a fad, and will be here to stay for the near future, despite what diehard petrolheads say. While some may think this is the worst possible thing for motorsports, it is proving a success across a variety of racing categories, ranging from Formula One to the British Touring Car Championship. Not only does it seem to make racing more interesting to many, but it is also developing technology for your average everyday car, apart from preventing that little extra bit of pollution from contaminating the air we breathe.

1 comment

1 Comment

Dec 01, 2023

This is ok 🗿

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