“Hydrogen can have a role far beyond motorsport”

“Hydrogen can have a role far beyond motorsport”

The newly revealed hydrogen-powered Pioneer 25 car will transition Extreme E into Extreme H – but whether the technology proves to be a silver bullet for clean energy remains to be seen

“I see Extreme H as much more than a racing championship. Of course, the racing, we love it. But hydrogen can have a role far beyond motorsport.”

That was Extreme E founder Alejandro Agag’s declaration as the highly anticipated hydrogen-powered Pioneer 25 car, evolving the series into Extreme H in 2025 as the FIA’s (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) first hydrogen-powered motorsport championship, was unveiled last week on board Extreme E’s base, St Helena. 

Docked in the River Thames for the launch event, the last time being Extreme E’s launch in 2019, the former Royal Mail vessel transports Extreme E’s infrastructure around the world while emitting much lower emissions than air travel.

The evolution into Extreme H will allow the championship to join competitions like Formula 1, World Rally Championship and World Endurance Championship under the FIA banner. Compounded by the arrival of Red Bull as a sponsor and boasting team owners like Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button, 2x World Rally champion Carlos Sainz Sr and 7x NASCAR Cup Series winner Jimmie Johnson, Extreme H has gained rapid momentum as a force to be reckoned with. 

Exhilarating racing 

The Pioneer 25 will be powered by Symbio’s 75kW hydrogen fuel cell, where the only by-product is water. The cell will generate 400kW, roughly equivalent to 550 brake horsepower enabling a top speed of 200kph. With additional enhancements like improved suspension geometry, Extreme H’s technical director Mark Grain (who oversaw the Pioneer 25 project) claims the car will “exceed the performance standards” of the existing Extreme E car, the ODYSSEY 21. 

Grain adds that evolving the championship into Extreme H aligns with making the cars faster and intensifying racing. The Pioneer 25 adopts a central-mounted single seat, as well as a smaller chassis and consequently lower centre of gravity that drivers have responded positively to. 

On board the St Helena at last week’s launch event was 23-year-old Norwegian driver Hedda Hosås. Competing in three of Extreme E’s four seasons, she is one of the Pioneer 25’s development drivers and reflects that “the most noticeable change is the throttle response, which has been enhanced significantly.”

Extreme E has been a huge proponent of gender equality in motorsport. Teams consist of one male and one female driver that race together by swapping the driver during races. A report by EY found that the female-male performance gap has closed by an average of 51% in Extreme E between Season 1 and Season 3 to an average of 1.5 seconds, and the hope is that this will continue to reduce with the Pioneer 25.

Not all plain sailing 

Extreme E already uses hydrogen technology behind the scenes at races to provide an energy source for the ODYSSEY 21’s batteries, but to show the durability of hydrogen tech within the car itself is another matter entirely.

Professor Peter Wadhams, head of Extreme E’s scientific committee, acknowledges the complications and added risk factors associated with hydrogen energy compared to electric. In fact, Wadhams believes that switching from Extreme E to Extreme H is likely to initially increase carbon emissions due to harnessing hydrogen energy in a way that hasn’t been done before.

A magic formula?

Grain insists that there have been “no significant setbacks” while testing the Pioneer 25 across approximately 18,000 kilometres, even raising the prospect of Symbio’s hydrogen fuel cells being so durable that they could be used in seasons 2 and 3 of Extreme H. 

“We want to demonstrate to the world that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can be exciting, they can be rugged and they can be very robust,” he adds.

If that can be demonstrated, Symbio’s hydrogen cell will play a pivotal role in the joint hydrogen working group established by Extreme H, Formula 1 and the FIA in December 2023 to evaluate the technology’s future in motorsport. FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem declared that “hydrogen is an important part of that [energy] mix and we have developed a set of safety regulations for hydrogen-powered vehicles which is part of the FIA’s International Sporting Code”. 

Agag references how Formula E (which he is also chairman of) has leveraged its position at the forefront of the electric automotive industry to develop electric vehicle technology for road cars and aims to position Extreme H in the same way. Both Agag and Grain suggest that Extreme H’s hydrogen technology is drawing interest from undisclosed original equipment manufacturers, but Agag suggests that infrastructure improvements are required to avoid refuelling complications. At first, Agag believes that hydrogen-powered buses, for example, with long driving ranges and able to refuel from a central location will be more feasible.

That sort of recognition is important at such an early stage to begin addressing Agag’s concern that unlike when Extreme E was launched on St Helena, Agag believes that “climate change is not at the centre” of political consciousness. 

One of Extreme E’s primary ambitions is raising awareness of climate change and this isn’t going to change with Extreme H. Powering the car with hydrogen technology under harsh conditions can show its resilience and help to elevate clean energy challenges on the immediate political agenda.

This applies beyond motorsport, as Agag’s big picture aspiration lies in decarbonising “the whole energy sector.” Although Professor Wadhams highlights the risks associated with hydrogen technology, he also remarks that the benefits of hydrogen energy for all of society could be “tremendous”. Beyond its use as a fuel source, Extreme H will showcase the wider hydrogen ecosystem including recharging and transportation. 

Litmus test 

Extreme H is due to begin with 10 races across five countries including the UK, Germany and the USA, with exact locations confirmed later this year. The next crucial milestone on the journey to get there will be the Pioneer 25’s first public test at next weekend’s Extreme E Hydro X Prix in Scotland. 

It’s indisputable that hydrogen energy is still in an embryonic stage, but next weekend’s test could be a major step in proving that hydrogen technology works. If Extreme H can help generate such a breakthrough, the championship could end up being one of sport’s biggest contributions in our race against the clock to address the climate crisis.

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