Today marks the 88th 24 Hours of Le Mans race, previously named Grand Prix de Vitesse et d’Endurance or Grand Prix of Speed and Endurance. There are few racing events quite like Le Mans. In fact, the race makes up one leg of the Motorsport Triple Crown, completed by just British driver Graham Hill. I’m a motorsport fan, especially F1, and I’m having a lovely lazy Saturday on the couch with Le Mans 2020 playing on Eurosport in the background. Watching the teams rapidly pitting for fuel and fresh tyres, it got me thinking. Could Tesla take part in 24 Hours of Le Mans?
What Is Le Man 24 Hours?
Le Mans is the longest-running car race, in two ways. It’s both longest-running in terms of history and one of the longest-running in terms of endurance. Unlike most races which are determined by order or minimum time, the winner of Le Mans is decided by the car covering the longest distance. This method of choosing the winner is what cost Ken Miles a win in 1966, depicted in the movie Le Mans 66 currently on Sky Cinema and well worth a watch.
The trick with Le Mans is making a car that’s damn fast but above all else bloody reliable. The car needs to run for 24 hours straight without mechanical failure. The cars enter from several categories. There are two custom-built Le Mans Prototypes categories, LMP1 and LMP2 with LMP1 cars permitted to use hybrid technology. Then, onto the slightly more “every-day” cars we have the grand tourer (GT) classes, GT Endurance Pro and GT Endurance AM. These are the cars made by Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche to name but a few. This is the category that got me wondering if Tesla could run a car in Le Mans.
Could Tesla Enter Le Mans?
Now, when I ask “could Tesla enter Le Mans”, the real question I’m asking is whether or not electric cars could compete. Tesla is the “poster boy” for electric cars globally but they could very well disappear in the coming years as the world’s traditional car makers pivot from fossil fuels to electric. Anyway, here’s a run down of whether or not electric cars could really compete at Le Mans.
Do Le Mans Rules Cater For Electric Cars?
Electric power has been creeping into motorsports for years. The current F1 cars are often referred to as the “hybrid era”, owing to the fact the cars benefit from huge amounts of electric power. While an electric-issue could rule a race over for most F1 cars, they’re not as dependent on electric-power as Formula E, a fully electric Grand Prix calendar. With all of this going on, electric cars still can’t legally enter Le Mans under current rules. But the rules are changing.
In 2024, Le Mans rules will bring a new racing class for electric vehicles. The rules will allow for both lithium-ion batteries, featuring in most electric cars like Tesla today, and hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen used in fuel cells has an energy to weight ratio ten times greater than lithium-ion batteries but haven’t seen as much adoption as regular lithium-ion batteries.
More generally, Elon Musk has never shown much interest in entering Tesla into motorsport and the truth is Tesla would be left with everything to lose in electric-powered sports and very little to gain. Beyond Tesla, there are other manufacturers very interested in entering electric cars for Le Mans. Among them are BMW and Audi, two manufacturers already featuring in Formula E.
How Would Electric Cars Work At Le Mans?
It’s on thing getting electric cars into Le Mans, but how would they work? Returning to the whole point of Le Mans being endurance, the question electric cars need to answer is refuelling. Over the course of a 24-hour Le Mans race, cars will pit around 37 times taking on fuel and new tyres while also swapping drivers from time to time. At this level, a pit stop takes about one minute. That’s one minute for a tank of fuel and a new pair of boots. Electric cars require lots of time to recharge and far too long for them to be able to compete with cars that only require a one minute pit stop.
In the early years of Formula E, a race needed two cars and the driver literally swapped car halfway through the race. The range of electric cars has improved to the point a Formula E race now requires and allows for just one car. Le Mans rules don’t and won’t allow for car changes and regardless, over 24 hours it would take far too many spare cars to be logical.
One former F1 engineer started Project 424 with the goal of running an electric car in Le Mans 2024. It looks like that particular project has fallen by the wayside, but it still gives us an indication of how electric cars would work at Le Mans. This early-stage project was still using a modular battery design, not hydrogen power thought that might change. The category this project had targetted was very much focused on the concept design end of Le Man cars, not the production road car categories. In short, the idea here would be to potentially have a car with interchangeable battery packs and purely focus on designing a car for Le Mans, not adapting a road car.
Will We See Electric Cars In Le Mans?
This is a matter of “when” and not “will”. While I don’t believe it’s going to be in the next decade or maybe even longer, the days of fossil-fueled cars are numbered. There will be a time when F1 is fully electric and so too will Le Mans. With the new rules of 2024 we may see some fully electric cars dipping their toe in the water and in the following years see electric cars improve year over year before challenging the others in the field.
But what about Tesla? Well, as I mentioned earlier, Tesla doesn’t really have a reason to compete in motorsport. They’re already the best-electric car on the road so they don’t need to compete to advertise the brand. Their research and development will likely be focused on things like the Tesla truck and expanding into other areas instead of motorsport.