The Hypercar Edition

On regulations, competitive imbalance, and a new approach

Noah here. Within motorsports, there are two main approaches to creating competitive balance. One is regulation-based, where cars are designed (generally from scratch) to a specific set of rules, measurements, and standards laid down by the sport’s governing body. Formula 1 is the most famous racing series that follows this approach, with each car constructor building their own car within the guidelines set forth in that year’s “formula.” While there is great specificity around what can and can’t be done, the team still has broad leeway to design the best car possible and the gap between teams can be massive. The other approach is known as spec, where each team has the same equipment at its disposal. The reasonably new W Series is spec, with each team running the same 270 horsepower Alfa Romeo. From there you have gradations—series’ where teams can choose between different options laid down in the rules (this is how IndyCar works now) and everything in-between. While the more open formats have historically attracted more dollars and faster cars, spec creates a far more level playing field through which you can judge the pure skill of racecar drivers. 

Formula 1 is famous for being one of the most open series in all of racing. Teams have come up with ingenious and insane designs that satisfy the letter of the regulations but certainly not its spirit. There have been fan cars that suck a racer to the ground, moving side skirts that trap air underneath the car, and the addition of what seems like a million slits and winglets to direct air in exactly the way needed to create optimal downforce (the downward pressure that allows racing cars to take corners so fast).

This open approach has two very big, and related, drawbacks: it can create a massive competitive imbalance if one team exploits a loophole that drives a significant competitive advantage—this famously happened with Brawn GP’s double diffuser in 2009—and it makes the sport supremely expensive because there’s a constant arms race to exploit the same loopholes as your competitors. (As I covered in the F1 Edition, there is also a third drawback that has been a big problem in F1: all these cars with their perfectly aerodynamic elements create lots of turbulence in their wake, making it harder to race close to one another.) 

As the costs have spiraled out of control, many car manufacturers have bowed out. Lots of motorsport series’ have tried to find ways to deal with these problems, with most swinging to the side of more standard parts as a way to both bring down costs and drive balance between the teams. Even F1 has standardized more components and introduced a cost cap that curbs the amount of money teams can spend on their cars.

Why is this interesting?

Another car series, the World Endurance Championship (WEC), has taken a different, but fascinating approach to solving the problem of competitive racing. Most famous for the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, WEC cars are closed-cockpit rocket ships capable of a top speed of over 200-miles-per hour and constant running of 24 hours or more.

After the exit of two of its biggest manufacturers because of cost concerns over the last few years, 2021 marked the introduction of a new class called Le Mans Hypercar (LMH). Unlike Formula 1, which tries to create balance by describing the geometry a car may or may not take (the wing can be this high, the sideboards may have this many elements, etc.), the rules for LMH went a totally different direction. They gave the teams what was effectively an empty page with which to design a car, but defined the minimum drag and the maximum downforce their vehicle could ultimately have. Here are the details from Motorsport:

The LMH rules, which were two or more years in the making, are arguably less prescriptive than any other set of rules in motorsport history. They don't so much as lay down what a manufacturer can and can't do as in LMP1 and just about every other category of racing; rather they set out the outcome of the design process.

There are performance windows, which include maximum downforce and minimum drag figures, into which each car must fit. Engine power — and the way it is delivered to the track — is strictly controlled.

Obviously, there are a bunch of additional rules, including how much the cars can be developed over a multi-year period. Although I’m nowhere near as plugged into Le Mans as I am to F1, it seems like the rule changes are already working. More manufacturers are slated to come back to the series over the coming years thanks to the promise of a more even playing field and much lower investment. What’s more, the rules allow teams to build cars that look different (!!)—a major drawback of the ever-more-detailed regulations that have existed in the past. Peugeot even announced that its entrant for next year will not have a rear wing.

Even if you aren’t a fan of racing, this feels like a fundamentally creative solution to solve a real and complicated problem. While other series are chasing tighter regulations or more standardized parts, it feels, at least at the moment, like WEC has landed on a solution that solves for both the creativity and the cost. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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