The KH-7 Epsilon is the hydrogen-powered truck owned by Jordi Juvanteny (driver), José Luis Criado (co-driver) and Jordi Ballbé (navigator), experienced Dakarians who have accumulated 65 participations. And this year it cannot compete with the rest of the vehicles in its category because it is too sustainable. It is the first to face the competitive challenge of completing the test using a fuel that could revolutionize the freight transport sector, but a controversial last-minute decision by the FIA has removed them from their category.
“Our team has been the only one to comply, already in 2023, with part of the objectives of the Dakar Future program”, Juvanteny resigns. The new ecological approach of the rally has run into the FIA regulatory bureaucracy, and to solve the ballot, the organization has created a new class to allow its participation, the Challenge New Energy. The issue, beyond the contradiction of promoting something and then banning it, news that Juvanteny and company found out one day after the start of the test, entails two added problems: whatever they do, they will be the last to leave every day, 15 minutes from the penultimate vehicle; and by not counting in any official category of the FIA, they will not be able to help other participants in trouble, since the regulations prohibit it. The team is known precisely for being the guardian angels of the Dakar caravan due to their willingness to help the damaged vehicles no matter what.
The solution that the FIA gave them to compete officially was bizarre: they had to fill their tanks only with diesel fuel. After working around the clock since March, tinkering with innovative and complex technology, the disappointment overshadows, but doesn’t stop, the team’s noble purpose. “Despite the severe limitations of this new scenario, we will focus on the development of this new technology, following the planned objectives. The results we obtain will be of great help to compare the performance of our MAN truck against other similar models powered by traditional fuels”, sums up the pilot.
Xavier Ribas, industrial technical engineer and director of EVARM, the Spanish company that has collaborated with the team, explains the main advantage of his proposal. “In the race, we will have savings between 40 and 50 percent of diesel”, he explains. In 2024 it wants to save up to 90% of fuel. “We believe that our experience can contribute to innovation in the sector, which has a great impact in terms of emissions and cannot so clearly benefit from new energies such as electricity”, adds Criado, the co-driver. The controversy, added to a few others, is also settled in a Dakar 2023 that presents a sports race and an ecological one in cars.
Everyone wants to be the first sustainable winner of the quintessential endurance rally, with many teams proposing different solutions with no clear favourite. There are electric vehicles, many projects that work with renewable fuels and others that are beginning to bet on hydrogen, although the only one that has arrived this year has been marginalized. The technological transition towards more sustainable proposals follows the roadmap of the automotive industry, to which the organization of the test joins with its Dakar Future program.
”We have a clear objective and date: in 2030 we want a low-emission Dakar for the entire caravan. It is a very interesting job, which involves many projects in parallel”, explains David Castera, director of the rally. ”We are working to generalize biofuels that reduce emissions by up to 80%, we want them to be in all leading cars and motorcycles already in 2026 ″, he adds.
The proposal that accelerated this new green vision was not exactly ecological. The Audi project – which debuted in 2022 with a hybrid vehicle powered by a gasoline engine that powered two independent electric drives for each axis – was presented as a technological achievement and at no time was the commitment to sustainable mobility mentioned. The vehicle suffered problems during the first week of its premiere, but in the second it scared with four stage victories. This year, the new evolution of the RS Q e-Tron, more efficient, has already won another stage driven by Carlos Sainz.
In the last edition, it was the Toyota of Nasser Al-Attiyah, a machine designed to burn gasoline at full speed, which took the victory against the innovative proposals of Audi or Prodrive (BRX), second overall with Sébastien Loeb while managed to reduce their emissions footprint by 80%. “The solution is probably hybrid. There is no technology that is imposed and it is difficult to foresee. It is about combining the different possibilities, and all of them are very interesting”, explains Gonzalo Villa, a mechanical engineer and associate professor at the University of Nebrija, about the ecological race on the Dakar.
”Nobody can say: from tomorrow, only hydrogen. Perhaps even better new innovations will emerge. We look at what is available with interest, and our job is to prepare the arrival of solutions such as hydrogen, which requires a logistics deployment that is not at all easy”, says Castera, who in the meantime must navigate the competitive advantages and disadvantages of each technology. The inclusion of different proposals among the most competitive car teams has generated debate and has forced the FIA to establish a confidential performance compensation system.
ASO, the organizer of the test, has made decisions that seem to hurt precisely some of the newest options. “I am surprised that the regulations do not help someone like Audi, who has had the courage to try to enter with this type of sustainable car,” says Sainz on the subject. Days before starting, the race management announced that the German brand vehicle would have a minimum weight 100 kg higher than its main competitors.
Astara, a 100% Spanish structure that includes Laia Sanz and Carlos Checa among its competitors, is committed to another solution and participates with renewable fuels. “They adapt to any combustion engine in a simple and relatively cheap way”, comments Óscar Fuertes, third driver of the Astara and one of the promoters of the team’s green bet. “It is about accelerating decarbonization, replacing fossil fuels with others that do not emit CO2 into the atmosphere.” The energy density of this solution is higher than what batteries offer today, better for “short journeys.” “No one is clear where the future is. It is not the only option, but we understand that it is the best”, adds Gonzalo de Andrés, team manager. Others, however, also point to hydrogen, although it is still not clear if any leading car will carry this technology as early as 2024.
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