The gas-guzzling behemoth, the gaudy polluter roaring its indifference to the problems facing the planet, Formula One has an image problem in the climate emergency age. But is it a fair judgment any more? F1’s sporting director, Ross Brawn, believes that the sport’s technological battleground is turning into an environmental science lab pursuing solutions to issues that cannot be ignored.
F1 has much to do to make a difference but it is taking a path that deserves recognition and perhaps reassessment of how it is perceived. Brawn describes the new direction as compulsory both commercially and morally. “Every thinking person is concerned about climate change,” he says. “I am concerned about it, my engineers are concerned about it – it’s something we can’t ignore. It would be very rewarding for F1 to demonstrate the technology we can take forward to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases.
“We have a mantra: an F1 fan should be proud of being an F1 fan. That is not only about the excitement on track but showing that F1 can make a difference in society. We all genuinely feel that.”
In 2019 F1 committed to being net carbon zero by 2030. The sport published an extensive report into its environmental impact, including revealing its 256,000 tons of CO2 emissions each season.
To deal with it is hugely ambitious. The report stated that 45% of the carbon is from air, sea and road transport required logistically to put on each race and a further 27.7% from the transport of personnel, promoters and partners. As with all major sporting events this can be reduced but not eliminated and F1 has committed to offset it with tree planting and carbon capture technology.
Such efforts are not happening quickly enough for some, with the world champion Lewis Hamilton questioning why major industries, governments and indeed sports were not acting more radically. “F1 is only implementing it [net carbon neutral status] in 10 years’ time and I don’t fully understand why that doesn’t change sooner,” he said. “These large corporations that have a lot of money and power behind them and can definitely make change happen quicker but it’s not their No 1 priority. Until there is a point where it is the No 1 priority for governments and for the world, then it’s going to continue to be a slow-burner.”
A fair point that is reflected in widespread frustration at many of the results of the recent Glasgow Cop26 conference. However, F1 says it is at least taking measures and Brawn believes it is developing new technology where the sport can really make a difference.
Today’s formula one cars have 52% thermal efficiency, a figure believed to be almost unachievable and 20% greater than road cars.
Yet it is the near future the sport believes presents the greatest promise. From next season F1 will introduce the use of 10% sustainable fuel. By the time new engine regulations are introduced in 2025 only 100% fully sustainable fuel is to be used. A fuel that emits zero carbon on use, made from either a bio-component that comes from a biological source that does not compete with either food production or land use or one that uses carbon captured and removed directly from the air. In fact, F1 says only 0.7% of the carbon emissions from an entire season come from the cars themselves but for the sport the broader implications are what matter.
The march to electrification is welcomed by Brawn but he notes that there is no single magic bullet to solve the climate emergency. Electric cars require power – much of which is still derived from fossil-fuelled power stations. Equally, BloombergNEF research estimates their take-up will be only 8% of the 1.4bn cars globally by 2030. The fuel F1 is proposing, and toward which the teams will be building their engines, is targeting that very damaging 92%. The fuel will be a drop-in, meaning it can work in standard engines with no conversion. The move was welcomed with caution by the Green party, albeit while noting that fundamental change is needed in the attitude toward transport.
“While Formula One is actually right that electric vehicles are not the main solution to cutting transport carbon and we do need to explore alternative fuels, especially for HGVs, this technology should not be an excuse for business as usual,” said the Green party’s spokesperson Caroline Russell. “It doesn’t matter how cars are powered, they still contribute to road danger, congestion and health-harming pm2.5 particle pollution from tyre wear.
“Cutting-edge fuel technology may help clean up the remaining vehicles on the road, but government policy should be focused on making walking, cycling and public transport the safest and most convenient choice for most daily journeys, and on making freight more efficient and moving more of it by rail.”
F1 cannot change government policy but Brawn believes the sport can deliver a short-term, immediate alternative to petrol for cars on the road. “With the white-hot technology competition in F1 we will probably get there quicker than any other environment I can think of,” he says. “The vaccine race was impressive, suddenly we had a vaccine in a very short space of time. That had never been done before. We now have the climate race and we have to find solutions at the same speed.
“Engineers of an F1 team are very selfish, they don’t waste an ounce of energy on anything other than making the car go faster. If we set them a challenge wrapped round this sustainable fuel objective they will put every effort into it when they know it will give them a potential competitive advantage.”
Crucially it may also be a step toward solving F1’s own emissions and the single most intractable problem of the environmental impact of global transport. Electric technology is currently not efficient enough to work for long-distance heavy goods vehicles, shipping or aviation. All three sectors are major polluters. A low carbon, drop-in, sustainable fuel would make an enormous difference and F1 has already been discussing the concept with the Department of Transport and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Just as in the past the sport has advanced motoring technology, F1 is repositioning itself as a test bed for changing the playing field for combustion engines in a direct and applicable way. With ambitious plans being set at Cop26, Brawn is insistent that multiple technologies must be pursued if targets are to be met, especially in transport, and that aspiring to only electrification would be a mistake.
“No more blah blah blah” was the caustic dismissal of Cop26 by Greta Thunberg. F1 has at the very least chosen action. The fossil-fuelled dinosaur of old is outdated and irrelevant. Being part of a change for the future is the sport’s only hope of remaining relevant and it might yet prove to be part of the solution rather than the problem.