How Formula 1 saves the planet
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May 5-7 the stars of Netflix hit series Drive to Survive visit South Florida again. Formula 1 is back for its second Grand Prix of Miami. In its slipstream comes the glitz, glamour and jet set that so many Floridians love. Still, others are critical. With global warming and rising sea levels threatening the Florida coast, is it appropriate to celebrate this festival of speed? Because isn’t a Grand Prix basically a festival of pollution too? Well actually, even though the cars burn fuel while racing around in circles, F1 does a lot of good for the environment…
Of course, large gatherings of people produce waste and emissions. And twenty 1,000 horsepower cars racing each other sound pretty wasteful too. But did you know that since 2010, every F1 race has been won by a hybrid (so semi-electric) car? And did you also know that since 2014, F1 cars are powered by small 1.6-liter turbo engines. These are actually the most efficient fuel powered engines ever built. This is not measured in miles to the gallon, but in getting the highest power output from lowest energy (fuel) input. And such revolutionary power units help the entire auto industry in its quest for fuel efficiency.
All this efficiency is a result of regulations, and F1’s governing body, the FIA, has written these rules with clear goals in mind. First and foremost F1 needs to be a sport and show, but it cannot become a fossil-fuel-burning dinosaur. For instance, since 2014, F1 cars have been allowed 30% less fuel to finish their races with. This forced manufacturers like Honda, Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault to make these engines as efficient as possible. And the results have been impressive, as well as industry-changing.
Test lab for the auto industry
Mobility in general benefits from the lessons learned on the race track. Take regenerative braking for example. These systems harvest the energy that builds up when slowing a vehicle down and reuse it for propulsion. When regenerative braking was first introduced, there were experiments like flywheel systems, until battery setups proved superior. And once these battery systems were tested and perfected in race conditions, they crossed over to modern road cars, trucks, trains, etc. This is what the FIA intended when writing their rules, and the results help reshape the auto industry and mobility in general.
Racing (so not only F1) has always been a test lab for the auto industry. Seat belts and crash structures for added safety were first developed on the racetrack. And turbo engines were unreliable gas guzzlers, until racing gradually helped them become today’s durable, fuel-efficient daily drivers. The FIA demands that the sport pioneers technologies that make cars better, safer and more sustainable. Obviously, racing is far from the only contributor to progress; all manufacturers have Research & Development departments, and sometimes brilliant ideas are born there. Still, lessons learned on the racetrack are always at the cutting edge, because in a competition like F1, merely being good is never good enough.
Competition and headhunting
Manufacturers that don’t race will eventually also get their hands on racing’s know-how. Even if industrial espionage is an option, the reality is usually much simpler. Car manufacturers have R&D departments that mostly stay hidden from the public. Here they will do their own R&D, but let’s be honest, they also buy and dissect the cars of their competitors for ‘research’. Still, this type of R&D can only start after the competitor’s cars are for sale. So, by then, their racing competitors have already gone through all the research, development and testing required.
Another shortcut to the knowledge of others is scouting your ‘brains’ from the competition. In F1 such headhunting is also quite popular, along with photographing everything on other cars that looks interesting. This may sound like espionage, but there is a certain forced openness to F1. It’s almost encouraged to figure out what the competition is doing. So even if teams try not to share their knowledge, the rules don’t allow total secrecy, and the auto industry as a whole benefits.
But isn’t the world going electric?
Formula 1 has figured out that the roads will not turn fully electric overnight, if ever. There are still almost 1.5 billion fuel-burning cars, and those won’t just disappear. So even if electric vehicles have a huge role in the future, you can’t expect every driver in the world to have a charger to hook up to. So, like it or not, the world needs fuel. But nobody said it needs to be fossil fuel.
After some covid-related delays, F1 is getting ready for a big rule-overhaul in 2026. The cars will still have around 1,000 bhp, but about half of this power must be generated by hybrid systems like regenerative braking and the conversion of exhaust heat. And even more interestingly, fossil fuels will be banned. Currently, feeder series Formula 2 and 3 already use fully synthetic fuels. Given that these classes have single-make engines and a single supplier of fuels, it’s a great first testing ground. In F1 everything is an extreme competition, whereas in F2 and F3 the rules can be written in ways that allow some margins and prevent teething problems. But once everything works properly, F1 can start testing the limits of these engines and fuels.
Oil giants like Shell, ExxonMobil, Aramco, BP/Castrol, Gulf and Petronas also have a history of testing new products under the extremes of F1 competition. The upcoming regulations work towards carbon-neutral fuels that harvest CO2 from the atmosphere and combine this with green hydrogen. This means that these fuels can’t emit more CO2 into the atmosphere than they first took out. It may seem strange for oil companies to work on fuels that no longer need fossil sources. But they also know that oil wells dry up, and that a dying planet is bad for everybody. And let’s not forget that oil companies make their money through their infrastructure, like gas stations and pipelines. They know how to sell fuel, regardless of its source.
So even if F1 races fire-breathing rocket ships for fun and competition, fun doesn’t need to come at the expense of the planet, quite the opposite actually…
Images: Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool, Getty Images/Audi and AMG Petronas F1/Jiri Krenek