Speaking at the final Formula One race of the decade, FIA president Jean Todt said the existence of international motorsport faces two main threats in the future: the fallout from a high-profile, fatal accident and the impact — perceived or otherwise — that racing has on the environment.
Safety has been a major concern for motorsport since the 1970s. As speeds increased, fatalities rose. And although there were improvements in safety in the 1980s and early 1990s, the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix put the sport under a level of scrutiny it had not experienced. Further improvements followed, and have only ramped up in the past decade, but Anthoine Hubert’s death in a Formula 2 race in 2019 served as a tragic reminder that motorsport is, and always will be, dangerous.
Lessons from Hubert’s accident are already being applied to future safety regulations, but there is a chance that at some point society will ask serious questions about whether the death of young athletes is an acceptable price to pay for a weekend’s entertainment. It’s a spectre that will always hang over the sport and one that Formula One must never ignore.
By contrast, concerns about motorsport’s impact on the environment are relatively new. In the past 10 years there has been a gradual electrification of the powertrain from the KERS units first introduced as an optional extra in 2009 to the beefy and complex hybird systems introduced in 2014.
Despite remarkable gains in efficiency in the past six years, F1 has done little to boast about its pioneering efforts in hybrid engine technology. Combine that with the image of a huge traveling circus jetting between events with the sole purpose of driving petrol-powered cars in circles, and F1 has a clear image problem in the coming decade.
In 2018, F1 calculated its total carbon emissions at 256,551 tonnes (not including fans’ transport to races). Forty-five percent of that figure came from the logistics of shifting freight around the world by road, air and sea, and only 0.7 percent came from the emissions of the racing cars themselves.
In a vague attempt to future-proof itself, F1 launched a plan in November to become net carbon neutral by 2030 and to have “sustainable” races by 2025. It’s the first time F1 has had a policy on sustainability, but when you consider entire countries (Norway and Uruguay) are also aiming to become net carbon neutral in the same time frame, is F1’s plan ambitious enough?
Six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, one of the most vocal members of the motorsport community on climate change, said he believes F1 is not pulling its weight.
“I think for at least the next 50 years you are going to have the same questions being asked,” Hamilton told ESPN. “The world is slow to change and I don’t see it changing drastically any time soon.
“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. 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 number one priority.
“So until there is a point where it is the number one priority for governments and for the world, then it’s going to continue to be a slow-burner I think. That’s my general opinion.”
Is electric racing the answer?
Laurence Edmondson analyses his drive in a Formula E car, comparing the experience to a Star Wars spaceship.
While F1 has done very little to play up the green credentials of its hybrid engines, the all-electric Formula E series has done nothing but trumpet its environmental message. Aside from the obvious benefits of zero-emissions electric cars (which are charged using glycerine-fueled generators), the series has made a point of counting every last kilo of carbon it emits in order to reduce its impact on the environment — right down to serving lower-carbon meals, such as vegetarian and chicken options. Its efforts have been recognised with ISO 20121 certification — the highest award for sustainable events. It also monitors other elements of environmental impact, such as water footprint and ecosystems quality at its events.
The eco-message is a dream for car manufacturers, and the launch of Formula E has come at a time when the road car industry has invested heavily in electric vehicles (EVs). EU regulations will phase in a law that requires the average CO2 emissions across all cars sold to be under 95 grams per km by the end of 2020.
Manufacturers that fail to hit that target will face big fines. The quickest way to achieve that goal is to sell more electric cars and offset the carbon-emitting petrol and diesel models that still make up over 96 percent of new car sales worldwide. It’s no surprise then that Audi, BMW, DS (Citroen), Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan and Porsche have all committed to Formula E, which offers a significantly cheaper route into international motorsport than F1 while promoting the models they desperately need to sell.
The only problem is the viewing figures and, arguably, the spectacle and sheer speed of the racing. The marketing benefit of F1 still vastly outweighs that of Formula E, and for the four manufacturers that have already invested in F1 engine technology — Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and Honda — there is the potential for big exposure in the highest level of motorsport on the planet.
But could there come a day when battery technology matches hybrid engine technology for performance, and Formula E and Formula One merge? FIA president Todt thinks not.
“At the moment you could not envisage to have Formula E substituting for Formula One,” he said in Abu Dhabi. “FE races last three-quarters of an hour at average speeds of up to 118 km/h (73 mph), while F1 races run for more than twice as long, with average speeds more than twice as high over distances in excess of 300 kilometres (186 miles).
“There is not one electric race car able to do 300 kilometres at Formula 1 speed today. It could be decades before it can happen, if it does happen.”
While a lot of the mainstream motor industry has invested in EVs to meet governments’ emission targets, there are still some doubts over whether battery-powered cars really are the future. Ferrari — the most important car brand in Formula One’s past and future — recently released its first plug-in hybrid, but CEO Louis Camillieri is skeptical about the widely-held belief that EVs represent the ultimate evolution of the motor vehicle — at least in the short- to medium-term.
“We’re looking at various options,” Ferrari CEO Louis Camilleri said in December. “I mean, a lot of automotive companies are going to hang everything on just electric, but we’re looking at biofuels and we’ll be looking at hydrogen as well.
“Clearly, we have the luxury of being a very small company in terms of volumes, so we are looking at various power trains and trying to see what would be the most efficient and effective in terms of what our vision is for Ferrari cars in the future.
“Of course, we are studying fully electric, but for the current foreseeable future we will use hybrids. My sense is the first electric Ferrari will come out after 2025, because right now the battery technology is not where it should be.
“There are still significant issues in terms of autonomy, in terms of speed of recharging. Eventually we will come out with one. But it’s post-2025, not in the short-term.”
So in the coming decade, it’s safe to say F1 will not go fully electric — not least because Formula E already has the rights to be the only all-electric FIA single-seater series until 2039. That means F1 will have to do a better job at selling the importance of its hybrid technology to the rest of the world, something that everybody in the sport knows it has fallen woefully short of doing.
The role of hybrid engines and biofuels
The beauty of F1’s turbo-hybrid engines is written into the text of the technical regulations.
In a normal internal combustion engine, the easiest way to create more power is to burn more fuel, but under F1 regulations the only way to get more power is to burn fuel more efficiently. That’s because everybody’s fuel flow is limited to the same 100kg/hour value, which means every single car on the grid is going down the straight with their fuel pump pumping at exactly the same number of kg per second. The only way to get more power to the rear wheels is to burn that fuel more efficiently and harness more of its potential energy to drive the car.
The average road car engine will deliver under 30 percent of the fuel’s potential energy to the rear wheels, with the remaining 70 percent being lost in heat and noise through the exhaust. But since 2014, F1 teams have been able to engineer ways to extract over 50 percent of the fuel’s potential energy to drive the rear wheels. If even some of that technology can be transferred to the road, it would represent a serious cut in CO2 emissions from the next generation of hybrid cars while providing the kind of long-range motoring options EVs notoriously struggle with.
“If cars in general are seen as part of the problem [worldwide], Formula One can be part of the solution,” Renault team principal Cyril Abiteboul said. “I’m not aware of any other sport that can contribute in any shape or form to the solution and I think that’s really important.
“We are talking about this engine, but to put things in perspective the average increase in power of the F1 engine is 3% per year. If you put that in perspective to UN target figures of CO2 emission in order to reach the COP21 target it is 2.5%, so on the basis that we have stable fuel consumption, it means that we have actually exceeded what the UN is commanding from the world industry in general. I think it’s a good benchmark.
“Obviously it comes at a huge cost and lots of technology. It can’t be transferred to all cars on the planet, but still I think it does represent an element of an answer to the problem.”
When Formula One came under new ownership in 2017, it considered tearing up the current engine rules and implementing something less complicated and, ultimately, less efficient. That thinking seems to have gone out the window in the past two years, and F1 CEO Chase Carey is now talking about F1 and its hybrid engine regulations becoming a playground for the automotive industry’s top engineers.
“In many ways we’re playing a coordinating role and offering a platform to show what a hybrid engine can be,” Carey says. “I think hybrids will play a critical role [in automotive technology], and I think they currently play an underappreciated role, which is necessary to address the world’s larger environmental issues.
“I think for us [F1] this is an offensive issue and not a defensive issue. Electric’s going to be part of the solution, but they’ve got their own issues, whether it’s economics or batteries or what have you. There’s a lot of issues around it. I think the hybrid engine in many ways can be one of the most important, if not the most important, component of addressing climate change.
“You’ve got 1 billion-plus cars out there with combustion engines, and through initiatives like fuel technology and energy recapture we can continue to make advances. There are entities making those investments, and if we can be a coordinating point to then create a platform to put forth what’s possible, for a broader industry, that we’re at the forefront of, that’s an important role.”
A key for F1 remaining environmentally relevant in the coming decade will be the development of synthetic biofuels that can be used to substitute traditional oil-based fuels. By 2021, 10 percent of the fuel in an F1 petrol tank must be made of biofuels, but the sport hopes to increase that number to 100 percent before the end of the decade.
“Formula One didn’t invent the hybrid, but Formula One showed what a hybrid could be and it moved people’s perceptions of what a hybrid is capable of and I think we can do the same with new fuel technology and hopefully demonstrate that another viable alternative energy source is possible,” F1’s chief technical officer Pat Symonds said. “The path to that is not completely clear at the moment, but in partnership with the FIA and with the help of the engine manufacturers and the fuel companies, we are looking at the way forward.
“I think it’s important to say that I don’t think it will be easy, but anything of value requires ingenuity, commitment and the will to make a change. And if we can do it, I think there’s another great contribution story from motorsport to the world at large.”
A switch to 100 percent synthetic fuels would require a redesign of the engine, but with an overhaul of the engine regulations due in 2025, F1 will likely make biofuels a key component of the regulations for the second half of the decade.
“When the next engine does come along, we have a chance to develop a real game changer, where you’re tailoring the fuel and the engine together and that really does lead to some much more interesting possibilities,” Symonds said. “What we can do is we can show the world that there are alternatives to electric power and there are alternatives to storing electricity in heavy and, I have to say, somewhat dirty batteries.”
But F1 still faces an almighty task in order to change its image and make itself relevant in the upcoming decade. It would be a great shame if the hard engineering work going into F1’s powertrains either fails to make the road or is overlooked because F1 is unable to cut its own carbon emissions and improve its image.
It is also vital that F1 retains its four engine manufacturers. The advanced technology of the current power units creates a barrier for new manufacturers to enter, and the existing four need to be kept onboard if F1’s messaging is to remain true. So a balancing act will be necessary to set regulations that challenge engineers to strive for efficiency while also ensuring all four manufacturers have a chance of winning.
Therefore, remaining relevant in the next decade will be as much a PR task as an engineering one for Formula One. For such a high-profile sport, it will no longer be acceptable to ignore the environmental concerns of flying around the world while failing to highlight the good work going on under each car’s engine cover. F1 must play to its strengths in the new decade and prove that it is the platform for green technology Carey wants it to be. In doing so, it must not leave a weak underbelly of a giant, unaccounted carbon footprint for its critics to poke fun at. Failure to take action would likely see car manufacturers turn their back on the sport, and its relevance to the rest of the world dwindle.
“Formula One was always the pinnacle of motor racing in terms of the engineering and innovation, and lots of the things we do have found their way into road cars and continue to find their way into road cars,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said in Abu Dhabi. “A big part of that is efficiency, of course. I think we have a role to play in order to facilitate innovation in Formula One and at the same time be part of that climate movement that is absolutely necessary.
“We are all living in the same world and we see the air and the oceans getting more polluted every day, and I think the more we support the movement, the more we tackle it with the small steps — banning plastic bottles from our hospitality, for example — changing the way we fuel our dynos — not with diesel anymore but with something more sustainable — we are going to better the world.
“I’ve read something that I liked a lot, which was: ‘What difference does one plastic bottle make to the world? said 8 billion people,’ and this is the kind of mindset we need to embrace.”