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Driving Around In Circles: The Environment Question

Illustration by Minnie Leaver

Formula One doesn’t seem to be environmentally sustainable, does it? As one observer puts it: flitting around 20 countries, with huge fleets of people and equipment, just for a 90-minute race by 20 1,000-horsepower cars — it seems beyond irresponsible, epitomising the worst excesses of our collective addiction to fossil fuel. And by the way, the sport’s global partners include the world’s largest oil producer and the largest airline in the Middle East, the calendar of races gambols around the globe with seeming disregard for the proximity of consecutive events, only three tracks have received a “good” sustainability accreditation, and tyres are lucky to do 100 miles. All this while parts of the Miami track — the newest addition to the season — are just three meters above sea level. No wonder Sebastian Vettel, one of the most successful drivers of recent times and an increasingly keen environmental activist, has admitted that his involvement in the sport is hypocritical.  

Meanwhile, a new racing series — Formula E — shows how it can be done. Not only are the cars electric, but they are charged using sustainable generators. Companies who apply to produce standardised components for all the teams are scrutinised on their Corporate Social Responsibility programmes as well as the Life Cycle Assessments for their product. Individual events serve lower-carbon meals, such as vegetarian and chicken options. And as per the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the series has offset the entirety of its unavoidable emissions.

Inevitably, people have been wondering whether Formula E will leapfrog Formula One as the pinnacle of motorsport. A gaggle of big car manufacturers has chosen the former over the latter — Audi, BMW, Citroën, Jaguar, Nissan, and Porsche — because it better aligns with their road car and marketing interests. The sport is enjoying 32 per cent year-on-year viewership growth (although from a low base). And the technology is making strides. Gone are the days when drivers had to physically change cars halfway through the race because the batteries could not last. The Gen3 cars for the next season are predicted to reach speeds up to 200mph, rivalling Formula One cars in a way that seemed fanciful just a few years back.

But I’ve been playing devil’s advocate here. Formula One actually seems to be doing fairly well on the environmental question, with a very respectable sustainability plan. It includes the pledge to make every race event sustainable by 2025, including transport to the track and waste. More important is the pledge to make the sport carbon neutral by 2030, including the cars themselves as well as the transport of staff and equipment.

Some people, including Lewis Hamilton, are questioning why a sport with such much money behind it needs a whole decade to adapt. Others rightly ask whether the plan is sufficiently detailed and specific. And it’s unclear how much will ultimately rely on carbon offsetting, which could be considered a rich man’s cop-out that is unsustainable in the long run. Nevertheless, the plans are to be welcomed.

Interestingly, the sport has also committed to introduce a fuel from 2025 that is 100 per cent sustainable. In other words, the fuel will emit no carbon when used by the cars, and be made either from biological sources that do not compete with food production and land use, or from carbon captured from the air. 

Using sustainable fuel will make little difference to the sport’s environmental footprint. Less than 0.7 per cent of its emissions come from the cars’ power units, dwarfed by other sources such as fan and business travel. But the more global impact of this sustainable fuel is tremendously exciting. It could offer a way to make existing vehicles carbon neutral as an alternative to electric vehicles. Even if electric vehicles are ultimately the future, they currently face several key issues: their electricity is often produced unsustainably, they are very expensive, and they are currently severely outnumbered by petrol and diesel vehicles that will not go away anytime soon, especially in developing countries.

Indeed, there are numerous examples of everyday sustainability innovations that originated in the white heat of the Formula One technical race. For example, Vortex strips prevent cold air from getting out of open fridges in supermarkets, halving their energy use. They were initially created for wings on Formula One cars. And the sport’s heat energy recovery technology from exhaust systems is now making its way into road cars. This is why Audi and Porsche have just decided to enter the sport: the sustainable fuel announcement convinced them that Formula One technology will be relevant to their road cars.

If the sport does not stay relevant, then teams, sponsors and fans will tune out. That makes its sustainability plan a commercial necessity as well as a moral one. The plan is good, well-intentioned and potentially wide-reaching — but now it must be implemented.