Sustainability in Formula One: The Formula(E) for the Future

With Formula E recently gaining the coveted status of becoming the first sport to be entirely carbon-neutral, which it announced at the launch of the NYC Climate Week 2020, the path for sustainability in motorsport has been paved by this relatively new electric car racing series, within a mere 6 years of its inception in 2014. Given the current state of climate affairs, sustainability has not only become relevant, but also significant in most spheres of engineering, business and entertainment, including motorsport racing. In this context, even Formula One has jumped on the sustainability bandwagon, targeting complete carbon neutrality by 2030, through its plans to decarbonise racing technology and logistics, as well as promote sustainable race weekends by 2025.

Historically, Formula One has been one of the most highly regarded forms of motorsport, with over 70 years of history in high-speed racing, thus, testing and advancing the limits of technological innovation.

Alongside advances in safety, aerodynamics and the like, Formula One has also pioneered engine efficiency, with its current turbo-hybrid engines and related technologies such as KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems), fuel injections and turbocharging.

These technologies have moved over not only to other automotive sectors, such as greater fuel efficiency for road cars, but also to non-automotive sectors as well, with its refrigeration technology being used in supermarkets. Thus, sustainability is being embraced in Formula One, mainly in engineering newer and more fuel-efficient technologies.

Having emitted over 256,000 tonnes of CO2E (carbon equivalents, which are greenhouse gases measured as CO2, weighted by their warming potential) in 2019 alone, the Formula One Sustainability Strategy plans to have “Net Zero Carbon emissions from factory to flag by 2030”, while also having “every race qualify as a sustainable spectacle by 2025”.

Interestingly enough, the strategy details that only 0.7% of its emissions result from its turbo-hybrid V6 power units across all teams, in all stages of testing and racing combined. Instead, logistics, travel and accommodation account for the largest chunk of about 72.7% of the total emissions, and factories follow with 19.3%. Finally, the remaining 7.3% of the emissions result from events and operations taking place on the circuit, in the pits, and the paddock.

These calculations do not include the fans’ emissions, which when accounted for, result in a total of approximately 1.9 million tonnes of CO2E as Formula One’s carbon footprint.

In order to cut down carbon emissions in manufacturing and racing activities, the strategy sets forth Formula One’s plan to introduce more efficient, hybrid, sustainably-fuelled engines, while also encouraging the transition to renewable energy for its operations at factories and venues. In particular, in an effort to move towards 100% sustainable fuels, the 2021 regulations already command 10% use of bio-fuels, particularly advanced sustainable ethanol, which also has an additional cooling effect which will be advantageous for engines. This is a 5% rise from the current regulations.

In the context of logistics and travel, it targets using CO2 intensive forms of transportation, and additionally, also plans of offset unavoidable carbon emissions through sequestration. Though carbon offsetting is usually seen as a quick fix or an easy way out of sustainability efforts, most of the other missions of the strategy seem to depict Formula One’s commitment to sustainability, at least in its own capacity. Therefore, while having high-reaching goals, the aforementioned strategy struggles to address how exactly the reduction of these emissions in processes would take place, in terms of technological actions and economic viability, while also encouraging fans to partake in sustainability efforts.

Interestingly, in these contexts, however, Formula E seems to have done a stellar job, no matter how polarising of a motorsport it is.

Firstly, in terms of engineering and technology, Formula E has had a significant role in promoting electric mobility. The race-cars have electric motors in place of internal combustion or hybrid engines, with these cars being charged using glycerine-fuelled generators.

With fans and consumers being more environmentally aware than ever, manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, DS, Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan, Mahindra and Porsche have found purpose in joining Formula E, so as to test out newer, high-speed, low-emission technology that can also be implemented in road cars in a modified form.

Formula One could attempt to do the same, for example, if the technology used in Formula One engines’ to recover 50% of the fuel’s energy, is implemented in road cars (as compared to 30% currently) in the near future, it would lead to a significant reduction in CO2 emissions in the automotive sector, and provide options for long-range motor vehicles.

Additionally, not only does Formula E use all-weather tyres (with only 4 sets allowed during the entirety of the race weekend), but the race-tyres are also 100% recyclable, and efforts are being made to the same end for batteries as well. All this talk about batteries brings us to the spectacle of drivers ‘swapping cars’ mid-race in order to cover the distance. This used to take place until recently, because the battery capacity was limited to 28 kW-h. However, the 2018–19 season saw a 2x increase in battery capacity to 54kW-h, which meant that a single car could be used for the entire race.

Most Formula E races happen at street circuits such as London, Paris, Berlin, and Monaco, as it targets greater engagement with fans in order to promote more sustainable race weekends and technology, which is not limited to bringing the race closer to fans — VR electric race-car experiences and guided tours of pit lanes are also a part of the Formula E experience, which offers a peek into the future of sustainable motorsport.

Additionally, in Formula E, lesser number of races with more double-headers (as compared to 21 different races in Formula One), as well as optimising the race calendar, allows for a reduction in the emissions caused due to logistics, as “multiple sea freight sets cover various continents”. Moreover, only race-critical items are freighted, and audits are carried out to check if most other products can be sourced locally. This, in conjunction with Formula E’s decisions to use local staff, also boosts local economies. It must be noted that Formula One plans take a similar route in terms of local employment.

As far as race events are concerned, Formula E makes it a point to source low-carbon impact items, including local food, produce, and beverages, while also ensuring sustainable operation of the paddock and its components, with one of these efforts being the phasing out of single-use plastics. The events have a no-parking policy, which encourages fans to travel sustainably using public and shared transportation, while staff are encouraged to undertake rail travel wherever possible. Along the same lines, Formula One also plans on offering incentives to fans who travel sustainably, which is a step in the right direction.

Interestingly, Formula E has focused on awareness and outreach programmes concerning air pollution and climate change, in collaboration with international climate organisations as well as local governments, in the cities that it races in. In addition to this, Formula E has also undertaken projects to offset carbon emissions in line with UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism, in countries such as China, Mexico and Morocco, through renewable energy production projects, which Formula One targets to pursue as well, as its strategy mentions.

Now, for the most polarising argument of all; the fact that a Formula E car can reach a top speed of 225kmph, which is considerably slower than the 360kmph of a Formula One car. These cars also produce only a third of the power of a Formula One car, with the Formula E-prix having half the average pace as compared to a Formula One GP. Additionally, street tracks do not necessarily provide an opportunity for drivers to overtake easily, and the ‘no pitting’ rule results in less opportunity for teams to rely on strategies.

Apart from this, Formula E has drawbacks such as limited innovation in chassis and battery systems due to regulations. This may stifle potential breakthroughs that could possibly transcend the sport, to reach road cars. Moreover, it has the license to be the only electric racing event until 2039, which limits the uptake of such technology by other events.

However, looking on the brighter side: that provides Formula One with a chance to develop and undertake technologies for renewable fuel alternatives and sustainable engine systems, that are not electric in nature.

As an avid Formula One (and motorsport racing) fan, I must admit that it owes some of its charm to the cars’ fascinating performances at high-speed tracks, with the V6s growling as they whiz past. However, Formula E does not claim to have the fastest or the most charismatic car in motorsport. Instead, its focus is on greater sustainability and engagement with the fans, with its viewership increasing every year (and its races being streamed live on YouTube for free!). Therefore, it is no wonder that in the 2020–21 season, FIA World Championship will be granted to Formula E. It’s only fair to state that this is not a fight to the top: rather, it’s an opportunity for both to embrace new solutions to create a sustainable future for motorsport.

Given its current status as the reigning motorsport, Formula One only has one more race left to race: the one towards sustainability.

Climate communication. Working to bridge the science-policy gap. Passionate about multimedia (documentaries, art) to facilitate accessibility to knowledge.