Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

The sky is falling // Formula One's ongoing efforts to be a greener sport

Published by Bridget Schuil

The sky is falling. Well, not technically, but still, the earth is dying. It’s unavoidable now – people make movies like An Inconvenient Truth and Age of Stupid, TV channels screen adverts about greener products that seep into our consciousness while we take our mid-program bathroom break. The hippies (yes, I’m a hippie, but we can be party poopers) are trying to introduce carbon tax the world over (google-news “carbon tax” if you don’t believe me). And now F1 is trying to go green.

Let’s just think about this for a second. Is the attempt to make the cars less carbon-polluting essentially redundant one? A wee plaster over the wound from a shotgun blast?

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Credit: Creative Commons: Olof S / Flickr

Bear in mind, that every F1 team flies all their personnel and equipment to grands prix (if you need to know why flying is a carbon concern, look here). Ten (52%) of the races on this year’s calendar are fly-away races, so shipping the equipment by road is not a viable option (I know most people fly to grands prix, even when the races are in Europe, but we’ll leave that out of the discussion for the moment). Add to that the amount that drivers, team bosses and PR personnel fly between countries for business, media and publicity commitments. I shudder to think of the results we would see if the F1 community totted up their carbon footprints (mine is 5.19 tonnes per year – less than half the national average of the UK, more than twice what it should be). We haven’t even started on the CO2 emissions created by the races themselves, and already it’s evident that the sport needs to do something about its carbon footprint.

To give them their due, the FIA has initiated the Make Cars Green program to lower the environmental impact of cars. However, while it is widespread, and they have posted the 10-point driving plan, there has only been one update this year. There’s obviously some tireless and diligent work happening on the program.

But what can the FIA really do?

  • Only have races in Europe? Yes, I snort laughed at that idea too. Di Grassi wouldn’t mind a few more races in Spa, but Bernie would never go for that. F1 is an international sport, it needs to happen world-wide.
  • KERS? Yes, the KERS system had its fans, but never really lived up to the hype. The units were heavy, forcing drivers to lose (in some cases, possibly too much) weight (let’s leave aside the discussions of the optimal rotundity of a driver’s backside, just for a moment. They’re athletes, and being too thin could be dangerous to their long-term health) or struggle against the extra weight in the car. Rumour has it that it will be included in next year’s cars, and the minimum weight for the cars is being raised to compensate for this. However, the technology hasn’t found its way into road cars (which would justify its existence), and a number of teams couldn’t afford the cost of the system when it was last used (it’s not being used for the 2010 season, although this was agreed upon by FOTA, rather than being legislated), so it’s not such a viable option. Besides, it doesn’t significantly reduce the carbon emissions (which is what’s really needed, if we’re all going to get our carbon footprints down to 2 tonnes per year before 2015); it simply makes the car go faster on the straights.
  • Electric engines? Okay, I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the thought of that. Low-performance engines with no noise? One of the reasons we love F1 is because the howl of a big, powerful, race-tuned engine being driven at 15000rpm makes us feel an excitement we can’t describe! Apart from the noise, nobody has managed to make a truly high-performance electric engine. If we had electric engines in F1, it would be like a slightly flashier version of the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car. While I’m sure Barrichello would be happy with that, it wouldn’t be very exciting to watch. So, electric engines are a non-starter.
  • Diesel engines? Okay, we would lose the noise, but it is a more efficient fuel. We’d have the speed, just with a little less noise. It doesn’t sound like too bad of an option. Yes?
  • Rocket-fuel powered engines? Don’t look at me like that – the hydrogen car exists, and it essentially runs on rocket fuel. Fair enough, nobody has yet worked out how to effectively store hydrogen, and the process of isolating hydrogen is an expensive and emission-heavy one. However, it could turn into a potential solution, once science catches up. Although, I’m not sure how easy a rocket-powered F1 car would be to handle in the corners.

The Amazon Rainforest is basically the world’s largest carbon sink, and it’s shrinking

Maybe those aren’t the solutions at all. Perhaps what we’re looking for is a multi-faceted approach. For years, hippies have been planting trees to offset the emissions they cause by the flights they couldn’t avoid taking. All over the world, deforestation is a problem (trees are cut down, so they stop being the efficient carbon sinks they were formerly functioning as. Bush scrub grows in their place; bushes are less effective at using CO2). Why not, in addition to trying to find real green solutions on the race track, use some of the (ridiculously large) profits and contribute to reforestation programs (I have been informed that the FIA does have a reforestation scheme, but can’t find any evidence of it online)? After all, the Amazon Rainforest is basically the world’s largest carbon sink, and it’s shrinking. The ecology folk would value the contribution, because keeping forests as forests is not economically efficient.

Maybe invest in making biochar the world’s soil water saver and fertiliser (since, at some point in the next fifty years, the ambient temperatures are probably going to be too high for plants to be able to survive without regular watering and soil moisture boosters)? It would be solving two problems simultaneously – world hunger and F1 emissions.

In promising news, Virgin are sponsored by a company called Carbon Green, who recycle tyres. One assumes that the myriad tyres that the team uses up over each race weekend are sent to be recycled. At least, this is the hope, since they would otherwise end up in a land-fill. According to the FIA rules, “no driver may use more than fourteen sets of dry-weather tyres, five sets of wet-weather tyres and four sets of extreme-weather tyres,” which clocks up a fairly large number of tyres used in the paddock over the course of a race weekend. Sure, recycling processes create emissions, but at least the rubber is being reused.

In other promising news, Red Bull have partnered with Siemens to make their factory more green. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, given that nobody ever thinks of the insulation of their buildings and energy efficiency of the manufacturing process. They’ll also save themselves money in heating and electricity bills, so they’ll be able to spend more on development – not that they need more of an edge.

Perhaps, just perhaps, if everyone does something about it, we’ll still have Monaco in twenty years. It would be a shame to lose that event because the sea levels rose above the level of the race track. Besides, where will all the drivers live if the sea drowns Monte Carlo?