Formula One: the petrolheads driving the green economy

By Ed King

Selling Formula 1 as a green sport is tough work.

The intoxicating smell of burning rubber, deafening roar of the 2.4-litre V8 engines and insatiable consumption of petrol indicate it is firmly in the camp of big oil.

Many environmentalists would throw the sport to the dogs, given the way it glorifies motor cars and its historical association with the likes of Shell, BP and Exxon.

And to be fair, with the new season’s first Grand Prix in Melbourne days away, few in the sport pretend otherwise, certainly not F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone.

Yet dig below the veneer of materialism and supermodels erected by advertisers and PR gurus, and a richer picture emerges of energy efficient, creative individuals and cutting-edge inventions.

Engineers worship at the grand temple of the combustion engine. But the sport is also an incubator for the latest electric and hybrid technologies that could power cars in the future, an arena where innovation is fast-tracked and tested in extreme circumstances.

The F1 engine is one of the most highly stressed pieces of machinery on the planet (Pic:

Carbon fibre car bodies, aerodynamic advances and energy recovery systems (ERS) showcased in F1 have all fed into your average road car – unlikely as it may seem.

“F1 has the most technologically advanced gadgets in the world, it’s the NASA of motorsport,” says former World Champion and new Mercedes-Benz driver Lewis Hamilton.

Mercedes would know. Their SLS AMG Coupe Electric Drive was launched last year. It does 0-60mph in 3.9 seconds, has a range of 250km and takes a sprightly four hours to recharge.

The company says they were only able to deliver a car with these specifications because their UK-based F1 team’s engineers pushed the power density limits of battery cells.

And once technology has been tested in the heat of F1, it’s safe to assume that cost-permitting it can operate inside a road car – a reason Mercedes invest an estimated €60-80 million into F1 annually.

Their F1 rivals McLaren and Ferrari have similar ambitions. Both unveiled electric hybrid supercars that use ERS technology at last week’s Geneva Motor Show.

New era

The sport could have an even greater impact on your average road car over the next decade.

Motorsport’s governing body the FIA recently pushed through new efficiency regulations for the start of the 2014 season.

Engines are being downsized from a 2.4-litre V8 to a 1.6 litre V6 turbo, and with a limit of 140 litres of fuel per race have to be 30% more efficient.

New energy recovery rules mean cars will be able to source two megajoules from the rear axle and another two from the exhaust and use all that power every lap.

Engineers are aiming to hit a thermal efficiency target of 40% (how much energy is produced from the fuel). Current F1 cars hover around the 30% mark, while a conventional road-diesel is 35%.

By 2017, cars will have to be powered exclusively by electric motors in the pit lane. In the space of a few years, electric will not only be low emission, but it will suddenly become uber-cool.

These are significant changes – labelled the “biggest for decades” by the BBC’s veteran F1 correspondent Andrew Benson.

Mercedes tell RTCC the regulations will in turn ensure other aspects of the cars become more efficient: “The key incentive in the new regulations is that both the total quantity of fuel we are allowed to consume is fixed, as is the fuel flow rate – i.e. the flow of energy into the engine.

“Therefore, in order to increase on-track performance, we will have to improve the overall energy efficiency of the package, so every team and engine manufacturer will be chasing further efficiency improvements throughout the season.”

With a top speed of 155mph, the Mercedes Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive is the fastest production EV in the world, but sadly costs a cool $522,000 (Pic: Daimler)

BBC 5 Live F1 commentator James Allen suggests it could be an education for both the engineers and drivers, who have previously driven at full throttle when possible during races.

“Drivers do need to think about how they drive to manage fuel consumption,” he says. “They tend to push harder in the opening stage, then consolidate if they are in traffic, then push again when they are able to overtake”.

So does this mean F1 can be seen as a ‘green’ sport?

On any number of levels it fails that most stringent of tests, especially when it comes to flying. The official F1 website estimates each team travels 160,000 kilometres (100,000 miles) a year between races and test sessions.

And yet in terms of pure investment into research and development (R&D) it is surely a shining example of how technological excellence can underpin a low carbon economy.

Have a read of this fascinating report in BusinessGreen on how McLaren generates efficiency savings on and off the track, or watch the company’s executive chairman Ron Dennis explain the concept behind their R&D centre in this 2011 BBC documentary.

The nascent Formula E electric series could pile on more pressure for F1 to green up its act further. Last Friday the FIA approved eight destinations for a series set to start in 2014.

Allen insists the sport does ‘get it’ when it comes to sustainability, pointing to a collective achievement of all teams to cut their emissions by 7% last year: “They’ve done a lot of work on making their factories more environmentally friendly,” he says.

“Of course flying all over the world is a negative, but there too they are installing much better connectivity for data transfer so more operations engineers can stay at base and monitor the data there rather than on circuit.”

And as Mercedes point out, the new rules in 2014 effectively mean F1 teams are developing brand new engines never seen before, crucially without government incentives or taxpayer subsidies.

“The work on the 2014 Power Unit is, in many areas, pure research into new technologies,” a spokesman tells us.

“Each experiment we conduct can yield relevant learning for our road-car colleagues and regular exchanges take place with R&D colleagues at Daimler to share this knowledge; equally, they have knowledge that can also be relevant to the Formula One development process.”

“With the new regulations, the likelihood of relevant learning trickling down into production technology, particularly in terms of energy recovery, is higher than is currently the case.”

Read more on: Road | Transport