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How Close Are We to a Green F1 Grand Prix?

How Close Are We to a Green F1 Grand Prix?

The Melbourne Formula One (F1) Grand Prix (GP) event at Albert Park Lake will soon get underway at the end of March. Not only is the event one of the landmark occasions on the Australian sporting calendar, but this race is commonly regarded as among the favourites of not just fans, but also F1 personnel, given its iconic location in the seaside suburb of Melbourne, its standing as one of the first races of the year - indeed it’s often been the first on the calendar! - and the huge support the event enjoys from the Australian community. In fact, not only was 2022 a year of record attendance with 419,114 fans making their way through the gates across the four days the GP was held, but it’s expected 2023 will see an even higher attendance, based in part on the desire of fans to ‘make up for lost time’, given the pandemic saw the event cancelled in 2020 and 2021, but also thanks to the Netflix series Drive to Survive, which is credited with creating a whole new legion of fans of the auto racing category globally.

Yes, there’s no doubt that Australia’s GP is an outstanding event, and one beloved by a huge diversity of people across a wide demographic. Yet if there’s one thing really missing from the GP at present? A key aspect that would attract even more fans? It’s the utilisation of clean and green technology on the track! It’s no secret right now that the cars are still powered by fossil fuel sources, and - while it’s appreciated F1 is a special class of car - ultimately like all vehicles running on these sources, change has to come in order to see our world go green, and drive down the worsening impacts of climate change. So, how close are we to a renewable energy GP? Let’s look now.

Can We Get from A to Z in Green Racing via Formula E?

At the outset it’s important to recognise that there is indeed already a category of cars that compete regularly with renewable energy. The Formula E category is a single-seater class for electric vehicles exclusively. Just as this is a fantastic competition in its own right, it’s nonetheless also one that does not (yet at least) attract a comparable prestige and following that the F1 category enjoys. In some respects, this can be explained by the fact that the Formula E is of course a much newer category, and thus it does not have the rich history and network of commercial partners and supporters across the globe that the F1 category does.

But it’s also the case that as long as the world’s greatest drivers aspire to get behind the wheel of an F1 car, not only will this vehicle class be where the greatest resources and attention go, but also where the greatest urgency exists for a shift from the utilisation of fossil fuel-powered engines to electric ones. This is especially the case because F1 making such a shift could very much create a ‘cascading’ effect, that also drives the push towards electric engines in other racing categories. By contrast, if F1 is not an early adopter, its use of fossil fuels may drag on for years, and have a ‘knock-on effect’ occur in the wider industry, as other categories stall in making the switch on the basis that F1 is yet to do so.

Racing to a Sustainable Sport

Presently, F1 plans to have a carbon-neutral sport by 2030. This is occurring by steps being taken pertaining to both on-track and off-track activities. But ultimately, F1 at its core is of course all about the cars themselves. That means their green - or otherwise - operation can be regarded as the centrepiece in the minds of many as to whether the sport is eco-friendly or not. It’s certainly the case that the cars being green alone will not make the rest of the sport suddenly eco-friendly - more on those aspects to follow - but for all the other worthy endeavours that may be done, until F1 cars are no longer reliant on unsustainable materials and practices to operate, it will be felt that there is something missing from this new era of F1 that’s incoming, notwithstanding all the great gains that may be made elsewhere.

So, how long until F1 shall switch to an all-electric mode of operation? Presently, while there’s indeed a variety of views on this, it’s held that 2035 could be a realistic target date. There exists a few factors adding extra energy to the momentum behind this date. Not only does the Formula E category continue to come along in leaps and bounds - and with it, the ongoing conversation surrounding how technology from it may transfer over to F1 - but 2030 indeed remains a landmark target for climate change action globally. It’s true that what the United Nations may be pushing for and what F1 is pushing for is not always necessarily going to be on the same road! But each year legions of fans of all sports become more mindful of the eco-impacts providing such entertainment delivers, and - especially for a sport like F1 where the creation of emissions is so plain and apparent given automobiles are central to it - there is the expectation as we head towards and beyond the milestone year of 2030, momentum for change within the sport shall see a massive increase in speed.

A Change of Strategy On and Off the Track

Car Going Green

There are of course many other considerations beyond the electric motor to factor in when it comes to F1 going green. For instance, not many casual race fans may be aware that F1 has deliberately designed races to feature pit stops - sometimes multiple in different races - where an F1 car’s tyres must be changed. This is because - while there’s no doubt cars commonly reaching speeds above 300 kms an hour lap after lap can result in a lot of wear and tear - the presence of pit stops in a race also creates an extra element of drama, and requires teams to engage in a deeper level of strategy. Put simply, with pit stops, it’s not possible to just get a car’s tail in front of all others at the front of the pack and presume you’ll be the first to cross the finish line - pit stops will require (unless the driver in front has opened up a truly substantial lead) giving up the lead to other drivers for a time, just as those other drivers will themselves have to pursue pit stops, and thus potentially give back the lead of the race to the original leader. This is where strategy and the timing of pit stops really come into it.

There’s no disputing the use of materials like electric batteries over petrol, and tyres with higher sustainability would be eco-friendly, but this could also potentially diminish the drama - and thus, the fan’s enjoyment - of a F1 race as it concerns factors like pit stops. Longer-lasting tyres that are eco-friendly is great for the environment, but could complicate the tyre wear-factor that adds a unique strategic dimension to races currently. Ultimately, issues like tyre wear and tear are highly unlikely to be insurmountable - especially given F1 has shown a readiness throughout the years to tweak the format of a GP - but for a sport built on pushing a machine to the absolute limit, the challenges surrounding how to keep that excitement and innovation while using materials in a more sustainable way, will also be a real test going forward.

Concerning factors off the track, it’s no secret that F1 maintains some close sponsorships with fossil fuel companies. In addition, they have also hosted race events in nations that continue to have a huge fossil fuel industry and/or have been accused of engaging in ‘greenwashing’ (the attempt to get huge sports events and other landmark attractions to help wash over a nation’s other reputationally-damaging issues like human rights abuses). Ultimately, the debate about greenwashing is a tricky one, and many people on both sides of the argument can appreciate this. After all, on the one hand, people of all nations enjoy sport, and it can be a great avenue to build shared understanding and affection between regular people from all across the world, wherever an event may be hosted. By contrast, for sports organisations that are based in countries where there is a strong emphasis upon respecting and protecting human rights, the argument exists that it’s morally wrong to help provide a platform and prestige to governments in nations where there is immense concern about ongoing human rights abuses, and that sports events should be pursued to be hosted in true goodwill - not simply as tools to try and draw international attention away from real issues elsewhere in a nation.

Ultimately, such a debate is beyond the scope of this article, but it was important to note near the conclusion here, as such conversations surrounding F1 going green will not only focus on the introduction of technology like electric engines, but also discuss what organisations F1 may partner with, and what nations it may host events in going forward.

The Need for Speed

Racing Car

Since its inception F1 has been an avenue to showcase cutting-edge automobile technology. Although it’s been many years since car manufacturers could credibly claim their research and development of on-track cars has had many direct flow-on benefits for their street-legal luxury vehicles - the gap between the two has simply grown too large - there is no doubt that F1 cars are an ongoing symbol of technical innovation and ambition. That’s why the push for F1 to become sustainable is such an exciting one, not only as it’d result in closing the chapter on racing events that generate emissions, but F1 entering the electric era would deliver a huge array of new excitement and ingenuity in the field, and perhaps even restore the close link (at least for a time) between the development of new possibilities for on-track cars, and the potential to directly transfer them to street-legal cars, given the electric era of the automobile ultimately remains very new.

As also detailed in the prior section, F1 will have challenges it has to address off the track too. After all, getting clean and green cars operational on the track would undoubtedly be great, but if the sport continues to maintain close ties to fossil fuel companies alongside other concerning stakeholders, any celebration of their green endeavours may find a lukewarm response indeed among the wider public. This said, if F1 can rev up their efforts and fine-tune their offering, unquestionably it going green would not only be amazing for the sport and its fans, but also serve as a source of inspiration for other sporting codes in their own quest to go green, and provide the best possible product in future - that’s also eco-friendly - to their fans.

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