Hope of sustainable fuel leads F1’s efforts to tackle climate change
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You could be forgiven for thinking that gas-guzzling, high-living Formula One would have to be dragged kicking and screaming towards net zero emissions targets. But for the high-performance engineers who are the backbone of the sport, the climate challenge is an irresistible problem to solve.
“It is a daunting task because we are exploring frontiers that we have not explored before,” says Pat Symonds, F1’s chief technology officer. “But it is a worthwhile challenge, because it is a way that motorsport can contribute to society.”
It has been two and a half years since the sport announced it would achieve net zero emissions by 2030. An audit of its carbon emissions in 2018 showed that the 21-race season produced 256,551 tonnes of CO₂.
Most of these emissions — 45 per cent — came from its air, land and overseas logistics as it transported thousands of tonnes of freight from race to race.
Another 27.7 per cent came from business travel by F1 teams, staff and partners; 19.3 per cent from team plants and offices; and 7.3 per cent from race days, where generators are used to power the circuit and provide broadcasts. Just 0.7 per cent of the sport’s emissions came from the use of fuel by its teams across its races and in testing.
However, while fuel use is by far the sport’s smallest contribution to its CO₂ output, F1 says that gains made here could have a “multiplier effect” across the global transport sector, provided the high-performance green fuels it pilots are more widely taken up by oil companies and carmakers.
F1 cars this season have switched to a version of the E10 fuel made by Aramco, the Saudi Arabian oil company. This is a mixture of 90 per cent fossil fuel and 10 per cent ethanol. There is a slight drop in the power provided when compared with the fuel the cars used last year, from about 44 megajoules per kilogramme to between 43 to 42 MJ/kg this season, which has prompted grumblings by some teams about a dip in performance.
Symonds defends the change. E10 packs plenty of punch, he says, adding: “This is a pretty damn good fuel. The move applies to all the teams, so no one is at a disadvantage.”
The sport currently uses about 1mn litres of fuel a year, mostly on testing, but Symonds says that, by 2026, engine, fuel and other efficiencies will cut this by half.
By that time, Aramco and F1 plan to have moved to a 100 per cent green fuel, which will involve CO₂ capture and low-carbon hydrogen in its manufacture. This will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 65 per cent.
The four-year window for adopting green fuel does not worry Symonds. “This move is cutting edge,” he says. “This type of fuel does already exist but not in the quantities we need to run a season and carry out testing. We need reasonable-sized plants to open to do this, and a few are due to open in 2023.”
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At least two large-scale biofuel plants are set to begin production in Saudi Arabia and Bilbao in Spain next year, Symonds says.
Aramco has provided funding to help develop the fuel and it also gives backing for the teams to carry out testing. The world’s biggest oil exporter and F1 have agreed that the new fuel in 2026 must provide at least 42 MJ/kg.
“The combustion engines in F1 are the most efficient on the planet, and are a target that any automaker would love to achieve,” says Ahmad al-Khowaiter, chief technology officer at Aramco. “We want to take this technology from racing to the road car, which is in the roots of F1. [The motorsport] over recent years has become less relevant but, with this technology, it is becoming more relevant.”
Work on engine designs was essentially stopped in March, when the race season began, although some modifications will be allowed until September in order to let teams prepare for the hybrid engines to be introduced in 2026.
Team budgets are limited to about $145mn this year, and anything from $10mn to more than $100mn can be spent on engine design, depending on whether a team buys an engine from a manufacturer or designs its own.
Symonds says restrictions imposed by the sport will limit the amount that teams can spend on the internal combustion engine but they can focus on electrical systems instead.
He adds: “We want to see improvements in electrical system design. This can be anything from fast-charging batteries to how the power electronics connect to the motor.”
Away from the cars, F1 has already made a range of changes to its operations to cut emissions. In 2020, the sport introduced remote broadcast operations, based at its media centre in Kent, which is home to 165 staff at race weekends. This meant that it could reduce the 70 tonnes of broadcast cargo it sent to each race by 34 per cent, as well as cutting on-site staff by 36 per cent.
F1 is also using lighter containers for air freight and has switched its fleet of four-engined Boeing 747 cargo planes to the more efficient twin-engined 777. More cargo is now sent by sea, as well.
By 2025, the sport wants all of its races to qualify as sustainable events, meaning that circuits must focus on elements such as energy, waste and public transport.
Racetracks in France and Canada have started to use solar panels to offset emissions generated during grands prix weekends. And, for the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort in 2021, 25,000 spectators travelled to the circuit by bicycle plus 40,000 on public transport, after most private cars were banned from coming to the race. F1 banned single-use plastic bottles at all racetracks for its staff and teams in 2021 and, in the same year, Silverstone gave more than 1.9 tonnes of food left over after its race weekend to a food bank.
But these changes may not be enough to make a significant difference to the sport’s total emissions. “Formula One’s carbon footprint is over half of Bermuda’s annual emissions,” points out Greenpeace UK’s policy director, Doug Parr. “Burning petrol for fun is never going to be green, even if you have switched from E5 to E10, but neither is flying these cars around the world every two weeks for three-quarters of the year. The industry has a long way to go.”
According to the most recent audit of the motorsport’s carbon emissions, in 2020, there was a near 40 per cent reduction in CO₂ emissions during a 17-race season that was heavily affected by the pandemic. Most races were held in Europe — some were even held in succession at the same venue — and only events in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi took the sport away from the continent. This meant the championship’s travel and logistics were heavily reduced.
With races and attendance nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, the sport will have to wait until the end of this season to assess the effectiveness of its changes over the past two years.
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