Insights: Sustainability and speed

Formula 1 holds important lessons for businesses looking to rapidly evolve and decarbonise through innovation

Twenty years ago Formula 1 was facing an existential crisis as the world was waking up to the extent of climate change. Traveling the globe, burning fuel at an incredible rate in eye-wateringly expensive racing cars, Formula 1 was at risk of appearing out of touch with the way sponsors, governments and vehicle manufacturers saw the future. Indeed, for most of its 70-year history, environmental impact had been of little to no consideration amidst the roaring engines, international calendar, and high-consumption of F1.

Faced with this challenge, Formula 1 began to look at how it could use its position, approach and influence to become part of the solution and stay relevant to its key stakeholders. In 2008, former FIA president Max Mosley commissioned the first carbon footprint for the Formula 1 Championship, adding sustainability on the agenda of the FIA Institute, starting to discuss with manufacturers the introduction of KERS and regionalization of the calendar. As a high-profile international sporting competition, the environmental standards expected by consumers and commercial partners have evolved. So too has the technology and development sought by vehicle manufacturers. Combined, they offer an explanation for the various innovations that have evolved from the sport in recent years and highlight the motivation for its current direction. They also provide a fascinating case-study of how a business has responded with speed and conviction to turn a potential terminal weakness into a strength.

To consider F1’s role in sustainability, you also need to include the secondary effects of the intense technological research, development, and testing that has occurred over the years. From aerodynamics to hybrid technologies, many of the great advances in the sport have transferred to the automotive industry and helped to understand and reduce emissions at a much greater scale.

Perhaps the best examples of this are hybrid power units, otherwise known as Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS). Introduced in 2009 as optional, KERS was a significant milestone in sustainability innovation for motorsport and wider transport. Kinetic energy is the energy stored in motion, typically in a high voltage battery (or a flywheel system that was banned as a system in F1 but found its application in civil engineering) and stores it for later use. It is a technology now common in many electric and hybrid road cars and is known as “regenerative braking”.  By converting waste energy back into useful energy, regenerative braking systems contribute to improving the overall efficiency of a vehicle, thereby reducing its environmental impact.

As vehicle manufacturers began to focus more closely on hybrid vehicles, F1 shifted its regulations to align with these ambitions. In 2014 the hybrid power unit was announced, focused on downsizing, turbocharging, efficiency, and reduced fuel consumption, taking KERS to the next level (ERS). It allowed F1 cars to generate more power with significantly less fuel, leading to reduced CO2 emissions. This translated to widespread trends in the automotive industry to reduce the size of engines, a practice known as “downsizing”, using forced induction to create more efficient, less carbon-intensive combustion engines, and the growing practice of hybridization. Driven by this and other rule changes, manufacturers, and simulation companies teamed up to developed digital twins and simulation models to reduce prototyping and testing.   

Wider effects are great, but what about the sport itself? In 2019, F1’s carbon footprint was estimated to be 256,551 tonnes of CO2. A staggering 45% of this was related to logistics, 19.3% to factories, 27.7% to business travel, and a rather minuscule 0.7% from the actual power units across all Grand Prix weekends. The goal? Net Zero by 2030 “From factory to flag” across all of it, with credible offsets making up for gaps (note: the United Nation Net Zero framework calls for only a small % of offsetting credit to be used, whilst abatement of emissions is a must).

Part of the sea change taking place during the current decade is Formula 1’s decision to abandon the use of fossil fuels as an energy source for the F1 cars.  Commencing in 2026 the sport will adopt a further development of the current hybrid engine technology, only this time the proportion of electrical energy will be more than doubled and the small 1.6 litre internal combustion engine will utilise an entirely sustainable fuel developed using carbon capture technology.

In addition, championships and circuits themselves have worked to reduce the amount of carbon generated each season. This includes recent trials at race circuits to provide on-site energy from more sustainable sources, including a hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) biofuel and solar panels, plus substantial logistical changes to how F1 and other championships move freight around the world, moving as much as possible by sea rather than by air.

Integral to this recent sustainability shift has been the work of Dr Cristiana Pace. A highly respected motorsport engineer, Cristiana has long been involved in Formula 1 through its governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) and its Institute for Sustainability and Motorsport Safety. Since 2019, her company Enovation Consulting is bringing a new data-driven and strategic approach to sustainability to the motorsport industry. The company is also involved driving sustainable technology into other championships and into the wider world of sport, including football. It is also publishing critical information on what circuits and championships are doing on this matter in its not-for-profit Sustainable Motorsport Index™ (SMI).

The work of Cristiana and her team has gained international recognition, including the recent Confartigianato Motori Award for Special Technology and Environment. This 41st edition of the awards, held annually at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, included this new category for which Cristiana was the first-ever winner.

As Formula 1 speeds into the future, it carries a new set of ambitions on and beyond the racetrack. With a commitment to achieving a Net Zero by 2030, it will be an impressive and leading example of what it takes to make a high-emission industry sustainable. Its ever-shifting regulations will also see it progress to sustainable fuels and all manner of cleaner technologies, allowing it to decarbonize and influencing wider transport too.

What was once a carbon-intensive global sport facing irrelevance in a shifting era has become a hub of innovation for sustainable technologies and a lesson in change. Turning a weakness that threatened its future into one of its key strengths, ensuring continued relevance within industry and society while maintaining a connection to its worldwide following of passionate fans.

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