How to ‘green’ the Grand Prix

How could the QANTAS Australian Grand Prix be made greener?

This is a pretext to post on Formula One because the Australian GP is being held in Melbourne this weekend, but it’s nevertheless an interesting question (almost as interesting as this morning’s news that Lewis Hamilton was caught doing donuts in St Kilda last night!).

F1 cars are super gas-guzzlers – they use about three quarters of a litre of petrol per kilometre. But their fuel use is dwarfed by the energy consumed over a full Grand Prix weekend by the tens of thousands of visitors who travel to the event, watch from air-conditioned boxes, and generally consume as if there were no tomorrow.

Of course these visitors might very well be doing something else almost as energy-intensive if there weren’t a Grand Prix in Melbourne, such as going to the football or Phillip Island, so the visitors are not the key environmental problem with the AGP.

The biggest impact is the symbolism of one of the world’s highest profile sports flagrantly disregarding two of the most pressing issues in the world today – declining oil reserves and a warming climate.

It seems to me that F1 must respond to this issue. It should of course reduce the ecological footprint of each GP, but that is not the most important contribution it can make. Rather, grand prix racing can capitalise on its capability in cutting-edge innovation and R&D to improve the environmental efficiency of automotive technology in everyday applications.

The obvious strategy is to mandate rules for the industry that provide incentives for the development of more environmentally efficient vehicles while preserving the values that appeal to fans and sponsors.

The sport made a good start last year with the introduction of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). In a nutshell, the technology involves collecting surplus energy generated during braking which would otherwise be lost as heat. That energy is stored in batteries or flywheels and used elsewhere on the track to provide a short boost in power, for example when overtaking.

It’s a considerably more sophisticated iteration of the technology used in the Toyota Prius, which uses a petrol engine rather than the regenerative braking principle of KERS to charge its batteries.

KERS was voluntary in 2009 and four teams – McLaren, Ferrari, Renault and Williams – elected to use it. Although they didn’t start the season well, by season’s end KERS-equipped teams like McLaren were performing well and winning GPs.

While originally intended to be mandatory in 2010, KERS remained voluntary and unfortunately all racing teams jointly elected not to use the technology this year, apparently in an effort to reduce costs.

The sport’s governing body, The Federation Internationale l’Automobile, plans to make KERS compulsory from 2013 and to limit the total amount of fuel available to a car in each race. The latter requirement would give teams an incentive to optimise both the economy and power extracted from each litre, potentially providing spillover benefits for the car industry. Teams would need to focus on maximising power per unit of energy instead of the current system of maximising power per unit of engine capacity.

This year’s rules, which mandate no refuelling during the race, are a step in that direction. Cars are obliged to start the race fully fuelled and this provides an incentive to keep the load as light as possible. Nevertheless teams can also choose to go the route of a heavier fuel load if that proves to be a more efficient way of maximising power and ultimately speed. The downside of this change appears to be that it promotes less exciting racing because pit stops have become a less important factor.

Alternative fuels are another area of potential innovation for the FIA. Diesel is one option as it is already used by some teams in sports car racing. Compressed hydrogen is also a potential power source although there are problems with storage which might need to be addressed by more frequent pit stops. Electric cars are a possibility provided the absence of excessive noise doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of fans.

Tyres constitute another whole area of potential green innovation. Currently they’re highly specialised and provide extraordinarily high levels of ‘stickiness’. Tyres that are greener to manufacture and dispose of will probably have much lower levels of grip however that might not be a significant disadvantage. One point of view is that the ‘stickiness’ of modern F1 tyres, rather than aerodynamics, is the key reason overtaking has become less common and races therefore less interesting.

The FIA plans to make all F1 events carbon-neutral from 2013. That should be applauded, however the main game in F1 is to demonstrate to fans that the sport understands the seriousness of climate change and peak oil and is making a major contribution to addressing these issues. That contribution can and should primarily be in the area of technological innovation where the sport has a long and proud history dating from the days of Colin Chapman. The trick will be to ensure the sport remains attractive to fans.

One Comment on “How to ‘green’ the Grand Prix”

  1. […] With serious questions being raised about the viability of the Grand Prix in Melbourne, it’s time for Bernie to embrace this change. The Auditor General found that the costs of the event exceed the economic benefits, let alone the cash outlay. Reducing the impact on residents affected by the noise footprint might help fans retain the race. In fact the sport should go further to embrace ‘green’ thinking as I argued this time last year. […]

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