Formula 1's latest mantra is sustainability, and so it should be given the global shift towards carbon-neutral energy, whether in the workplace, at home or for mobility. Two years ago the sport revealed commendable objectives to have sustainable events by 2025 and be totally zero-carbon by 2030 , and immediately began implementing action plans to achieve those targets.
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Sunday sees the opening of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Scotland, COP26 , with motor vehicle pollution high on the agenda. Fossil fuels are in the crosshairs, making it is imperative that F1 continues to pursue its objectives and build on its achievements.
The sport is viewed by the world at large as being ultra 'dirty' because it burns (90%) fossil fuels in internal combustion engines. These perceptions prevail despite the fact that Formula 1's carbon footprint is lower than each of the last two Olympic Games, and the 2018 football World Cup.
Little known is that F1 car emissions over a season constitute just 0.7% of its 256,551 ton carbon footprint, while a whopping 45% is created by logistics, 27% by business travel, 19% by production processes and team factories, and seven per cent by race operations. True these numbers, the latest available, are from 2018 and are subject to change, primarily through Covid-induced restrictions – but they provide a quantified base.
Expressed differently: let us imagine that F1 next season switches to non-hybrid, hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines. It's footprint would still be 99.3% of the current value, assuming all other operations remain as is.
Even if it also abandoned car development and switched to a single 'spec' chassis, enabling teams to shut down their factories, it would still leave F1's global footprint hovering at the 80% mark. All of which proves F1's cutting-edge technologies are unfairly maligned, that it is the non-technical components that overwhelmingly contribute to its carbon footprint.
In order to pull off such events under lockdown conditions the grands prix were run with the absolute minimum of team and operational staff required to host a safe event. So much so that only a handful of media and marketing folk attended races live, with teams initially restricted to 80 staff each. There is a cost-saving lesson in there, too, as outlined in our analysis of 2020 team finances .
Remote activities were embraced up and down the paddock by teams, F1 and the FIA. Apps for the likes of Zoom, Webex and Microsoft Teams were hurriedly installed on laptops and phones.
The teams upgraded their virtual garages which, just two years before, faced extinction when F1 managing director Ross Brawn suggested they would be banned from 2021 on cost and 'level playing field' grounds. Imagine where that would left teams under Covid.
These are not, of course, a new concept, but teams now have up to 35 personnel in 'mission control' – the popular term for virtual garages – most of whom would have travelled to races had these been banned. Teams variously signed up hardware and software partners during the crisis to bridge the distance between trackside garage and team base. Up to 1.5Tb of data is exchanged per race weekend within a team.
"Over the years it's grown in size, from two people to about 10 people, then 20. These days, there's 30 of us in there. Obviously, the need for growth is that there is an ever-increasing amount of data available, and there are ever more eyes available for it. At the same time the numbers of people at the track reduced. As a result, you tend to find some roles are now happening in the RSR as opposed to the track."
Mid-size team Alfa Romeo boasts an impressive inventory of trackside and race operations room kit, namely 60 virtual machines running bespoke software and 55 PCs supported by 40 laptops and eight tablets, all hooked up to team HQ in Hinwil, Switzerland via a multiprotocol label switching system (MLPS) which directs data along the shortest, most stable route in real time with minimal lag.
During the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend around 10,000 files comprising mainly telemetry, voice and video data totalling 500Gb were transferred. These numbers largely tally with those provided by the other teams interviewed for this feature, although McLaren professes to transfer thrice that.
"There's about 400 channels of sensors on the car," says Riefstahl. "If you take a load cell in the suspension and a displacement sensing in the suspension, that's only two channels coming off the car but by the time you resolve these in terms of forces and you've done that everywhere around the car we augment that to about 40,000 channels."
Teams don't, of course, monitor all 40,000 channels, but, as Riefstahl explains, "With a lot of channels, especially when they are compound channels, you don't need all of the steps that are in between, you look at the final numbers."
Pre-Covid, brake company Brembo sent two engineers to each round, but was forced to develop remote procedures during the pandemic as its staff dealt with multiple teams and could not be confined to a single 'bubble'. Last week Brembo sent a single engineer to the United States Grand Prix, the first such attendance in almost two years. The company will now send a single engineer to events, with the second working remotely.
Sure, in Brembo's case it's a single person saved from travelling, but last year teams and other F1 stakeholders reduced race attendance by over 50% – proving it can be done. Apply that factor across F1 and the number of traveling staff reduces by over 1,500 – or five Airbus A350s per flyaway race.
The pandemic forced the commercial rights holder to accelerate its two-year plan to deliver remote TV broadcast operations into just eight weeks, while freight was reduced by 34% and the levels of travelling staff by 37%. In addition, F1's sites and offices receive energy from 100% renewable resources, while containers were adapted for compatibility with modern aircraft. In total F1's global freightage was reduced by 70 tons.
At paddock level F1 and its teams banned the use of plastic bottles – those that are visible during grand prix weekends are provided by promoters, who are now increasingly environmentally aware – while 140,000 plastic bottles were recycled to provide material to produce F1's passes 'cards' and lanyards. Every bit helps.
Meritorious as these reductions are, many of these carbon-reducing initiatives were triggered not by environmental factors, but due to the pandemic. Would F1 have embraced 'remoting' to the same degree without the pandemic? Or reduced travelling staff? The answer is a resounding 'no', certainly when it comes to the compressed timeframe, and arguably a 'no' in the longer term. Thus, F1 must try still harder.
Although Covid clearly forced F1's collective hands, the FIA had previously formulated its environmental accreditation programme, in turn launched in April 2020, coincidentally just as Covid bit. The programme is aimed at helping global motor sport stakeholders – including F1, obviously – to measure and improve their environmental performance by providing a three-level framework by which to accredit the operations.
Williams signed up to the UN charter a fortnight ago, with the team's CEO Jost Capito, saying "we have taken time to thoroughly analyse our entire operation and develop a comprehensive purpose-driven sustainability strategy to accelerate our sustainable transformation.
"We are making the commitment to be climate-positive by 2030 and we will be using our knowledge to nurture and develop advanced technology to meet this goal."
During F1's last 2025-onwards engine summit it was agreed unanimously it would adopt 100% sustainable fuels, despite the negligible contribution to its carbon footprint, with the final 'brew' yet to be decided. It is this step that is edging Audi and/or Porsche ever closer to a decision on F1, with the latter already heavily committed to a synthetic fuel manufacturing plant for its one-make series championships.
Such fuels are crucial for reducing emissions of the one billion internal combustion engine-powered vehicles currently cruising the world's roads, although their number will reduce over time. Here F1 can play a crucial role in development of clean ICE fuels . Synthetic and bio-fuels developed by F1 could conceivably also power trucks and aircraft, thus reducing emissions from those sources.
All this, though, counts for nought unless considerable efforts are made to reduce the need to travel as opposed to merely reducing the number of travellers to events. Herein lies the sport's biggest challenge: growing the number of races globally while reducing the travel footprint. By extension more races must mean more travel unless all events are staged at a single venue – not a realistic option.
Thus, F1 needs to better coordinate its calendars by staging events adjacently and seeking alternatives. Like them or not, qualifying sprint events increase the number of races while reducing the locations. Expect to see more of them on that basis.
2022 F1 calendar , for example, the sport will criss-cross the Atlantic thrice, twice for single events and third time for the US/Mexico double-header. Canada's June race is twinned with Baku a week later, a distance of almost 9,000km between the cities. Russia's race is situated a tenth that distance from Baku, yet is listed for late September, a week after the Singapore Grand Prix.
Consider the emissions created by such convoluted journeys – and not only for 1,500-2,000 travellers but also 20 tons of freight per team, plus all F1's broadcast kit. The obstacle to further streamlining of the calendar is promoters' fears that race held in close proximity to their own, both in distance and timing terms, provide unwelcome competition for the same audiences.
Yet the both Belgian and Dutch races – held a week apart – were sold out. Last week's USGP was a full house event, with the promoter for the Mexican Grand Prix a fortnight later being equally bullish despite Covid. Thus there should be no such fears.
The bottom line is that F1 has made enormous strides towards sustainability and carbon neutrality via a combination of own initiatives and Covid-induced factors. There is, though, considerable room for improvement as proven by Williams, the only team to have signed up to the UN charter so far. It will be fascinating to see whether it procures sponsorship from companies with 'green' agendas who would otherwise give F1 a wide berth.
For all its innovative image, F1 and its teams are prolific copiers of concepts and trends. Here's betting that just one 'green' Williams sponsor deal will have the rest of teams chasing UN accreditation overnight.
That said, while F1 has come a long way in the two years since it launched its sustainability agenda, it must try even harder if it is to survive in the face of the electric onslaught and false perceptions. To its credit, F1 is pursuing its own sustainability path, not that of COP26.
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