Will Gray

Tech Talk: Does F1 have a sustainable future?

Will Gray

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As the new decade dawns, Formula One's eyes are on a sustainable future - but after the debacle of KERS how can the sport's engineers approach the demands for environmentally friendly racing?

In the great scheme of things, Formula One's collective emissions are miniscule, yet the involvement of global corporations that are seen to be causing harm to the planet creates a dark cloud over the sport.

While it could be argued F1 is so influential, with so many fans around the world, that it is an ideal vehicle for the promotion of sustainability issues, Honda's 'Earth Dreams' car, which aimed to do just this, proved it is impossible to get such a message across when the perception of the sport is one of fuel-guzzling gluttony.

The KERS system aimed to change that, with the introduction of 'hybrid power' that would allow car manufacturers to use F1 to develop ways of reducing fuel consumption in road cars by taking energy from braking, storing it and converting it to forward power when required.

It was a good concept, but it was activated poorly and the way in which F1 used it gave the wrong impression. Rather than requiring all teams to use the system to provide a proportion of the car's overall maximum power, and therefore reducing fuel consumption, it was instead used to provide an extra power boost over and above the standard power output.

In the end, it proved too expensive even for F1 teams to develop as the systems the engineers created used technology that had a severely short lifetime and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds per race. It was, ultimately, a casualty of the cost versus technology debate that the sport is now facing up to faster than ever.

To counter this, FIA chief Jean Todt is demanding action. Aware that the sport must change the way it is perceived (currently being singled out as an environmental disaster) he has installed his old engine chief from Ferrari, Gilles Simon, to lead a new working group investigating how F1 can become greener on a budget.

Back in 2008, Ross Brawn, then working for Honda, said: "The great thing about competitive motorsport is it accelerates development...F1 should certainly be looking to introduce further environmentally-focused regulations in future. To develop hybrid and heat recovery technologies which can then be used on road cars demonstrates that F1 can play an important role in developing energy efficient and environmentally friendly technologies."

But F1 has suffered in the last two seasons from the departure of three key environmentally focused car manufacturers - BMW, Toyota and Honda - all of which had been keen to progress and promote the energy efficiency of their road cars through Formula One.

Understandably, since the 'global financial meltdown' they seem to have decided the hundreds of millions they were spending on high-tech F1 technology could be better spent creating concept vehicles that focus on road car engineering solutions that can be fast-tracked into production.

So perhaps the highest point on the working group's agenda is now the investigation of new energies, and the fuel companies - which seem to be showing solid commitment to the sport - could be the key.

Formula One engines already run on part bio fuel but that is only a small token of what could be achieved. And with three of F1's new privateers - Richard Branson (Virgin Racing/Virgin Airways), Tony Fernandes (Lotus F1/AirAsia) and Vijay Mallya (Force India/Kingfisher) also involved in the aircraft industry, any cross-over opportunities for future fuels could become a goldmine.

Branson was pushing 'clean fuel' when Virgin first teamed up with BrawnGP last year and although that has all gone very quiet in recent months, the use of F1 to promote this kind of technology would surely be enticing for the oil companies around the world.

It's hard to see these global giants collaborating to develop future fuels, however, so how long will it be before F1 begins to explore the possibility of a single fuel supplier? Perhaps that is the way F1 could start to build an environmentally friendly future.

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