The Gigantic Carbon Footprint Of Formula One

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Formula One bills itself as the Pinnacle Of Motorsport — the ne plus ultra of automotive speed contests. It’s the Mille Miglia, Le Mans, Watkins Glen, and the Indy 500 all rolled into one. The greatest drivers in history — Sterling Moss, Bruce McLaren, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, and dozens of others — have raced in Formula One over the decades.

Formula One
Credit: YouTube

Originally, Formula One was a contest between nations, with each car painted in the colors of the country it represented — green for England, red for Italy, blue for France, and so on. The politics of the sport were never more evident than during the run-up to World War II when the incredible Silver Arrows from Mercedes came to symbolize the preeminence of the nascent Third Reich.

The end of World War II signaled the beginning of the modern era in Grand Prix racing. Suddenly, all the countries in Europe got along like long lost brothers and Formula One races proliferated across the Continent. Monza, the so-called Temple of Speed, was where Ferrari began to assert itself as one of the top teams in the sport.

In 1978, Bernie Ecclestone, a failed racing driver but forceful business executive, concluded a deal that gave him the exclusive right to negotiate television contracts on behalf of the sport. The deal gave 47% of the revenue to the teams, 30% to the FIA, and 23% to himself. That arrangement has made Ecclestone one of the wealthiest men in history.

While television made the teams fabulously wealthy, it also slowly killed the sport. Ecclestone decided to focus solely on “the show” — the hype and hoopla that surrounds the racing rather than the racing itself. He sold the sport to national leaders as a way to advertise their countries to the world.

The racing became secondary. Today the races are mostly snooze fests in which drivers are merely technicians controlled by legions of engineers who dictate how to drive the car. The rules forbid carrying enough fuel to race flat out for an entire race and so there are titanic battles in the first few laps. Then the drivers dial it back for the majority of the remaining time so they can conserve fuel, conserve tires, and conserve their engines and transmissions. It is stage managed, like professional wrestling or roller derby.

The cars are so aerodynamically sensitive, it’s impossible to pass on most tracks. So the guardians of the sport have invented a ludicrous work around known as DRS, which stand for “drag reduction system.” At certain parts of every track, if a driver is close enough to the car ahead, he can press a button that causes a portion of the rear wing to flatten.

The car ahead gets no such advantage and so the trailing car immediately picks up about 12 to 15 miles per hour in speed and swoops by while the announcers scream about the skill of the driver who completes a pass. In truth, it is no more dramatic than a race between a Top Fuel dragster and a crappy blue Chevy Nova. A child could do it. Press a button. Boom! You’re ahead. Where’s the excitement in that?

Formula One & Its Carbon Footprint

As word about this thing called global warming began to spread and the phrase “carbon footprint” became part of everyday conversations, Formula One decided it needed to make changes in order to become more relevant to the modern era — one in which some guy named Elon Musk was starting to actually sell electric cars that didn’t suck.

Beginning in 2014, Formula One opted for a new powertrain, one that was about 50% more efficient than the great bellowing V-10 engines that had ruled the sport previously. Each car now has a 1.6 liter turbocharged gasoline engine that puts out around 700 horsepower plus an electric motor that adds another 200 horsepower.

The electricity for the motor comes from a battery which is replenished by an MGU-K, or motor generating unit – kinetic, and an MGU-H, or motor generating unit – heat. The MGU-K is much like regenerative braking except it works only on the rear wheels. The MGU-H harvests heat from the engine and turns it into electricity.

The sport’s concern for lowering its carbon footprint is nothing more than greenwashing. While the powers that be are busy patting themselves on the back for taking action to protect the Earth, each of the 10 teams in Formula One spend almost as much time in the air and they do on the ground.

They each lug between 50 and 100 tons of cars, spare parts, and equipment to each of the 21 races on the calendar, covering more than 110,000 air miles every year. That teams don’t just travel with cars and mechanics. They bring ostentatious mobile headquarters and hospitality centers with them everywhere they go to impress local dignitaries and their high roller sponsors.

110,000 miles times 10 teams equals 1,100,000 miles. A 747 burns 5 gallons of jet fuel for every mile it flies. That’s 5.5 million gallons of jet fuel just to fly back and forth to races. Add in another 25% to get to testing venues, promotional events, and other special activities and you’re up to almost 7 million gallons. And that still doesn’t account for emissions from the factories, wind tunnels, and the 300 to 600 employees each team employs.

A gallon of jet fuel creates 21 pounds of carbon dioxide when it is burned, according to the Energy Information Agency. 21 pounds times 7 million gallons equals — wait, I have to get out my Radio Shack calculator for this one — a staggering 147 million pounds of carbon dioxide just so Formula One can bring “the show” to fans all over the world. The cars could be powered by pixie dust and Formula One would still be one of the biggest polluters  on Earth.

All this so wealthy white men can become even richer. Bernie Ecclestone may have skimmed off the lion’s share of the money for himself, but the sport has made multi-millionaires out of scores of team owners over the years. In its pursuit of new markets and ever larger profits, the sport has become a temple to greed.

It has cozied up to brutal dictators in Azerbaijan and Bahrain, where dissidents are routinely rounded up and imprisoned before the Formula One circus comes to town. Hundreds of poor people in India were evicted from their homes to make way for a Formula One track. After two races, the Indian Grand Prix was cancelled. The poor didn’t get their land back, though.

What is most egregious about all this is that the fake racing of today is to real auto racing what processed cheese food is to cheese — a pale imitation that leaves everyone unsatisfied. There are endless discussion about how to make the racing exciting again. Here’s a clue, Formula One muckety mucks: racing. That’s what people want to see. Brave drivers going balls to the wall lap after lap from start to finish.

Clearly, Liberty Media, which purchased the marketing rights to Formula One from Ecclestone a few years ago, has no clue, so here’s a YouTube featuring wheel to wheel action between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux at the French grand prix in 1979. Just try watching this without getting excited. If Formula One is going to put massive quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, at least give the fans something that makes their heart race. Is that too much to ask?

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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