Last weekend was the inaugural race of Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix. US race fans, who have never really been that warm to the sport, came out in record numbers to cheer on global fan favorites Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, and Lewis Hamilton. In particular, the faux marina appealed to fans who were willing to dish out beaucoup bucks to sit aboard landlocked motorboats and a white sand beach, the entire area of which was painted to resemble an oceanside oasis. Clever? Uh, huh. A bit kitschy? Oh, yeah.
But what about the racing?
The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA)-sanctioned series has been considered the pinnacle of motor sports. Formula 1 markets itself at the forefront of technological innovation, citing a history of advancements that have directly benefited the wider automotive industry. It is true that aerodynamic innovations, safety developments, energy recovery systems, navigation tools, and composite materials from F1 have been adopted by the road car and other industries. The series certainly does have “a global platform to accelerate progress and develop technologies that reduce and eliminate carbon emissions from the current internal combustion engine (ICE).”
The question is, of course, how much impact has the self-described highest tech racing series accomplished in explicit sustainability activism? Are such practices transferable to mass transportation? Or was the Miami “marina” a symbol of the façade that has become Formula 1?
An F1 Driver Speaks Out about Sustainability Gaps
Aston Martin racer Sebastian Vettel, who is a 4-time F1 World Champion, was a guest on Question Time, a BBC political show broadcast since 1979. Vettel’s appearance gave him a forum to discuss his environmental and societal concerns, continuing the outspoken stances he took during the Formula 1 Miami weekend, where he wore a shirt highlighting the impact of rising sea levels in the flat coastal city.
When asked by host Fiona Bruce whether participating in Formula 1 makes him a hypocrite on such issues — which prompted a couple of laughs from the audience — he said, “It does, it does, and you’re right when you laugh. There’s questions I ask myself every day, and I’m not a saint.”
Vettel emphasized that countries need to shift away from a dependency on fossil fuels, citing the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and that “action should have been taken long ago,” particularly in his native Germany, to reduce its reliance on Russia.
He reminded the audience of potential around them for renewable energy. “In Britain, you have this gold mine you’re sitting on, which is wind. You can increase your energy supply with wind power, solar,” he notes. “Austria has its Alps and water. They can pump it up and store it, take it back down.”
Vettel then turned to options he has as a Formula One driver. “Do I need to take the plane every time? No, not when I can take the car.”
He also expressed frustration with the sustainability efforts of Formula 1. “There’s certain things in my control and certain things (that) are not,” he explained. “It is my passion to drive the car, and I love it. When I get out of it, I am thinking, ‘Well, is this something we should do? Travel the world, wasting resources?”
Formula 1 issued a flashy sustainability plan in 2019 with the aim of achieving a net zero-carbon footprint for the sport by 2030. It has also promised that all Formula 1 events would be sustainable by 2025. How’s the racing series doing?
Is the New Ethanol Fuel Requirement Little More than Smoke & Mirrors?
Among other regulatory changes for 2022, Formula One instituted a new requirement that the fuel teams use in their power units. That fuel features an increase from 5.75% to 10% in biocomponents. The hype along the circuit is that the teams are experiencing new and often frustrating power train responses to the fuel adjustment.
Yet corn-based ethanol, which for years has been mixed in huge quantities into gasoline sold at US pumps, is likely a much bigger contributor to global warming than straight gasoline, according to a 2022 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That study, titled “The Sobering Truth about Corn Ethanol,” contradicts previous research commissioned by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) showing ethanol and other biofuels to be relatively green.
Future F1 fuel formulas will have a component from a carbon capture scheme of municipal waste or non-food biomass. The plan is for the fuel to be manufactured on small scales initially at a pilot plant, which will reveal problems that can be solved on the pathway to production in large quantities. Questions arise as to whether the F1 plan for biomass — algae, agricultural waste, and cultivated non-food crops — meet the requirements to be produced.
“It’s very ambitious, in the scale of what we’re trying to do, to make a very high-performance sustainable fuel,” says Pat Symonds, chief technical officer at F1. “Carbon capture is a method we are very interested in because it removes carbon directly from the air. It’s in its infancy, but there are plants doing it; there are some in Canada, there’s one in Switzerland that’s quite large, also in South America,” Symonds explained. “So it’s feasible, and I think within 20 years, there will actually be quite a bit out there. But it’s very, very experimental.”
The partner for this sustainability venture is none other than Aramco, the Saudi company formerly known as the Arabia American Oil Company. Its slogan, “Where Energy is Opportunity,” is a bit amusing, no? Aramco’s net income increased by 124% to $110 billion in 2021, compared to $49 billion in 2020. It cited higher crude oil prices, stronger refining and chemicals margins, and the consolidation of its chemicals business, SABIC’s, full-year results. The company has stated it will invest to increase crude oil production capacity to 13 million barrels per day by 2027, expand its liquid to chemical production, and look to increase gas production by more than 50% by 2030.
— aramco (@aramco) May 13, 2022
It’s a bit confusing why such an oil conglomerate is a partner to the sustainability future of Formula One…
Was Formula 1 Miami just another Example of Racing Waste?
Miami is the second US city hosting a 2022 Formula 1 race, along with Austin. Las Vegas is next up for the US. (As a reminder, Formula 1 was acquired by US owners, Liberty Media, in 2017.) Miami track organizers had wanted to race downtown, between Biscayne Bay and the gleaming Miami skyline. They settled for the faux marina named the “Yacht Club,” where 4-ticket packages sold for $38,000. The 3.36-mile circuit offered palm-tree-shaded villas and VIP clubs that cost nearly $9,000 for a weekend pass.
As the New York Times reported, Florida likes to build highways, despite the state’s vulnerability to climate change, and ordinary Floridians, with limited public transportation options, spent long hours in their cars on the way to the track. Those hours amounted to lots of fossil fuel consumption.
Fuel is just one of many elements that contribute to F1’s carbon footprint. As described in a remarkable article on One Stop Racing by Louis Pretorius, all people and materiel needed for the 23 races scheduled on the 2022 Formula 1 calendar — which spans 22 countries, 5 continents, and 10 months — must be transported in some way. That means 50 tons of freight per team and 150,000 kg of media equipment must get to destinations by air, sea, or land; that’s nearly double the amount of weight that teams comprised in the late 20th century.
Everything that gets transported to all the F1 races is sent from Europe. At the start of the season, Formula 1 teams will ship 5 shipping containers full of non-essential equipment to non-European races; each container is packed with around 200 tons of equipment. If practical, each team drives its own equipment, and each team owns a fleet of articulated trucks. In 2020 it was reported that there were 315 trucks in total used by the teams, F1, the FIA, and Pirelli. These trucks carry everything needed for a successful race weekend, and they leave the track as soon as whatever they need to carry is packed and ready to go. Once the trucks get to the next track, they wait for the unpacking team to unload their cargo, and the whole process will get repeated once the race finishes.
At the tracks, Formula 1 teams assemble their team motorhome, race base, and garage. Formula 1 must construct its broadcast center, and Pirelli also builds its own motorhome at the track. Discussions to eliminate motorhomes have been fruitless. They exacerbate the carbon emissions of Formula 1 due to their large size and need for multiple trucks to transport them to tracks that aren’t geographically sequential.
In sum, Formula 1 uses an exorbitant amount of fossil fuels to stage a race.
Of course, F1 waste is not endorsed by all, as some drivers in addition to Vettel practice what they preach about sustainable lifestyles. For example, Lewis Hamilton used to own a private jet; however, he sold it in 2019 as part of a commitment to be more environmentally friendly. He now flies on commercial flights and only drives an electric Mercedes EQC. He is also the owner of an Extreme E racing team, X 44 and is a vegan.