Full confessional please

An article on the Guardian newspaper website today highlights the contribution that Formula 1 engineering (and eventually, that of Formula E) is making to efficiency and sustainability in circles far outside the sport. It lauds the change to smaller engines and focus on innovative technologies, such as kinetic and thermal energy recovery systems.

But the article throws up a troubling statistic: the fuel used by Formula 1 racing cars makes up just 0.3% of the carbon footprint of the sport.

Obsessed with the weight and speed implications of carrying fuel, F1’s bright minds have been busy building greater and greater efficiency into their engines for years. So where are the earth-shattering carbon costs? According to a report commissioned by the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA), the most carbon-intensive part of the F1 circus is manufacturing (98,000 tonnes: all that carbon fibre…the clue is in the name) followed by electricity consumption (55,000 tonnes: that’s a lot of computer time and wind tunnel testing).

In fact, all the other elements added together that go into the Formula 1 roadshow – the vehicles, the freight, the business travel, the operational and the racing fuel – barely equal the electricity figures.

While these numbers are a gauge for how responsibly we are using energy, they are also pretty meaningless without context. Some comparisons: in the UK, the average person’s annual carbon footprint is 10 tonnes. That means that the electricity used by F1 annually is the equivalent total energy usage of 5,500 people. That’s a small town. Boiling a kettle four times a day, every day for a year, would only generate around 70kg of carbon; a fridge-freezer powered all day for a year would generate about 80kg.

Or how about this, for the more wheely-minded: an average family car is thought to generate about 24 tonnes through its entire lifecycle. Manufacturing accounts for around a quarter of that in internal combustion engined vehicles, and almost half the total in battery powered cars (which have a smaller total footprint at 18 tonnes). Put that way, the amount of energy that F1 manufacturing consumes in a year is enough to build more than 16,000 conventional family cars or 11,000 electric vehicles. 

Where does this leave fans of the new racing series Formula E? The only significant difference from F1, apart from the sheer scale in the first few years, is that the race cars will be powered by batteries rather than fossil fuels. The series is going to be extremely energy intensive. That’s a given. It is not zero emissions and it is not carbon neutral. What organisers, politicians and celebrity supporters can do is be honest. Formula E is not the solution to a low carbon future, though it can be seen as a step in the right direction.

Promise us thrills, spills and wheel-to-wheel action. Promise us breakneck engineering evolution and enough technology to capture the geekdom as well as the die hard racing enthusiast. But please – don’t preach. Formula E will be every bit as dirty as its sinful older brother. And that, I suspect, is why it will succeed. We all love a bit of naughtiness after all. Formula E could the St Trinians to the hardcore porn industry’s schoolgirl fantasies. Forget the green labels. For the new championship to pull the crowds, its mantra ought to be: Formula E racing – every bit as bad for the planet.

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