How the real change F1 needs to cut its emissions was revealed by the pandemic


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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.

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.

Red Bull Ring, 2020
Logistics contribute enormously to F1’s emissions
Still, as F1 worked towards its objectives, along came Covid-19, which threw the world – and, by extension, F1 – into turmoil. The sport’s watchword remained ‘sustainable’ but for economic reasons rather than for ecological. Yet, rather ironically, the behind-closed-doors grands prix staged under Covid were the ‘cleanest’ F1 events for many a decade simply as they were mainly European-based and by government decrees had zero spectators.

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.

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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.

Mercedes virtual garage, 2018
F1 teams have embraced remote working
“We’re now in our fifth iteration of the Race Support Room,” Dominique Riefstahl, Mercedes F1 race support team leader, told RaceFans. “It started off with a tiny cupboard behind one of the meeting rooms, where literally you had two people sat in there, primarily trying to run simulations and doing analysis on both cars.

“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.

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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.

Capito says Williams will become ‘climate positive’
F1 itself plus a number of teams, promoters and major suppliers have so far qualified for three-star status, with the rest likely to follow shortly. The commercial rights holder last year also signed up to the UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework, which requires all members to undertake systematic efforts to promote greater environmental responsibility in order to reduce their overall climate impact.

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.

F1 will make more transatlantic flights next year
That is just half the solution: On the 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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27 comments on “How the real change F1 needs to cut its emissions was revealed by the pandemic”

  1. Unusually long and thorough article on a ‘popular’ topic with hard facts is refreshing, but talk that F1 might not survive without the ‘right message’ shows it’s still the same hysterionics.

  2. Unfortunately qualifying sprints don’t increase the number of races, as far as I or anyone I know is concerned. At best, they’re regarded as turning the Sunday race into a two-parter (thus, extending the length of races without increasing the count). Disconnecting Saturday and Sunday would likely get the sprint downgraded to “wasteful distraction”, which is how some people I know already regard the sprint. It’s not like the teams get paid extra for the sprints either – barring an accident allowance – since the only additional income is via series sponsorship, and the teams share TV and race venue income rather than series sponsorship (which last I checked, Liberty kept to itself).

    Some races are much more pairable than others. US/Mexico works, as does Netherlands/other European location. I’m not convinced that, for example, pairing France/Monaco would work despite the obvious carbon saving from going to that part of the world once instead of twice. (The easiest triple-header would be France/Monaco/Italy (Monza), but that will never happen).

    1. teams share TV and race venue income rather than series sponsorship (which last I checked, Liberty kept to itself).

      I did not check, but from memory teams get a percentage of profit. Thus increased sponsorship (net of additional costs) will lead to more profit, thus more sharing with teams.

      Tackling freight logistics emissions is not simply a function of distance. Shorter road freight trips can be more polluting than train or sea freight of 5-10x longer distances [thus from now onwards: Zandvoort by road to Rotterdam then by ship to Antwerp and then by road to Spa ;)].
      Airfreight will lose out in any comparison.

    2. generally well put, imho
      It’s just that I believe that it might work fine to mate MON/FRA as the former one is highly expensive (think accomodation) and the latter one would attract fans from ESP/POR, too.

      If you have a good product, reasonally priced, you will have full house every weekend — which shall not say that I would advice inflation as the right way to market a precious hi-end product ;-)
      [and about the “attractiveness” of sprint races is enough said]

  3. Hi Dieter, another excellent article…love reading this background stuff, well done. Can I make the point though (and I know that you’re not native English) that nobody in the UK has used the word ‘thrice’ in conversation since the days of Charles Dickens! Keep up the good work Sir.

    1. Thrice is still a word and its good to have your vocabulary expanded

    2. In Canada, thrice is a word we use. A fine word, thrice. Indeed, a word we are pleased to use, more than twice.

  4. On the 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.

    There is something to be said for variety: of climate, culture, geography… Given that teams are based in Europe all “international” destinations form a hub and spoke model. It would be more efficient is races were twinned based on their direction of travel (think Australia one weekend followed by Bahrain the next, given that Bahrain is a common layover in travel) to maintaining said variety.

    P.S. I love these articles, to me there is so much more to F1 than the cars and drivers on track and any opportunity to talk about those topics is welcome.

  5. There are quite a few dates in the 2022 calendar which make little sense from a logistics point of view. I thought it was suggested at one stage that the Canada and Miami races would be twinned together to save a journey across the Atlantic. This has not come to pass though which is madness. I am sure it would have been perfectly possible. OK so maybe Canada would have had to move earlier or Miami a little later but why not?

    Then as has been suggested Azerbaijan and Russia could be twinned to save travel. Azerbaijan has been held in the autumn/fall before. Why is there a race in Sao Paulo and then one in Abu Dhabi a week later? I think this might be an exception though for 2022, connected to the dates of the World Cup being held in Qatar.

    Of course the more races there are, the more difficult it is going to become to fit everything in without upsetting someone. Or races having to be more flexible over well established dates or windows in the calendar.

  6. @phil-f1-21 Azerbaijan GP hasn’t taken place in the autumn. Only June & April (twice).
    I’ve never cared about Azerbaijan & Russia not being on consecutive weekends. Furthermore, Russian GP will move away from Sochi Autodrom after next season. Therefore, this consideration becomes irrelevant soon anyway.
    Yes, the only reason Abu Dhabi follows Brazil by seven days (like in 2010) is Qatar’s World Cup.
    Miami & Montreal definitely should take place on successive weekends, either before Spain-Monaco or after, in which case Spain-Monaco earlier.
    Montreal can still be chilly in May’s opening half, but decent-ish OK. Miami in the latter half is perfectly okay.
    Everyone will eventually have to make compromises for the carbon-neutral plan.

    1. Yes I think you are quite correct. I think my comment was based on a train of thought that Russia is held in the early autumn so presumably Azerbaijan could be. I think it has been mooted. Not that I have ever been there. The point is thought they are quite close to each other.

      There is always Monaco I know to consider in May as well. But I don’t see why Miami could not even be in early June Lots of British tourists go to Florida in June so it cannot be too bad. Hot and humid I know by then.

  7. My understanding is there are literally hundreds of trucks hauling team stuff around Europe, including massive hospitality setups. Limit the teams to four trucks/car and cut European emissions by 50% or more and save money too boot.

    1. Ferrari, Haas, Aston Martin and many other teams are all about marketing. If there were no marketing benefit to having a team, rest assured they wouldn’t. The “massive hospitality” adders to the team set-ups are all part of what it takes to reap a benefit to operating an F1 operation.
      One aspect that I will sorely miss with the proposed reduction of staff and hangers-on, are the time wasting camera flips to the classic … girl-friend in the pits, shots. The C. Horner leg twitch comes close, but at least that is humerus.

      1. Yeah, I was aware of the hospitality/marketing side of it. Joe Saward has mentioned, IIRC, something on the order of 400 trucks to move the circus in Europe; seems a bit excessive.

      2. I hope I’m not the only one that saw what you did there! LOL!

  8. I respectfully, but completely, disagree with the premise of the POV presented in the article.

    The point of the engineering competition aspect of F1 is to push research and development of technology applicable to society. Again…”point of the engineering competition”. That is the point of that 0.7%.

    Making that 0.7% to be neutral 0% is a big deal. Worrying about the rest of it, the 99.3%, as a selling point of F1, is ridiculous. Of course, reducing that carbon footprint is also a good thing, but the most important part, wrt making the world better, is that 0.7%.

    Undermining that part of the messaging is, in my opinion, counter productive.

    1. THAT’s THE POINT !
      The car manufacturers involved stand for something arooung 20% of global auto production.
      The know-how they generate in F1 surely is not lost.
      For sure they gather knowledge how to run similar, civil engines at ever lower consumption while maintaining ever higher loads. [I am sure there is a way to put this better into words, no native, sorry.]
      That’s the principle of pushing peak performance.
      That’s why F1 is more important than WEC when it comes to squeezing efficiency as far as possible.
      Plus the physical inevitability that weight is a crucial factor in lap time.

      I am BAFFLED on a permanent basis that F1 still did not manage to promote its reason-to-exist.

      1. If you would want to chop off some portion of meaningfulness / societal relevance from F1, then you would start standardizing more & more parts, alongside reducing numbers of Power Units applowed, alongside increasing the minimum weight more & more.
        It is not more complicated ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (while limiting the scope for development more & more — while limiting the propulsion technology / concepts on & on … that’s all you got to do …)

        1. A concise, clear, and practical version of that might be to standardize/spec everything (including min mass, etc) except the power train, and leave the power train 100% open, with the single constraint of “your power has to be carbon neutral”. You can use any mix of carbon neutral biofuel, hydrogen, batteries, motors, inverters, etc, etc, you want. But it has to run neutral.

          And you cannot freeze the power train. The point of R&D is to iterate.

          1. edit: yeah, you’d need to limit max power and energy somehow too, for safety reasons, probably via energy store capacity limits (fuel tank, battery capacities, etc).

  9. “We are making the commitment to be climate-positive by 2030″

    Love the buzz words!

  10. I wonder how much emission you get from the F1 race compared to the hundreds of thousends supporters who drive or fly many miles to see it. But I know there is no stop on the development of emission free cars. Replacement of all gasoline driven cars into electric or hydrogen does serve the klimate, but also creates new ways to make money. ;-)

  11. The waste at the US GP was egregious. At least this year there was one place to fill reusable water bottles, but just one. The logistics of getting cars in and out of the event was so bad we sat in traffic for hours every day with most people running their engines, windows up, AC blasting.

    I’d love to see the carbon footprint calcs of 50-150,000 people driving to the event and back over 3 days in cars with an average occupancy of 2.5-ish oh fine I’ll do it myself. (Pulls out green eyeshade and calculator)

    2 million kg CO2 assuming 20 miles each way and an average attendance of 100,000 people per day (404 grams/mile avg emissions). This is terrible folks.

    1. I would just vote for cutting 25% of global cruise ship trips — combined with hauling some production from Asia back to home soil and a cut back of ruthless animal farming (that sort no one wants to see) and you could have 10 GPs every weekend [without having calculated it].
      What do we love more: BIG SPORTS EVENTS, CRUISING or ANIMAL CRUELTY ?
      What are we opting for ?

      1. Put a fair carbon price on all of them and let the people vote on which to favour with their wallets.

    2. Society level austerity, and associated tradeoffs, is another topic altogether.

      Which luxuries are not justified wrt their carbon footprints? Who decides? Who enforces? And how is the power to do that kept from becomes corrupted?

  12. If the FIA, Liberty and the teams decided that from 2030 cars would run on engines that extract carbon from the atmosphere and turned that into fuel, then the OEMS will all find a way to make that happen.
    And the benefits would be huge.
    Willpower & reasons …

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