All sport has a carbon footprint but international motorsport’s colossal freight logistics present its greatest obstacle to reducing its impact on the environment.
Formula 1 reported 45% of its carbon footprint in 2019 came from freight and a further 27% from staff movement. Formula E reported even higher percentages, in the same year, with 74% of its footprint on logistics and a further 17% on staff travel. Compared to the emissions of its cars or even the events themselves, moving an international series around the globe is by far its biggest environmental concern.
Comparing series is not straightforward. Each reports its sustainability efforts differently, even when considering similar metrics such as the carbon footprint of a whole season. Variations between calendars also have a huge effect. For example, Formula 1’s 2022 carbon footprint over 22 individual grands prix will inevitably exceed Formula E’s 16 races spread over nine venues, as several of its rounds are double-headers.
However, there are some ways to benchmark, once you’ve cut through marketing jargon about being a “podium for advocacy” or other completely vague and unmeasurable factors.
Extreme E markets itself on being environmentally conscious. The off-road racing series builds legacy environmental projects and some elements of scientific study into its events, which are held remotely and without spectators on courses that require no barriers or construction. Teams are allowed just one pallet of equipment, packed before the start of the season, and cars and materials are transported on a specially-adapted ship, the St Helena, to try to further control the freight impact.
In its first season, held in 2021, Extreme E produced 8,870 tons of CO2. Over five events with nine cars entered, that represents 197 tons of carbon per car per race. Formula E’s report for last year, comparatively, would have put it at 54 tons of CO2 per car per race over 15 races, from a 19,600 ton overall footprint.
Formula 1’s last published carbon footprint was 256,551 tons in 2019. Since then, the sport has made significant changes due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Two years with significantly reduced numbers of spectators and paddock personnel at races, and working practices altered to allow fewer staff to travel, will have significantly impacted that but working out at 610t per car per race it clearly looms large over either of the more environmentally-focussed series.
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On the other hand, that figure does somewhat flatter Formula E’s logistical challenges. In 2021 FE ran 7 double-header events, so to divide 19,600 by 24 (the number of cars on the grid last year) and then by eight (the number of events actually travelled to) puts it at a more realistic 102t per car per event.
The compromises forced upon series by the pandemic illustrate the huge carbon savings made by cutting races in far-flung destinations. When FE was forced to cancel the second half of its season in 2020 and instead run six closed events in Tempelhof it saved around 21,000 tons of CO2 by not going to Sanya, Rome, Paris, Seoul, Jakarta, the USA and London.
Unfortunately, cutting that many races also seriously compromised the series’ reach, which has had a lasting impact. And let’s not pretend that the intention was to save carbon rather than find a cost-effective way to finish a season which had been struck by a global catastrophe.
This weekend Formula E heads to Jakarta in Indonesia – a single race, for which there has been extensive construction, which will inevitably mean more carbon being emitted. FE’s sustainability director Julia Pallé told RaceFans the realities of running a global motorsport series were that sometimes those choices were made. “It’s absolutely true when you double an event, it’s more efficient. But at the same time, the reality is that sustainability is a triple approach because we have the environmental, social and economic perspective.
“Yes, from the environmental side, it will be more beneficial to have only double-headers in the calendar,” Pallé continued. “But the reality is that from the social and the economic perspective, it is not as beneficial.
“So there’s the environmental perspective but we really take this triple bottom line in the decision making. And yes, sometimes it’s actually one of the other pillars that we decide to favour because we think it brings wider benefits.”
FE has already made itself net carbon-zero through offsetting. However, there is an overall plan to reduce the 45,000 tons it produced in the 2018/19 season (the last representative pre-Covid championship) by 45% by 2030.
The 45,000t produced that season works out as 170 tons per car per event travelled to (12 events, including the New York double-header). FE has made progress to reduce that number already.
Can F1 make similar reductions? It would likely find it hard to persuade teams to scrap their motorhomes for marquees, or to accept a maximum of two sets of Pirelli tyres per day in the same way Formula E does. Or that the calendar should be spaced with huge gaps, as FE’s often has, in order to replace carbon-costly air transport with more sea freight.
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However, as the costs of freight continue to soar and teams find their development budgets impacted by the cost of getting to races, the arguments for minimising freight may become more existential for the calendar. Especially following the decision to not replace the Russian Grand Prix being based on freight cost and logistical limitations.
Some solutions might be more tolerable than others, however, especially when already proven. F1 and Formula E share a logistics partner in DHL and the smaller series is more willing to experiment. “When we go to trucks and boats, we use biofuel, which is new and really has been implemented thanks to DHL having basically sharing the same objectives because by 2050 they’re aiming to be near zero carbon,” Pallé explained. “So it’s also for them an opportunity to test and see how they can roll out that to the rest of their fleet.”
Recently F1 has indicated its will take steps to reorganise its races on future calendars to minimise its long-distance travel. This has the potential to drastically cut its emissions as well as costs. As a case in point, only two of F1’s four races in North America run back-to-back this year. After next week’s race in Baku, the series will travel 9,000 kilometres to Montreal, then return to Europe.
“If you look at the calendar it makes sense to group some of the races together, whether it’s some of the American races, some of the Asian races, Europe obviously,” says Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.
“Some of the calendar this year, when you look at the geographics of it, Azerbaijan to Montreal, going to Australia for a weekend, it’s about as expensive as you could make.”
Motorsport has long driven technological change forward on the track. But in the coming years there may be greater opportunities to take that technology and understanding of efficiencies and applying it to the global logistics problems that will dominate the next decade.
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