F1’s new net zero carbon branding

Symonds explains how F1 is solving the problems posed by its sustainable fuel goal

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Formula 1 has a target of operating as a carbon neutral championship by 2030, and one of the steps it is taking to achieve that is introducing fully-sustainable fuel in 2026.

Last season the cars were filled for the first time with E10 fuel – a mixture of 90% fossil fuel and 10% ethanol. During the summer it presented new branding to promote its “net zero” goal and draw attention to its plans for how “100% sustainable” fuels will be introduced three years from now.

The FIA has set targets for all its world championships to meet the top level of its Environmental Accreditation within three years. All FIA series must be powered by 100% sustainable energies – through combinations of sustainable drop-in fuels, battery or hydrogen technologies – by 2026.

F1 has made a lot of progress towards achieving those targets. But significant challenges remain before it can convert small-scale production of liquids produced in laboratories into fuels available in millions of litres to power the fastest sport on the planet.

How to create a true ‘drop-in’ sustainable fuel

F1 teams’ powertrains divisions have been limited since last year by a development freeze. Changes to improve engine reliability are allowed, but performance-boosting measures are not. They already work closely with the current fuel suppliers to maximise efficiency, power delivery and reliability using their products, and a change to the chemical composition of F1 fuel will require even more work.

Scaling up production is a key challenge, Symonds admits
The content of the fuel in today’s cars is regulated very tightly, but the work of the suppliers is not. F1’s hybrid engine specs will change in 2026 as a greater amount of a car’s power will be sourced from the electric component. The championship wants the onus to be on the fuel suppliers using their development time to bring their fuel as close as possible to the needs of the next-generation engines – and the existing infrastructure of F1 cars and teams – in order to decrease the amount of late-stage design tweaks the engine manufacturers may have to do to suit any changes arising from the introduction of sustainable fuel.

Other FIA championships have taken different directions. The World Rally Championship has adopted what it calls “fossil-free fuel”, while the European Truck Racing Championship runs on sustainable biofuel. F1’s desire to have “drop-in fuel” – one that meets its production sustainability targets and could be used as a like-for-like replacement for regular petrol in road cars – has already taken a step towards realisation. Beginning last weekend, Formula 2 and Formula 3 now race using a “55% sustainable” fuel, which required no modifications to the engines used in 2022.

Having a drop-in fuel which replicates existing products as closely as possible is vital to reduce the potential knock-on effects of the change. If the amount of energy that sustainable fuel contains is less than at present, and therefore a car has to carry more of it, then chassis designers may have to fit larger fuel tanks (as it is, F1 intends to reduce race fuel volumes in 2026).

Similarly, if the storage requirements outside of the car change – fuel is currently kept and transported in barrels under no specific environmental conditions – that could present a significant challenge. A “drop-in” fuel therefore will save a lot of money for F1 teams, who already test hundreds of different fuels from their suppliers even if they only use one specification in a season.

It’s not just about being able to put sustainable fuel straight into a modern F1 car either, but developing a fuel to then have road transferability at a lower octane rating. Decades ago the fuels used in F1 had limited relation to what could be found at refilling stations across the world, and the mixes did not even fit the scientific definition of “petrol” sometimes. But by the nineties rules were introduced stating all F1 cars had to be fuelled with petrol and of a certain combustibility. That has maintained a similarity to road fuel that continues to this day and inspired F1’s current direction.

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Preventing one firm getting a head start

Any major rule change in F1 opens up the possibility for one team or supplier to get a jump on their opposition. “We’ve thought about that quite a lot” F1’s chief technology officer Pat Symonds told media including RaceFans at the Bahrain Grand Prix last week.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
A rule change should prevent one supplier gaining an advantage
Saudi Arabian company Aramco was the first firm to work with F1 on its sustainable fuel goal, but it has now got all of the current suppliers involved.

“Aramco have been very involved with advising us on how to formulate these fuels, and indeed have made many candidate fuels for us to test and to understand the sensitivities of various things,” said Symonds.

Two of those sensitivities are regulating how the engine manufacturers use the fuel within the engine and how to ensure the products created by the fuel company have practical, real-world applications. F1 does not want them using their extensive research and development capacities to create complex chemicals and technologies for F1 fuel production which they wouldn’t be able to mass produce for road users.

One solution lies in a coming change to the regulations. Since the current V6 hybrid turbo engines were introduced the fuel flow rate has been used to limit performance and the total fuel volume teams may use in races has been capped. Under the new rules fuel will be limited by energy content, rather than quantity.

“The fundamental answer lies in the fact that we’ve moved from a mass flow to an energy flow [limit],” Symonds explained. “If we’d stayed on a mass flow I think there was every reason, even within the very carefully formulated regulations, to believe that someone may have been able to [find an advantage in such a way].

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“If you are limited on energy, then in simple terms it’s converting that energy into power that matters. And you won’t run away with things. Of course there are nuances to that.

F1 wants to develop cleaner fuel for combustion engines
“There’s more to a good fuel than just what its energy content is. There’s all sorts of things: it’s volatility, it’s the flame speed. There are all sorts of things that define a good fuel. So, yes there might be some differences, just as there can be at the moment.”

Symonds is confident F1 is already on top of this problem, thanks to Aramco’s early work.

“Aramco helped us a great deal [in the early days] to really understand what we were talking about. And it’s a very difficult subject to research, actually, because there’s an awful lot of hype out there. There’s an awful lot of things that people claim that simply aren’t true.

“It was a great comfort to me to have a trusted hand to sort of help us through those early stages. And the FIA have a couple of very good field specialists as well.”

Existing F1 fuel suppliers Castrol, Mobil, Petronas and Shell have also assisted with the “fine-tuning of the regulations,” said Symonds. “They have changed subtly over the last year while we’ve had all five fuel current fuel suppliers involved.”

As fuel is only one part of the engine package, it may be difficult to see if one supplier has a big advantage. Whether F1 succeeds in preventing one manufacturer stealing a march on its rivals will only be seen once the whole field is on track in 2026.

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The political challenges

Symonds says F1’s future carbon supply won’t come from deep underground but from sources where it has recently been in the atmosphere such as plants and the air itself. “We have a very attractive lifecycle carbon budget,” he said.

Electric car use is rising but has a long way to go
He is pleased the European Union has “recognised two things that we’ve been pushing for very hard in F1” when it comes to reducing the emissions created by motoring. “One is that sustainable fuels have a role after 2030,” said Symonds. “And secondly, that lifecycle analysis is used when evaluating the future pathways.

“I think that we have already made a big contribution in that respect, in getting the EU to look at these things.”

While sales of electric vehicles are rising in some countries, many conventionally-powered vehicles will remain on the roads. “EVs may be 50% of new vehicles by 2050,” said Symonds. “But that still leaves an awful lot of internal combustion engine vehicles.”

Governments in many countries are working towards the electrification of their automotive industries and their roads, particularly in urban areas. High-polluting vehicles are gradually being outlawed, with the 2030s being the target for many nations, and more infrastructure is being built to support battery electric vehicles. The FIA has set itself a target of becoming a net-zero emitter of carbon by 2030.

However when considering the whole sustainability picture, many of these vehicles during their lifetime can have a bigger impact on emissions and use more scarce or difficult to mine minerals in manufacturing than some fossil fuel-filled vehicles.

F1’s push for the whole carbon lifecycle of cars to be taken into account rather than just emissions from vehicle use may have been a success, but the move towards electrification is still going to pose a challenge. Although the fuel suppliers have vast budgets, firms outside the automotive sector are primarily pioneering the technologies such as direct carbon capture from the air and their search for funds is now as hard as it was for battery developers a decade or so ago.

Government grants and investment in research go towards electrification as a climate change and sustainability solution. Although Aramco is putting a lot of money into investing in such technology itself, it’s not as if it would share those facilities and expertise with rival fuel suppliers who would want to be involved in the future of F1. And the fewer internal combustion engine cars there are on the roads as a percentage of total traffic, the less interest politicians will have in fuel technologies.

Nonetheless, Symonds believes progress has been made. “What we’ve done and what we’ve really concentrated on is opening up a process, regulating the final content,” he said. “I think if maybe politicians have done that when they’re talking about how to decarbonise the world and let the engineers find the process, rather than dictating what that process should be, I think we might be in a better place now.”

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Proving the product in F2 and F3

Having the support series be a testbed for F1 rule changes is a great solution for the world championship, but has drawn mixed reactions from the F2 and F3 teams.

F3 debuted the new sustainable fuel mix last week
Engine unreliability is already a too-prevalent issue in the two spec series, so naturally there was caution over whether changing fuel supplier and the type of fuel for 2023 would affect that. Given drivers need millions of pounds to race in F2, the value of the series to them and their sponsors could be undermined if reliability worsens.

A year of testing by F2 with its own development car convinced the series that it could proceed with the switch prior to pre-season testing last month. Teams then had three days with the fuel – during which no failures were reported – before the season began.

F2 is already designed to have similarities to F1 in many areas, and in terms of performance is one of the closest vehicles to F1. Its next-generation car is due to arrive next year, and the invitation to tender for supplying the spec engine for it mentioned the need to run on “100% sustainable” fuel, something the current Mecachrome-built engine was not designed for.

While this no doubt helps Aramco develop its sustainable fuel, none of F1’s other fuel suppliers currently have the option to even use old F2 machinery for testing. They are limited to running F1 engines on dynamometers to get their numbers on how the fuel performs and its effect on reliability – and the test motors must either be not destined for use in a race or have already been retired from use.

However if Aramco and F1 do find out, via F2 and F3, that some of their targets may just be out of reach, they can react to it by revising regulations rather than pushing various parties into developing products and encountering the same problems or limits once they are already being used in F1 cars.

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Fighting fires

As the power density of fuel increases, less of its needs to be stored in a car for it to contain the same amount of energy. Less fuel means less combustible material being carried, which can be a positive in terms of fire safety. However the combustibility of a fuel and its chemical makeup also influences how easily it can ignite, creating challenges for controlling the danger of fire.

Fire-fighting and fire-proofing gear may need altering
High-performance fuels combust faster and more efficiently than lower octane mixes and also fossil fuels in other forms, such as coal. When F1 speaks of “drop-in” fuels, that description also covers the safety aspect. Even if there is minimum modification for engine design and storage of the fuel outside of the car, could it pose a different fire risk to the fuel previously used?

Romain Grosjean’s fiery 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix shows this danger is always present in motorsport. Symonds admitted that “in many areas” there will be the need to change homologation standards and the design of components with the sustainable fuel.

“With the fuel we were proposing in F1 for 2026, we are allowing up to 20% of oxygenates of ethanol-type fuels,” he said. “So the way you fight a fire is slightly different.

“You have different chemicals, as indeed you do these days for electrical fires. Compatibility of materials needs to be checked. During the [pre-season] test I had a meeting actually with one of the subcontractors who supplies a lot of the seals and rubber components that are used on all the current F1 cars, talking about this very thing. So it’s not a big problem, but it’s one that you just need to make sure you understand.”

In the same way that dyno use can include deliberately ‘killing’ engines by running them above the demands that would actually be encountered in an F1 race, fire testing would include deliberate exposure of components and items such as racewear to flames and extreme heat. It could also reveal how durable car parts are under ‘normal’ conditions and how effective they would be at containing fire should a fire break out.

The importance of F1’s ‘Net Zero’ goal

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Hungaroring, 2009
F1 made little fuss over first win for a hybrid in 2009
Although the environmental impact of F1 cars racing for two hours pales in comparison to even the energy needed by a circuit during a race weekend – let alone flying everything there and back – it’s the most high-profile polluting activity on the planet. Millions tune in to watch the track action, and therefore that element of F1 comes under the most scrutiny rather than those which create the most emissions.

The hypocrisy of F1 promoting a sustainability message has been pointed out to some in the sport – most notably Sebastian Vettel last year.

F1 has failed to get its environmental messaging across in the past. When it first introduced hybrid power in 2009 several teams spurned the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems, which were then shelved for a year. The introduction of new hybrid power units in 2014 was overshadowed by then-CEO Bernie Ecclestone regularly trashing them in the media.

The challenges F1 faces in realising its goal to move to a fully sustainable fuel should not be underestimated. But nor should F1’s conviction that it has chosen the right way forward and its desire to show the world clean motor sport is achievable.

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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9 comments on “Symonds explains how F1 is solving the problems posed by its sustainable fuel goal”

  1. What could possibly go wrong?

  2. Coventry Climax
    10th March 2023, 20:38

    Symonds: “There’s an awful lot of things that people claim that simply aren’t true.”
    Let’s face it: Inherently, using energy/burning fuel just for fun is never going to be environmentally/energy neutral.

    That does not mean that I oppose trying to move to a more sustainable and cleaner formula, I’m too much of an environ man for that, but I do oppose the commercial bla and whatever-washing, the plain lying, that goes with it.

    1. Coventry Climax
      10th March 2023, 20:40

      Sounds nice, ‘environ man’, but should have been ‘environment man’, obviously.

      1. Wasn’t it iron man?

        1. Coventry Climax
          13th March 2023, 18:36

          Yep, that’s why it sounds so nice I guess.

  3. The Pat Symonds part of the discussion is logical, clearly aimed at what F1 is trying to do to keep the competition going and technically correct.
    Most of the rest of it …. lots of miss-truths, hype and … don’t get me started. Technically, well off the mark.

  4. “drop-in” as in “drop-in the bucket”

  5. One fuel supplier will ace it and their fuel will be more energy dense, then the car will be lighter and they’ll win.

    It will just be one more technical barrier stopping the drivers winning by their talent. I generally like the technical side of F1, but when it gets too much it can lead to super boring seasons. That’s why I prefer a single tyre supplier.

  6. Sergey Martyn
    13th March 2023, 14:45

    Would like to hear how such clowns fighting for a greener Earth explain solving of the problems of many tons of tyres discarded at each GP due not only to mandatory pitstops…

Comments are closed.