Is motorsport turning over a new, green leaf?

Is motorsport turning over a new, green leaf?

The lights go out, the engines reach a high-pitched scream and dozens of elite racing machines begin the charge, rocketing around the track at breakneck speed. It’s not an image traditionally associated with sustainability.

Over the years, motorsport has cultivated a reputation for high performance, gas-guzzling cars, glamour and excess. However, with corporate sponsors demanding improved environmental performance, new race regulations promoting fuel efficiency and Formula E cementing electric vehicle technology in the public consciousness, could racing be undergoing a green revolution?

As ever, the answer is not clear cut. Progress is taking place on track, with fuel efficiency improving in Formula One (F1), for example. However, the majority of F1 teams’ energy consumption takes place off the track. Production, materials and electricity use are the biggest culprits, according to environmental accounting firm Trucost, with a colossal amount of power needed for round-the-clock computational simulation, wind tunnel testing, and monitoring race performance.

Yet despite this carbon-intensive development process, motorsport teams are also a hotbed of engineering talent capable of pioneering new, efficient technologies – at characteristic high speed – with the potential for widespread uptake.

Pushing the boundaries of innovation

“The relentless pace of innovation in motorsport means racing teams can develop and demonstrate new technologies very rapidly,” says Chris Aylett, chief executive of the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA). “We’re seeing knowledge gained in areas such as fuel efficiency, energy storage, hybrid engines and regenerative braking transferred to industries including automotive and defence.”

F1 teams have proven that performance and fuel efficiency can go hand in hand, with their new 1.6l V6 hybrid turbo engine generating the same power as its 2.4l V8 predecessor, using a third less fuel. The cars recover energy from braking and from the turbo, which is used to deliver a ‘fuel-free’ boost of power.

Flywheel energy storage, a technology originally developed by the Williams F1 team to capture energy lost in braking, has already been used in Le Mans-winning cars and Jaguar’s hybrid-electric supercar. It could generate fuel savings of more than 20% among London buses. The same technology is being used in remote Scottish islands to help ensure continuity in the power supply. Williams Advanced Engineering (a sister company of Williams F1) and solar energy giant Hanergy are now exploring its potential to expand access to clean energy.

Expertise in aerodynamics, lightweight materials and real-time data analysis are also highly valuable. An aerodynamic device developed by Williams to keep cool air circulating more efficiently is being trialled by UK supermarket giant Sainsbury’s, in its bid to reduce energy consumption linked to refrigeration. Carbon fibre, first used in motorsport, is now used widely by vehicle and bicycle manufacturers alike. Meanwhile, data management and simulation techniques refined by McLaren F1 are set to help Heathrow Airport, the world’s second busiest airport, in cutting carbon emissions by decreasing the amount of time that planes spend circling and improving their movement on the ground. 

Formula E’s inspirational vision for the future

Launched in September 2014, the world’s first all-electric racing championship, Formula E, currently includes ten teams and 20 drivers. Team founders include high profile sustainability advocates including Leonardo DiCaprio and Richard Branson, who believes it will soon overtake F1 in popularity. Created by motorsport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the chief aims of Formula E are to catalyse further development of electric vehicles (EVs) (in particular, improving performance in battery life and engine efficiency) and spark more interest in EVs and clean technology.

The races take place in cities, rather than out of town race tracks, in order to showcase EV technology in urban environments and bring people closer to it.

“This is the first major motorsport platform to create an emotional connection between racing and sustainability,” says Marco Parroni, managing director of Formula E sponsor Julius Baer, the international private bank. “It’s particularly important for young people to see that clean technology can be fun and desirable.”

Many families and youngsters were among the 60,000 spectators present in London to watch the final race of Formula E’s inaugural season, and importantly, people are enjoying the experience, according to Aylett.

“Spectators still find the races exhilarating, whether it’s Formula E, hybrid cars at Le Mans or energy efficient engines in F1,” he says. “Capturing this interest could play a key role in popularising clean mobility solutions.”

Philippa Oldham, head of transport and manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, agrees. “Making electric vehicles more accessible to the public could help to counter perceptions that EVs lack speed and excitement,” she says. “Additionally, as developments in areas such as battery management filter through to road cars, we’ll see further advances in cost-effective electric motoring.”

Already, the second generation Formula E battery, developed by Williams Advanced Engineering, is set to be more powerful and energy efficient than the first. Major automakers are keeping a close eye on such evolutions in Formula E, according to Aylett. Further, the agility of the motorsport supply chain could further accelerate the transfer of EV technology from the track to our roads.

Investors too, are showing interest in Formula E. Customers of Julius Baer, largely high-net-worth individuals, are keen to learn about the championship and understand the risks and opportunities connected to EVs and the wider automotive sector, according to Norbert Rücker, the bank’s head of commodity research. The clean energy transition is one of seven major themes explored by Julius Baer within its Next Generation vision, an investment philosophy that examines how well companies are responding to global megatrends. With its grand ambitions, Formula E shares the bank’s visionary approach and aspirations for a sustainable energy future.

This article was originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business website.