Formula 1 says it is monitoring the Australian bushfire crisis before the start of the 2020 season in Melbourne on 13-15 March.
The country has witnessed the worst fire season in its history which has claimed a record-breaking 8.4m hectares, an area larger than Scotland. Air quality in Sydney and Melbourne has been at unhealthy levels as fires rage in New South Wales and Victoria.
F1 says it is in constant contact with the race organisers on the issue. The F1 community, including the teams, and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation are also planning some form of support for the victims of the fires, although details are still being worked out.
At least 25 people and millions of animals have died since the fire season started in September and almost 2,000 homes have been destroyed.
F1 could have something of an image problem, to say the least, when the season starts in Melbourne in two months’ time. The Australian bush fires have wrought devastation over a vast area, and the state in which the Grand Prix is held has been at the forefront.
The fires have been fuelled by climate change – last year was Australia’s warmest on record – and F1 is poised to fly to the continent in a fleet of long-haul jets and literally burn carbon for fun for three days.
The optics of that are bad, regardless of any help the sport can provide for victims of the fires. But F1 has been working hard to combat the image it has in some quarters as a profligate and irresponsible activity in the context of the environmental issues faced by the planet.
For a start, the turbo-hybrid engines introduced in 2014 have provided revolutionary increases in efficiency.
They have a thermal efficiency (the measure of their ability to transform fuel-energy into power) of more than 50%, when road-going petrol engines are in the region of 30% and diesels around 40%.
Knowledge from the technology developed in these engines – developed at a cost of many millions of pounds – has already made its way into improving efficiency of road cars in areas such as the improvement of electric motors, batteries, energy management, eTurbos and more.
But F1 is determined to go much further. F1 engines already use a proportion of biofuel – the current technical regulations dictate fuel must have 5.75% of bio-components, and the plan is to increase that to 10% in 2021
Last November, it announced a project to go carbon neutral by 2030, and plans are already afoot for the next generation of engines, scheduled to be introduced in 2025, to run on carbon-neutral synthetic fuels.
This is a new technology that has yet to be developed in a commercially viable form but the idea is to capture carbon from the atmosphere and turn it into a liquid fuel by combining it with hydrogen from water.
Jean Todt, president of governing body the FIA, said: “Motorsport can be at risk for two reasons – one, the environment, and two a big crash.
“Safety and environment are crucial to secure the future of motorsport. Green fuel should be the answer and we have experts working on that. We are working with the teams and engine suppliers and all experts available, and if costs are involved I am happy for the FIA to take that on board.”
F1 chief executive Chase Carey added: “We don’t have a completely detailed road-map but the role we want to play is a leadership role. [We hope to be] at the forefront of showing what’s possible. There’s a lot of effort being put into addressing the environmental issue of the combustion engine from players that have the resources to do the real R&D.
“Oil companies and OEMs (car manufacturers) are doing a lot of work on synthetic fuels and more advanced fuel technologies. And if we can be a vehicle to engaging with that, co-ordinating that and putting in place what are the right steps that get you to the goal of carbon neutrality, in many ways we are platform for showing what a hybrid engine can be in terms of playing a critical and under-appreciated role that is necessary to address the world’s larger environmental issues.”
“For us, this is an offensive issue, not a defensive issue. We have a capability and opportunity to play a leadership role and developing a path forward to the goals we have set out.”
Although racing the world’s fastest cars at race tracks all over the planet makes F1 an obvious target when it comes to environmental issues, in fact the races themselves are a minor part of the sport’s total emissions.
Of the 256,551 tonnes of carbon that F1 calculated it emitted as a sport in 2018, only 0.7% was from the cars themselves. By far the largest proportions were from logistics, in terms of road, air and sea freight, at 45%, and personnel travel at 27.7%.
But these are issues that affect all major global sports: a football World Cup or an Olympics, while not as obvious a target, also has a significant environmental impact. The carbon footprint of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, for example, was calculated at 2.8m tonnes — or 10 years’ worth of F1 seasons.