Is environmental sustainability in F1 meaningless?

Honda announces their departure from Formula One in a project to funnel corporate resources in research into carbon-free technologies.

2w ago

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In November last year, Formula One put forward their plans to make the sport more sustainable; both economically and environmentally. The “sustainability strategy” aims to make the sport carbon neutral by 2035 and to bring down economic costs for teams.

Nearly a year later, Honda has announced that they will end their participation in Formula One at the end of the 2021 season in a bid to “strive for the realisation of carbon neutrality by 2050” and to focus on their “ goal of electrifying two-thirds of our global automobile unit sales in 2030”. Leaving Red Bull and AlphaTauri without an engine supplier for the 2022 season.

Over the past year, the acceleration of environmental goals has increased around the world. In the UK, a ban on combustion engines was brought forward to 2035 and the government offered £12 million in funding to advance electric vehicle research projects. This brings into question whether the environmental goals of Formula One go far enough and are advancing at the same pace the rest of the world is changing.

Once in a Hundred-year transformation

Takahiro Hachigo, Representative Director and CEO of Honda acknowledged that we were in a "once in hundred-year period of great transformation" in his statement regarding Honda's departure from Formula One.

Formula One pledged to make the sport carbon neutral by 2030 and have already made strides towards environmental sustainability and under the ownership of Liberty Media have substantially increased their commitment to combat climate change.

The pledges aim to have net-zero carbon powered race cars and credible carbon offsets by 2030. However, with the current configuration of Formula One cars; the consumer automotive industry is moving at a much faster pace towards carbon free technologies. This raises important about Formula One's role in the automotive industry aside from its role as a spectator sport and whether the sport should be investing in new power sources other than carbon.

The Formula E racing series has innovated greatly in battery-powered engines since its inaugural season in 2014. This has brought valuable data and technology that manufacturers can take to consumer road cars in the future; innovating in areas that benefit the automotive industry. This year we have seen both Mercedes-Benz and Porsche join the Formula E series showing the growing appetite from manufacturers to learn more and develop carbon free power sources.

Mercedes-Benz EQ in 1-2 in Berlin

Mercedes-Benz EQ in 1-2 in Berlin

The Formula One Sustainability strategy, while bringing changes to the sport, does not go far enough for many and Honda has concluded that being involved in the sport is no longer valuable to them. If the consumer market moves so far away from Formula One and further towards zero-carbon battery-powered engines then we may see other engine suppliers follow suit as innovation taking place in racing will not benefit their consumer road car developments like they have the past.

There is no denying we are in a once in a hundred year transformation and it will now be up to Stefano Domenicali as the new president and chief executive officer of Formula One to secure the future of the sport beyond the next 25 years by making sure Formula One is not left behind in the move away from combustion engines.

A History of Progress

Since the first championship Grand Prix in 1950, the sport has brought some of the most innovative technology into the automotive industry; from the evolution of mid-engine cars, to active suspension and more recently hybrid technology. And it is this key element of innovation and progress that could potentially stop Formula One form making any meaningful environmental sustainability changes in the future. And Hondas move away from the sport could indicate that they think the same way.

This is because of the idea that environmentalists label a “progress trap”. Where a society as a whole or an element of society continues to progress to the point of breakdown. Arguably, Formula One was on the path of a progress trap, economically, with smaller teams being unable to compete and eventually leading collapse. Now of course, with the new Concorde agreement these problems have been resolved.

While Formula One is committed to making environmental changes, I do not think anyone would brand the targets put in place by Formula One as “radical”. With new energy sources, such as hydrogen-powered engines now becoming a credible prospect for the future and Formula One will need to make tough decisions in the future if they still want to be viewed as valuable to the automotive industry.

Chase Carey unveiled the sustainability strategy in 2019

Chase Carey unveiled the sustainability strategy in 2019

Making progress in the right areas will be crucial in the future advancement of the sport. Honda, making commitments to their environmental promises has views that Formula One will not help them on that journey. For the first time, we are seeing the consumer automotive industry move in a more radical way than Formula One.

Economic expansion and Climate change

Economic sustainability in Formula one is much more valuable and urgent to the continuation of the sport. Liberty Media, despite putting forward the plan for Formula one to "accelerate technologies to decarbonise the world" would never put together a plan that would harm its own economic security.

This is important as many environmental groups identify climate change as a direct consequence of economic expansion. This is where the idea of sustainability comes from, it is a balance where some environmental goals are set, but only at a degree as not to harm economic progress. Some see this type of environmental change as meaningless as it doesn't focus on the root cause of the problem. In the automotive industry the root of the problem being the over reliance on fossil fuels.

A Honda electric car at the Beijing motor show on Saturday.

A Honda electric car at the Beijing motor show on Saturday.

The sustainability that Honda is striving for is arguably more radical than Formula One's sustainability strategy. If Formula One wants their idea of sustainability to be meaningful and helpful, then they need to bring forward their carbon neutrality targets and may need to do more research into new power sources such as hydrogen-powered power units in order to remain a credible investment for new incoming manufacturers as well as the current ones.

Formula One and motor racing is now at a crossroads in history. For the first time, we are seeing the energy sources of consumer vehicles being developed with an entirely different power source than cars designed for the track. If the sport wants to remain environmentally ethical over the next 25 years and economically viable for manufactures, they must show that they are making meaningful contributions to carbon-free technologies and to continue innovate in the automotive industry.

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