Green Machines

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As published in Inside Sport, December 2007

Each season a Formula One car emits 54 tonnes of carbon dioxide – a byproduct of its dubious fuel economy, which is roughly a litre per kilometre. In the current climate change debate, motorsport finds itself a wide target to clean up its act. 

Honda Racing’s Earth car this past season drew attention to the cause, but even Nick Fry, team principal of Honda, acknowledges there is a long way to go. “Unless F1 can become a contributor to the technology that might help the environment, it’s likely to become a dinosaur… If there are environmental disasters happening around the world in the future before races, people will say it’s inappropriate to then put on a glitz show, burning lots of fossil fuel.”

The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change reports that to avoid catastrophic changes to Earth, carbon emissions must be cut by 60% by 2050, with the next eight years absolutely critical. While the threats of global warming and diminishing oil stocks have been known for decades, the world’s foremost motorsport body, the FIA, only took its first major step in 1997; F1 achieved carbon neutrality by financially supporting the Scolel Te project in southern Mexico, offsetting the emissions of competing cars and the worldwide travel of F1 personnel by establishing tree plantations and protecting forests.

But the move seems wrongheaded: solving mechanical challenges is motorsport’s forte. With its track record for innovation, motorsport’s mission, if it chooses to accept it, is to shape human history like no other recreational pursuit has before. The biggest battle is to convince enthusiasts to wrap their heads around their sport’s new direction.

Norbert Haug, head of motorsport at Mercedes (which provides McLaren’s engines), reflects F1’s extravagant past, justifying the sport on the basis that at least the millions of people watching F1 races on television aren’t driving their cars during the race. Little wonder four years agoFIApresident Max Mosley lamented teams’ improbable support for a “Formula Green”.  But on the brink of retirement, he now appears determined to take motorsport to a new altruistic plane.     

Last year Mosley warned F1 manufacturers that spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year to eke a few more revs out of their engines was a futile objective, unsustainable and wasted superb engineering resources. Green technologies, social relevance and road car application have now been embraced as F1’s major objectives for the future. “Any research to improve racing engines would have to be directly relevant to research to improve fuel efficiency in road cars,” he said. 

The use of hybrid-electric and energy recovery technologies is set for 2009. TheFIAalso proposes smaller turbo engines running on bio-fuel by 2011 and expects various new regulations to halve fuel use. 

 The philosophical shift at the top of the motor racing tree promises a testing transition period. The infusion of an alternative purpose is sure to spark resistance from teams, F1 traditionalists and doomsday sceptics. But a nobler brand of F1 might yet win the day.

Such green racing initiatives are a growing phenomenon. In May theIndianapolis500 was powered entirely by 100% fuel-grade ethanol (an alcohol-based alternative fuel produced from fermented corn and other crops). Growing your own fuel is a romantic notion; to underline its performance credentials, an Aston Martin fuelled by bio-ethanol recently won the last round of the prestigious British GT championship. But despite the admirable intent, critics say ethanol represents little improvement in both cost and emissions, and it’s hardly groundbreaking given that most petrol vehicles can already use it.

Production is the other issue: using vast expanses of arable land for the purpose of powering vehicles presents ethical and practical issues. A Human Rights Commission report recently condemned rampant logging for palm oil bio-fuel plantations, which had decimated ancestral jungle land in Borneo.

In July a hybrid Toyota Supra won the Tokashi 24-hour race, and Volvo is entering an E85 (85% ethanol) powered car in theFIAWorld Touring Car Championship this season, ahead of the mandatory use of bio-ethanol in a carbon neutral 2009 series.   Bridgestone now freights thousands of F1 tyres to races by ship and truck rather than by air, and in the last ten years the oil content of tyres has been reduced significantly.

But perhaps motosport needs a brand new formula. Experts from Warwick University in England recently built the ultimate green racing car thus far: the Eco One. The body is made from hemp and rapeseed oil, the tyres from potatoes and the brake pads from ground cashew shells. Outperforming the impressive electric Tesla Roadster, the one-seater powered by a Triumph motorcycle engine, running on fermented wheat and sugar beet, has a top speed of 240km/h. Built on a $46,000 shoestring, imagine what F1 could achieve…

Elsewhere in England, a company called Green Motorsport aims to be the world leader in environmentally conscious motor sport by “stimulating and exploiting research into future energies and reducing motorsport’s carbon footprint”.  Projects include GMS Renewable Racing, using hydrogen and biodiesel-hydrogen fuels; a carbon-neutral electric karting series; and Hydrogen Motor Sport, demonstrating the virtues of hydrogen as future alternative propulsion.   

Constituting almost 75% of the universe’s elemental mass, hydrogen is the most abundant of the chemical elements and is cheaper and cleaner than most alternatives. Peter DeLorenzo, CEO of theUSA’s Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation (HERF), believes it’s time to push the “reset” button for racing. “Not only to usher in a new era of creativity and innovation to the sport, but also to enable racing to take its rightful place again as the principal conduit for the transference of advanced technologies and innovations directly to our future production vehicles.”  The HERF will present the Hydrogen 500 in 2009, with international events to follow.  

Yet back on the local front,Australia’s peak motorsport body appears comfortable camping behind the pace car.  According to Chris Terpos, communications coordinator for the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport, looking at environmental strategies for Australian motosport “is something that is not really on CAMS’ agenda in the short term.”

“Big dirty V8s look here to stay,” says V8 Supercars’ spokesman Cole Hitchcock.

But not everyone in Supercars has their heads in the sand. CEO Wayne Cattach recently addressed a climate change summit feeling like “an American in Iraq”, yet earned a standing ovation.  Supercars’ partnership with Future Climate Australiais seeing 15,000 trees planted across AustraliaandNew Zealand this year to achieve carbon neutrality (inclusive of diligently logged transport trucks, hire cars and flights).  V8s now use a 5% ethanol fuel mix and a schools’ education program has drivers spreading environmental wisdom. There are plans to up the ante on all these measures.

Considering that their racing cars clock just 360,000km a year combined, at least Supercars don’t exacerbate the problem. Confidently facing their critics, Supercars are doing more than most industries – but what chance is there of the big two driving bolder green initiatives?

Ford’s shift in focus to smaller cars and interest in alternative fuels has prompted serious reassessment of their V8 Supercar participation here. Overseas, Ford plans to run an entire series of Formula Ford on bio ethanol; the Fiesta Sporting Trophy International series will be run on E85 next year.

Even the most rabid Holden fan would find the prospect of beating no one but themselves pretty dull, but HSV’s interest in greener racing appears limited. Group Communications Manager Simon Frost believes talk of renewable racing even in five-ten years’ time “might be a bit premature”. But a possible withdrawal by Ford could bring about the revolution. An overhaul of the sport may include other manufacturers, road-relevant cars, and open the door to renewable technologies.

Electric or solar-powered Fords and Holdens waging a silent war around Mount Panorama might seem fanciful now, but unless our dedicated petrol-heads can accept change they might one day find themselves stuck at home watching re-runs of a defunct race.

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