German Formula One (F1) driver Sebastian Vettel’s recent announcement that he would retire from the sport after the 2022 season caught many by surprise. The four-time world champion will leave a rich legacy.
Vettel is among the few drivers on the current F1 grid who have been vocal about racism and LGBTQ+ issues. He also has a clear stance on the environment and climate change. In May, he said climate change had made him question his job as a driver. On the sidelines of the Miami Grand Prix that month, the 35-year-old wore a white T-shirt which read: “Miami 2060 —first grand prix underwater—Act Now or Swim Later,” referring to the impact of climate change on rising waters.
In a recent interview with The Guardian’s Giles Richards, he said: “Obviously, travelling the world, racing cars and burning resources, literally, are things that I cannot look away from.... Once I think you see these things and you are aware, I don’t think you can really unsee it. When it comes to the climate crisis, there is no way that F1 or any sport or business can avoid it, because it impacts all of us. Maybe it’ll be pushed back or be more quiet, but it’s only a matter of time—that we don’t have.”
F1 represents the pinnacle of motor racing. But what is its environmental impact?
Assessing the impact
In 2019, Fl released a landmark sustainability strategy report, based on a detailed audit, which revealed that one race season generates about 256,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions. By 2030, its goal is to bring this down to net zero, according to the report.
A closer look at these numbers gives you the bigger picture. Surprisingly, racing fuel only makes up 1% of F1’s carbon footprint. Power unit emissions account for just 0.7% of the total emissions. Facilities and factories (19.3%), business travel (27.7%) and event operations (7.3%) were some major contributors (see graphic).
In his book The Business Of Winning: Insights In Transformation From F1 To The Boardroom, Mark Gallagher, a journalist turned businessman and media consultant who has worked in F1 for almost 40 years, writes: “Across a full World Championship season, the 20 cars burn around 150,000 litres of fuel, the same quantity that a single, four-engined Boeing 747 uses on a ten-hour flight. In overall terms, both the consumption and emissions of F1 cars are small, even if the external optics are of a sport enjoyed by gas-guzzling petrol heads.” F1’s global logistics operations are by far the single largest contributor to the sport’s environmental impact.
The elephant in the room
F1 is a logistical behemoth. Conducting a Grand Prix in one part of the world, say, in Azerbaijan, and then moving to another circuit 9,000km away, in Canada, requires planning at multiple levels. Imagine: 10 teams (or constructors) moving all their equipment, racing cars and tyres, Paddock Club equipment and personnel from one country to another, across continents, week in and week out through the nine-month season.
Teams opt for a combination of cargo planes, waterways and roadways. It is no surprise then that logistics accounts for 45%of the total emissions, according to the report. In all, travel and logistics make up over 72% of F1’s baseline footprint.
According to statistics from DHL, a long-standing partner of F1, the company will be transporting up to 1,400 tonnes of freight to every race in the 2022 season (22 races), including race cars, tyres, replacement parts, fuel, broadcasting, marketing and hospitality equipment. That’s about 12 times the weight of a blue whale or 200 times as heavy as an elephant.
In the near future, the F1 calendar is expected to grow to include races in South Africa (which last hosted a race in 1993) and additional venues in the US (Miami and Las Vegas). More venues could be added. In March, F1’s current CEO, Stefano Domenicali, said the sport’s calendar could potentially have up to 30 races.
Can F1 go carbon neutral?
In 2019, F1 also announced big plans to achieve net-zero carbon footprint by 2030 through changes on and off the track: net-zero carbon-powered race cars, 100% renewably powered offices, facilities and factories, among other things.
A key milestone includes the use of 100% sustainable fuels from 2026, when a new engine will be introduced, a Reuters report says. F1’s 2026 technical regulations are also planned to support the advancement of low-carbon fuels, electric batteries and autonomous vehicle technology. Currently, F1 cars run on a “hybrid power unit”, which combines internal combustion engines with high-efficiency electrical machines.
What about the logistics? For one, F1 plans to group races by region. In the recent past, one venue (like Sakhir in Bahrain and the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria) has hosted consecutive races. While this was in part due to covid-19 restrictions, this model could work too.
Supporting partners are also expected to do their bit. DHL, for example, is fitting its fleet of F1-dedicated trucks with GPS to monitor fuel consumption, select efficient routes and lower emissions. Other measures include the use of DHL’s fuel-efficient Boeing 777 aircraft, which reduce emissions by 18% compared to traditional aircraft, a news release in March noted.
One of the biggest factors is the teams. In October 2021, Williams, one of the oldest constructors, announced that the team had set an ambitious target of becoming climate positive by 2030. Fans too believe sustainability is key to F1’s long-term future. A recent Formula 1 Environment, Social & Governance briefing note said 75% of fans feel F1’s sustainability plan is important for the longevity of the sport.
The future is electric?
A close cousin of F1 is Formula E, the all-electric racing competition accredited to FIA, motor racing’s governing body. Since its inception in 2014, it has grown exponentially in popularity and reach. India, which last held an F1 race in 2013, incidentally won by Vettel, is set to host a Formula E race in Hyderabad in February 2023.
Could F1 go all-electric? Last December, FIA’s former president, Jean Todt, told the BBC it was simply not possible. “In Formula One, a race distance is about 200 miles (305km). Without recharging, with the performance of the cars, electricity will not allow that,” he said. “Maybe in 20 years, 30 years, I don’t know.”
Enter Extreme E
Other racing formats are adding to the environmental awareness in motorsports. Extreme E, the groundbreaking electric off-road racing series, made its debut in 2020. The series, a signatory to the UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework, aims to highlight the climate change impact in some of the world’s most remote environments and locations, while promoting the adoption of electric vehicles.
One of the 10 teams in Extreme E was, in fact, formed by seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton. “Extreme E really appealed to me because of its environmental focus,” said Hamilton when he announced the entry of his team, X44, in the competition. “Not only will we visit remote locations facing the front line of the climate crisis, we will also work closely with these locations and leading climate experts to share our knowledge and leave behind a positive legacy in each location which goes far beyond the race track.”