ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 47 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   The Enemy?

  by Richard Swales, England

Formula One fans often perceive environmentalism as a negative force, one that is trying to stop the racing and the fun. Richard Swales looks at ways in which F1 is starting to become greener and suggests some ways in which the sport can be used as a positive force to help the environment

Motor Racing is unlikely to ever be a sport free of any environmental impact. Topical in the last few years has been the need for new land to build or improve circuits, like at Brands Hatch or Monza, but there are other environmental downsides, such as the noise of the events, the fuel used by the cars, and that F1 possibly contributes to the car culture in wider society. We all care about our future and our children's future, and would like them to have a safe, healthy world to grow up in, so we all care about the environment. Caring about the environment doesn't have to mean turning your back on F1, giving up your clothes and living in a tree - after all, we all want 'fun' to be part of our children's future as well.

Moderate environmentalists don't support direct actions like the attempts to stop the Australian Grand Prix, because this can backfire and encourage everyone to think of greens as an anti-social, subversive force. Instead, moderates seek improvements through consensus to gradually make human activity environmentally sustainable, but with the minimum disruption to the actual activities that people want to hold. Making motor racing more sustainable should therefore be done by a process of gradual steps.

Formula One's rules have already changed over time to make the sport more environmentally sound. Gone are the days of the early Nineties, when the fuel companies were allowed to provide fuel so toxic that the mechanics had to wear some pretty extraordinary clothing when doing the refuelling before a session (this was before refuelling stops were allowed during races). When the FIA put a stop to this silliness, it insisted that normal pump fuel be used and made a good step forward by insisting on unleaded fuel. In terms of fuel regulations, the sport is now pushing ahead of government, as it already insists on the ultra-clean fuel (with only 50 parts of sulphur per million) that is due to become mandatory in the European Union in 2005.

When Luca di Montezemolo, the President of Ferrari, visited the San Marino Grand Prix in 1999, he spoke out in favour of 'Ecological Credibility', saying that the sport should not use military materials or toxic substances. A step in that direction was made later that year, with the announcement that poisonous beryllium alloy would be banned in engines, although the cost of the material was also a factor behind this decision.

It is well known that Formula One is often a good way of developing technology that can later be used in road cars. One reason is that engineers developing ideas for next year's Formula One cars generally become more absorbed by their work and more prone to inspiration when in F1's unique culture of lateral thinking, than those engineers developing things for standard road-going cars that could take years to finish development.

Another reason is that many of the car companies involved consider the money spent on the sport to be partly or mainly marketing expenditure. Because of this, Formula One actually provides a means of rerouting expenditure back towards socially-useful technological development that would otherwise just be spent on poster campaigns for cars or even more TV adverts than we already have, featuring famous comedians or supermodels taking their clothes off.

Of course, what gets developed depends to a large extent on the rules in force at any one time and the state of technological game at the time. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, as the teams started to notice the potential of airflow under the car, many resources were put into researching 'ground effect' aerodynamics - a technology of limited use in the real world. In the mid to late Eighties, however, a lot of progress was made in terms of fuel efficiency because the rules in force at the time limited the amount of fuel that a car was allowed to use during a race. These gains in fuel efficiency were good for hard-up motorists and environmentalists alike.

The FIA's regulations for cars and circuits balance a number of priorities - excitement, speed and safety - which often means reducing the speed of the cars. If Formula One is to be used as a place to develop environmentally sound technology then perhaps in future, when ways of limiting the speed of the cars are sought, environmental ones could be used.

The current F1 cars are estimated to be able to do about 2km per litre of fuel. As a means of reducing speeds, the FIA could insist that the distance be covered using a smaller amount of fuel. This would encourage engine developers to design engines that burn their fuel more completely, meaning fewer unburnt hydrocarbons (major contributors to urban smog) and less carbon monoxide in the air.

Bringing back fuel consumption regulations could also make the racing more exciting. In the 1980s, the fuel consumption rules meant that it was rarer for the fastest car in qualifying to be the fastest car in the race, as there was no limit on the amount of fuel used in qualifying, so the quickest cars in the race had to pass those that had qualified in front of them. These rules also led to cars occasionally running out of fuel on the last lap, and in some cases - such as at Dallas in 1984 - we saw drivers attempting to push their cars across the line to gain points. These possibilities in the closing stages kept the TV viewers in their seats untill the closing stages of the races, although, perhaps unfortunately, with modern onboard fuel management systems, running out of fuel would be much less likely these days.

Another area where development could be encouraged would be in terms of emission controls. Designers of road car engines need to make compromises between power and meeting environmental criteria. If the FIA was to introduce strict emissions controls for racing engines, then the designers would have to make the same compromises and meeting the controls would be a question of design and tuning. Those who designed cleaner engines would obviously have more freedom to tune their engines for power than those whose engines were nearer to the emission control.

By encouraging cleaner engines, this could also lead to technology being developed to be used in road-going cars later on. This way, Formula One would become a mechanism by which the car companies would be doing research into cleaner engines in a 'bottom-up', active, voluntary way, instead of a passive response to 'top-down' legislation from governments.

As for the more distant future? Who knows what could happen. We will most likely never see a grid full of electric cars, but it would not be a surprise to see some more of the work first done in F1 research labs, only to later be used in helping protect the environment one way or the other.

Richard Swales© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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