Reckless petrolheads or efficency trailblazers?

Posted on 6 Aug 2010 by The Manufacturer

When Toyota withdrew from Formula 1 in November 2009, it was not the first manufacturer to sever its previously strong ties with motor racing. Since 2008, some of the biggest automotive names have dropped out of motorsport in a difficult economy and with rising concerns about the environmentally-unfriendly image of the sport. Tim Brown reports.

The agonised expression on the face of Toyota’s racing chief, Tadashi Yamashina, as he announced Toyota’s withdrawal from Formula 1 seemed to sum up the state of the motorsport industry in December 2008. Honda had already abandoned F1; Mitsubishi, Subaru and Suzuki had exited from the World Rally Championship in quick succession; European car powerhouses Audi and Porsche had quit the American Le Mans formula; and Kawasaki dropped out of Moto GP.

While not a single member of the motor racing fraternity failed to sit up and take notice, these seismic events were far from sounding the death knell of motorsport. Rather, they reflected that the dual capacity of racing teams to perform both marketing, and research and development roles was not enough to justify mainstream motorsport’s ballooning costs.

Toyota’s racing budget for the 2008 season was about $150m at a time when the company had posted losses of $2.9bn. Under the circumstances, it was an extravagance that couldn’t be justified.

In the last 12 months that idea has changed.

Motorsport has pioneered the rapid development of energy efficient and clean-burn engines, and both alternative fuels and power sources. Despite such environmentally geared advances, the 2010 UK parliamentary report, ‘Full speed ahead: maintaining UK excellence in motorsport and aerospace’, said that aside from economic issues, the environmentally unfriendly image of motorsport had also caused car manufacturers to pull out from the sport and to turn their attention away from high performance vehicles.

The report concluded that such an image owes much to the “Top Gear effect”, with people associating motorsport with an image of “reckless petrolheads”, personified by Jeremy Clarkson, wasting gallons of fuel with no thought or concern about the impact it has on the planet.

The truth

Over the past five years F1 has been subject to several big emission reducing operational changes, including a near 95% reduction in pre-race testing from 95,000km to 5,000km and the virtual elimination of energy hungry wind tunnels through the use of computer simulation.

In addition, Patrick Head, director of engineering at AT&T Williams F1, says logistical reductions have been made to team sizes and freight to provide dual economical and environmental benefits.

“We are now only allowed race teams of 45 technical workers including the mechanics, technicians and engineers,” says Head. “Go back one or two years and some teams were taking up to 100 technical people to the track. The FIA is working on new rules for 2013 which is likely to involve a different type of engine, which will be much more efficient and will probably be only four cylinders rather than the eight we have now.” Head says that motorsport races are intrinsically environmentally damaging. He admits that the spectacle of motorsport contributes to carbon emissions but argues that the bulk of emissions come from elements such as transportation for the supporters and teams, which also applies to other forms of mass entertainment such as concerts, sporting competitions and festivals. According to rough estimates, the 12 Formula 1 teams, which each have two cars using 150kg of fuel per race for 19 rounds, consume a total of 68 tonnes of fuel per race. A Boeing 747-400 aircraft uses about 90 tonnes of fuel for a one-way transatlantic flight.

Chris Aylett, CEO of the Motorsport Industry Association, agrees with such sentiments. “The difficulty the world is going to have with green is that all of us want to go somewhere for entertainment whether it is a cinema, theatre, a football game or race. Travelling to and from these is not going to be solved by the event, it will be solved by changing the way we all travel. Transportation cannot just be levelled at any one particular entertainment event.” Motorsport’s environmentally unfriendly image is not the result of its direct consumption of fossil fuels, but more to its branding and the perception of the excess of its auxiliary elements. Not only is it a sport with multi-million pound budgets complete with lavish hospitality and flamboyant personalities but, due to its close ties with the car-making and oil industries, motorsport is seen to represent the overindulgence of these industries. It thus carries its own hefty environmental responsibility.

Experts in efficiency

It is not just the motorsport or entertainment industry that must bear the burden of environmental responsibility. The main solution to the world’s carbon emissions crisis is to focus on improving the efficiency with which we use energy. But where football, for example, is very unlikely to engineer improvements in the sport’s total energy consumption, over the past 100 years, motorsport has collated a wealth of knowledge in carbon reduction which is now just starting to be exploited.

“The first motor race was won by the person who used the energy he had most efficiently,” says the MIA’s Aylett. “Motorsport has always been about efficiency. It has always been about a block of energy and how far you can go, in how fast a time, most efficiently.

“Bizarrely, for 100 years motorsport has been the home to people who are unwitting experts in the efficient use of energy but no-one has ever asked them for their outcomes. We’ve discovered in the last decade that people will knock on the door and buy this knowledge and experience. We have a huge community of knowledge, especially in ‘motorsport valley’,” he says in reference to the UK’s hotspot for motorsport near Silverstone.

In the last five years the campaign has become more proactive, with motorsport teams developing more energy efficient technology and trying to find buyers for this knowledge. Some of the progress has included:

● Audi’s successful introduction of diesel engines at Le Mans, which required the rules to be changed to acknowledge engine efficiency

● The Indy 500 changing to run on ethanol fuel

● The introduction of hybrid technology, known as kinetic energy recovery systems (or KERS), into F1, involves regenerative braking which acts as an energy recovery mechanism that reduces vehicle speed by converting some of its kenetic energy into a useful form of energy

There are green challenges and incentives within motorsport globally that reward efficient use of energy. The US Le Mans series has the Michelin Green Challenge, and Le Mans has a separate trophy for the greenest winner. There is also a fully electric motorcycle world championship, TTX GP.

Automotive companies have said that such changes in motorsport have already helped to convince car consumers that green automotive solutions can be “cool”, says Aylett. This feat is important in the push to ensure the high uptake of low carbon transportation. Combined with motorsport’s continued development of efficiency-focused technologies and more races with a green theme, motorsport is steering towards a different image where its contributions to environmental issues are as widely recognised as its detractions.