events sustainability technology

Can Formula E offer sustainable motorsport?

This weekend London hosts a new sporting event, and there are billboards and bus adverts up for it – the finale of the inaugural Formula E series. The last races of the season will take place in Battersea Park.

formulaEFormula E is the FIA’s foray into electric car racing, and from a purely sporting perspective, it looks pretty good. The cars can hit 140mph, and races are mostly on city streets rather than race tracks. All the cars are the same, made by Spark-Renault, which promises less manufacturer dominance and more actual racing. The drivers are world class and there are two women in the line up. It may not have the tradition of Formula 1, but it certainly sounds like it offers plenty of speed and spectacle.

It also aims to be more sustainable. That’s a massive problem with motorsport in general, and with Formula 1 in particular. The sport has tried to do something about this, in various ways. There are offsets and claims of carbon neutrality, hybrid engines, Honda’s infamous ‘earth car’. F1 engine sizes have been capped this year, somewhat controversially. This has reduced fuel use by 35%, which some have hailed as F1 ‘going green’. That’s nonsense. Petrol use across testing, qualification and racing put together, is just 1% of F1’s carbon footprint. Far more significant is the cost of freighting cars and support teams across the world. Bigger still are the embedded emissions of the parts and materials.

Formula E has the same problem. If all the sport has done is swap in electric cars, it would only be addressing a tiny fraction of overall emissions – the most visible fraction, of course. And like any electric car, it would only be as good as its power source, so even that might not add up to much.

The cars will be powered by renewable energy, for a start. There’s been talk of solar-powered racing in the press this week, but the reality is that they will be powered by a glycerine generator. That’s a new one to me. A single generator from Aquafuels will charge all 40 cars, giving them exactly the same amount of power. Each car then does half the race, with the drivers swapping into a car halfway round as the battery drains after half an hour. Assuming the glycerine generator is as clever as it sounds, the 1% of emissions from fuels is taken care of pretty smartly.

Now to the other 99%, and some thought has clearly gone into the logistics. The season is longer, with bigger gaps between races. That means there is more time to move things by sea and by rail rather than flying things in. The races have been sequenced as a round trip, rather than bouncing between the continents and back to HQ in between. Crew numbers are limited to 8, reducing the number of staff that need to fly in.

However, this is the inaugural season. If it becomes more successful, then there will no doubt be larger teams and more of them. There are plans to increase the number of races from this year’s 10 to 16 or 18, and that will cut down the amount of time for shipping things more slowly. Any advantages to just having one make of car will slip away as of next year as it opens up to other manufacturers. And of course the actual teams and their cars are just one aspect of the overall ecological impact. There are the press and TV crews, the sponsors and PR teams, and the tens of thousands of spectators at each event. The more popular the sport becomes, the larger these associated impacts will be.

It’s hard to know how serious Formula E is about these broader questions. The website has a page of ‘green tips’ of the lamest ‘change your lightbulbs’ variety. Beyond that, it is nothing but tub-thumping for electric cars.

Electric cars are actually the heart of the whole initiative. The ‘sustainability report‘ on the website has nothing by way of carbon emission estimates, and instead has projections of the numbers of electric cars sold as a result of Formula E. They’re prepared to take credit for as many as 77 million electric vehicles sold in the next 25 years, especially in host cities. As these electric cars replace petrol cars, 900m tonnes of CO2 would be saved.

Formula E is quite explicitly a PR campaign for EVs. “Using entertainment, Formula E aspires to drive the change towards the greater use of sustainable mobility. In short, we want to improve the image and perception of electric vehicles and to encourage more people to buy and use them.” Once other manufacturers join Renault, it also hopes to spur innovation, just as F1 claims. And host cities may be inspired to fit more charging points, encouraging the electric revolution.

As usual, there’s a balance here. Electric vehicles are not ‘sustainable’ in and of themselves. Any global series of large scale events is going to emit a massive quantity of greenhouse gases. Since Formula E comes on top of existing racing series rather than replacing them, it is a net addition to motorsport’s overall environmental impact. And it all risks feeding the techno-fix dream and the cult of speed that are inimical to long-term sustainability. The website’s insistence that “‘going green’ doesn’t have to be a daunting task that means sweeping lifestyle change” is a false optimism if we take climate science seriously.

On the other hand, there’s no question that electric vehicles are cleaner than fossil fuels. If people are going to drive, we’d all be better off if more of us drove electric. If Formula E changes the perception of electric vehicles and accelerates their adoption, perhaps it’s worth it. Especially if it’s a source of entertainment to millions of people along the way. It’s hard to say, and I suspect that one’s opinion on it will largely depend on how entertained one feels by the sight of machines going very fast.

6 comments

  1. Sustainability doesn’t go with fun clearly. This post is an example of knowing the carbon price of everything and the value of nothing.

    Pretty much all high level sports is a terrible waste under this kind of calculus.

    You wonder why normal people aren’t interested in the Green agenda?

    1. Did you read all the way to the end? I’m not against this. I’m sceptical that it can be the green motorsport that it aspires to be, but you won’t catch me saying we’re better off without it.

  2. I’d agree with Jeremy I’m slightly sceptical but think the spinoffs could be useful, after all they say there are a lot of spinoffs in ordinary vehicles from F1. The reason I think they are using glycerine (glycerol) is there is a huge surplus of it that no one knows what to do with. I used it in PhD for this reason.

  3. Yes, that’s quite possible and I’m prepared to give Formula E the benefit of the doubt. I might have a think about the broader question of big sporting events and write another post. There’s got to be room in the world for big international events.

    Interesting to hear that you’ve used glycerol. I’d like to find out more about that.

  4. I have watched a few races and just can get into it mainly because of the high pitched noise the make. I’m all for sustainability but this as you point out just doesn’t cut it. The issues is the production and currently we cannot produce racing cars parts of body sustainably, research needs to focus on this!

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