Monday, February 26, 2007

Going Green?

First things first. On an F1 grid where grey, white, silver and red are beginning to dominate to a degree where, last year it was difficult to tell apart Spykers from Mclarens, or Hondas from Super Aguris from BMWs, Honda's striking new colour scheme will certainly make life a little easier for spectators.

Whether you see Honda's "we are the world" themed car as a tiresome marketing gimmick or a brave attempt to get the average racing fan to think about their impact on the environment and what must be done to tackle climate change probably depends on how naturally cynical you are. Personally, I see Simon Fuller, I see the man behind the Spice Girls and the promotion of David Beckham, I see school children in the press photos a la Michael Jackson in his creepy save the world phase. In short, I see an ocean of PR bullshit. Not everyone agrees, mind you.

That said, underneath it all, there is a question that is worth considering. With the reality of global warming accepted by almost all but a few free-market fundamentalists and their swivel-eyed fellow travellers, what, if anything, should F1 be doing to address climate change and (perhaps more importantly) oil depletion?

One perfectly valid answer is - nothing whatsoever. F1 racing's total contribution to world carbon dioxide emissions is negligible. The sport provides entertainment and enjoyment to millions across the world, and a whole season's racing uses less fossil fuel than a single transatlantic flight. In short, F1 provides a great bang for its fossil-fuel buck in terms of the number of people who gain enjoyment and pleasure, and environmental campaigners would do better to focus on more mundane, less high-profile, but much more important issues than a few guys in powerful racing cars.

That, of course, is not necessarily an answer that will satisfy everyone. Not least the car companies who are keen to be seen to be doing something about climate change without necessarily having to do anything practical or useful, like, say reducing fuel consumption on the cars they sell on an everyday basis to folks like you and I (well not me, actually - I don't drive - but that's another story).

With that in mind, the interesting question is: What could F1 do to help the fight against climate change when it is essentially a sport about getting to the finish line first - not doing so while burning the least fuel or producing the least pollution. Some suggest that F1 should follow the lead of IRL and adopt bio-ethanol. That, though, is gesture politics. Whether biofuels are worthwhile is much debated. Growing sugar-cane for fuel in Brazil appears to be energy-efficient - whereas processing corn for petrol in the US would seem to use almost as much fossil-fuel to produce as you get back from it in burning it. In other words, it is a waste of time.

If the F1 teams got into bioethanol, you can bet that they would be interested in improving its efficiency. That might sound like a good thing, but their idea of effiency is going faster. In other words, they would be looking at maximising bio-ethanol's energy density (how much bang you get for a given quantity) but would not be in the slightest bit interested in improving the efficiency of the fuel growing process. Saving on carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption in the processing of the raw crop won't make the car in the slightest bit faster. So the teams, and their fuel suppliers, won't bother.

So what could F1 do? One option would be to open up the rules to energy-recovery devices, making use of waste heat and waste energy under braking. These improve the overall efficiency of a car by extracting the maximum amount of useful work from the energy present in the fuel - whatever it is. If they were allowed into F1, then the boffins would quickly work to maximise their efficiency. Of course, in F1, that efficiency would be used to go faster, not to conserve fuel. However the lessons learned and the advances in technology could be used to improve the fuel consumption, rather than the performance, of ordinary road cars.

This brings me neatly to a more general point. If F1 wants to act as a testbed for the development of environmentally useful technologies, it could go forward by going backward. Those of us old enough to remember the mid 1980s turbo era will recall the time when the teams had to get through the race with a preset maximum fuel load. In 1984, when the rule was introduced, the limit was 220 litres. By 1988, in the final year of the fuel rule, that limit was down to 150 litres, and yet the drive to improve technology, particularly around electronic engine management systems, was such that the cars actually went faster all the same.

The downside of such an approach, for those who remember it (and in particular, those who remember the fuel-limited sportscar racing of the late 1980s) is that it encouraged drivers to drive by the fuel gauge, rather than at the limits of their abilities (although part of the genius of Alain Prost was his ability to go quickly while using less fuel than any of his rivals). The answer to this, though, could be to encourage fuel efficiency not by a total fuel limit, but by a fuel-flow limiter, as proposed by the late, great Keith Duckworth, nearly 30 years ago. This simply limits the amount of fuel that can be delivered to the engine at any one time. No danger of drivers cruising round to avoid running dry - there would instead be a limit to how "fuel-greedy" the engine could be at any point.

Whatever the fuel of the future is, whether it turns out to be hydrogen, biodiesel, bioethanol, or something we haven't even thought of yet, improving energy efficiency is going to be of key importance. Rules which encourage the teams to seek the maximum performance from a given amount of fuel are surely the most sensible way of getting F1 to contribute to the search for more enviromentally friendly engines. Better that than the greenwash of bioethanol, carbon-ofsetting, and selling pixels on the sides of your car. So Max, the ball is in your court.

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Anonymous Clive said...

Hmmm, I wonder which I am - a free-market fundamentalist or one of their swivel-eyed fellow travellers. Tsk, tsk, Patrick, I am surprised to see you resorting to the standard argument of the global warming brigade, namely, insult of anyone who disagrees with them. Do a little research on it and you'll soon find that there are plenty of highly-qualified climatologists who don't agree that global warming is an issue at all - and they base their opinion on the facts as established to date, rather than on a desire to be politically correct.

But, apart from that, I find your post to be a model of good sense and reason (as usual). Even though I don't agree that mankind is having any effect on global temperatures, I have nothing against us doing what we can to limit emissions - it just seems good sense to make the internal combustion engine cleaner and more efficient and F1 should be in the lead to develop such technology.

Ultimately, we will have to take the electric motor route (there is no denying that fossil fuels have a finite limit and will run out sooner or later - mand burning our food to make fuel seems a bit illogical). And I think that all the money we spend on research into alternative fuels would be far better utilized in developing more efficient and lighter batteries. We will have to do it in the long run and all the fuss about global warming merely serves to delay research into genuinely viable alternatives to motors that go bang and produce exhaust gases.

It really is time that we stopped listening to politicians with an axe to grind (and who don't even believe what they say ) and let the climatologists tell us the facts.

8:17 AM  
Blogger patrick said...

We'll just have to agree to disagree about what the dispassionate climatologists think about climate change, I guess.

You might be right about electric vehicles, but I'm not sure I'd like to see (or more to the point) hear, electric F1 cars. The noise just wouldn't be the same, really.

9:12 AM  
Anonymous Clive said...

I agree with you that we're not likely to change each other's mind about global warming but I can't resist giving you one more link that answers the latest IPCC report rather effectively, I think. Have a read of this. At the very least, it shows that there is no consensus amongst scientists over global warming.

As for F1 cars with electric motors, couldn't we fit them with some sort of device that re-creates the old sounds for nostalgia's sake? ;)

9:42 AM  
Blogger Nicebloke said...

You're right that a seaosn of F1 uses less fossil fuel than a single transatlantic flight. But each flyaway race requires the use of two dedicated 747 cargo planes. The carbon footprint of F1 (and any international series) goes far beyond on-track activities...

4:48 PM  

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