Between the roar of engines, lightning-fast pit stops, and pursuits of victory, the world of Formula 1 (F1) has successfully established itself as a world of glamour and exclusivity. Champagne showers, good-looking drivers, and yacht-filled victory celebrations paint the picture of a perfect, untouchable world. However, behind the velvet curtain is a dark side characterized by car crashes, political influence, and exorbitant amounts of oil-fuelled travel.
Setting restrictions on and off the track
As of late, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) has taken steps to promote a greener F1. In 2019, the FIA released a Sustainability Strategy with the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030. The report also revealed that 45 per cent of F1 carbon emissions are linked to transportation, and an added 27.7 per cent to the transportation of personnel and event partners. Identifying these emissions revealed key areas of concern for F1 as the deadline to reach carbon neutrality looms over the world of pro sports.
F1’s strides to be more environmentally conscious begin with the conception and designs of cars themselves. While many believe that the actual racing of cars is what generates the most pollution in the sport, the FIA heavily regulates the fuel consumption and composition of cars since fuel types greatly impact how much carbon dioxide is released. In an effort to reduce competitive advantages between each car and reduce their environmental footprint, cars can only consume up to 110 kilograms of fuel per race, a substantive decrease from the 150 kilograms of fuel per race allowed in 2010.
“[The requirements for sustainability] are a little bit different than the requirements for performance that you need in racing,” said Susan Gaskin, a professor in McGill’s Department of Civil Engineering, in an interview with The Tribune. “In racing […] the aim is to get the greatest power and the greatest speed, but if we’re thinking about sustainable aims, then we’re looking for the greatest utility for the lowest energy or material inputs.”
The core tension between the search for sustainability and performance creates a precarious task for teams trying to balance both. And with racing success hanging in the balance, more often than not, teams are forced to prioritize performance.
As part of their Sustainability Strategy, F1 also pledged to offset the emissions of certain Grand Prix races, as is the case for the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and the Algarve International Circuit, where solar panels will be used to power the venues.
When it comes to the engineering of vehicles, F1 acts as a sort of innovation playground. But while improvements are possible at the development stage of producing a car, there is a limit to how much advancements can significantly decrease pollution during races.
“You do have greater improvements at the beginning of technology development and then improvements get smaller and smaller as you progress,” Gaskin said.
The track’s environmental impact
This year, over the course of nine months, each F1 team will compete in 23 races across 20 different countries and five continents, introducing the Las Vegas Grand Prix and returning to the Qatar Grand Prix—which was not part of the 2022 season because the country hosted the FIFA World Cup.
FIA takes several factors into account when deciding where and when races will be held. One of the most important factors is weather. While the Montreal Grand Prix must be held during the summer to avoid harsh Canadian winters, Gulf races in Bahrain, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi are held during the winter, spring, and fall months to avoid extreme heat.
Outside of weather considerations, the racing schedule, and more importantly, locations, are also based on tradition—many of the European races such as Monaco and Monza, Italy are attended by high-profile celebrities and other social elites.
The destinations and racing schedule make it such that drivers and teams will travel over 135,000 kilometres for the 2023 season, an increase from last year’s 115,000 kilometres. The insane travel schedule sees drivers, team personnel, cars, and all sorts of equipment transported around the world, resulting in astronomical fuel emissions which are not offset by controlled gas consumption in races or other sustainable practices promoted by the FIA.
Grand Prix races are not solely for F1—Formula 2 and Formula 3 races are also part of the events and emit their own pollutants. As such, not only do 10 F1 teams travel across the globe every other week, but all 11 F2 teams and 10 F3 teams do, too. Those added participants come with their respective cargo and thus, emissions that cannot be ignored.
Some teams have suggested a rotating calendar for the regular season structure to reduce the sport’s carbon footprint. This method would see the FIA organize a limited number of races per year, allowing a different collection of cities to host races every season. Many fans believe the rotating schedule is a crucial step forward for the league.
“I won’t be [satisfied with the FIA’s efforts towards sustainability] until F1 makes major schedule changes so that the 10 teams do not have to fly F1 cars that weigh a lot over oceans and continents every other week,” McGill alumni Erin Smith, BA ‘22, told the Tribune. “As the regulator, the FIA should do more. If individual drivers or teams want to, more power to them.”
In an effort to reduce their individual carbon emissions, Mercedes-AMG-Petronas experimented with the use of biofuels for transport during the 2022 European triple-header––a collection of races in Spa, Zandvoort, and Monza––and found that this reduced their carbon emissions by an impressive 89 per cent.
Mercedes proved that reducing emissions while remaining highly competitive is possible, so why don’t more teams do it?
Despite the importance of sustainable practices, F1 remains a business where money takes precedence and everything else takes the back seat. This leaves the FIA in a difficult position when it comes to sustainability.
“To some degree, I don’t think they can reconcile it fully. It’s more of a matter of figuring out what actually matters most to them,” said Matthias Hoenisch, a former senior editor for the McGill International Review and current master’s student in political science, in an interview with the Tribune. “Frankly, like in any sport, or any pastime, the people who are dedicated fans aren’t gonna stop being fans because of [F1’s] environmental progress or lack thereof.”
The FIA’s lack of tangible efforts to make F1 more sustainable aligns with its refusal to allow drivers to be outspoken about their political beliefs––an intentional move by the FIA to maintain a “neutral” stance on political issues and avoid controversy. The recently retired Sebastian Vettel has become outspoken about his efforts to promote sustainability and involvement in initiatives like Green Racing. Vettel’s actions are telling: Environmental concerns are not beyond the scope of drivers’ hopes for a better racing future.
Some of the biggest sponsors of F1 are heavy polluters, like ARAMCO, the biggest oil and gas company in the world that is also the world’s biggest polluter. What’s more, the newest races have been added in the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China––some of the leading polluters worldwide. These decisions reflect the FIA’s hierarchy of interests, with profits placed far above any concerns for the environment.
“By holding an event in a certain place, you’re still endorsing the government of that place, to at least some degree,” Hoenisch said. “It’s pretty cynical to claim that you can keep politics out of sport in any way. Sports have been instrumentalized by politicians forever.”
F1, one of the most elitist sports in the world, is known for its traditionalism and refusal to break from the status quo. It’s unsurprising that when it comes to the environment, the only way substantive, institutional change will happen is if public outcry becomes too loud to ignore.
“They have the technology, they have the funds, they have the resources, they have the engineers, they can figure it out,” Hoenisch said.
By continuing to prioritize environmental responsibility and push the boundaries of green technology, F1 has the potential to not only maintain its status as a premier motorsport, but also make a meaningful contribution to the global effort to build a more sustainable future.