Could innovation in Formula One drive sustainable technology?

Pioneering engineering from Formula One teams is reaching beyond the racing circuit and providing sustainable solutions to “real” life challenges, writes Mike Scott

To many people Formula One is the epitome of excess and environmental waste – all those superyachts and supermodels, all that globe-trotting, all that fuel.

But the sport, much of which is based in the UK, is also a hotbed of innovation including in environmental issues.

Formula One has long been obsessed with fuel efficiency, because the less fuel you can carry, the faster you can go. As a result, technologies such as turbocharging, fuel injection and kinetic energy recovery systems (Kers), which are used in hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, where it is known as regenerative braking, have all been developed within Formula One.

Formula One started to look at environmental factors as more than a racing issue in 2011, when the Formula One teams association (FOTA) decided to start monitoring Formula One’s emissions, not just during races but also in the development and construction of cars as well. The move was inspired by Martin Whitmarsh, CEO of the McLaren team, who had just become chairman of FOTA. McLaren had undertaken a similar study of its own business in 2007.

Sustainability is extremely important to us as a business,” says Ben Heatley, a spokesman for the team.

“As a sport, Formula One needs to remain relevant – and that applies to our sponsors and partners. We’re backed by a number of the world’s leading corporations, all of which take sustainability seriously.”

Researchers Trucost found, surprisingly, that the races themselves were responsible for just 0.3% of the sport’s total emissions.

“The races are by far the smallest part of the equation. The largest chunk of emissions came from the production of the cars and the raw materials and then it was electricity use,” says Richard Mattison, Trucost CEO.

“The teams use a huge amount of computing power during races and testing.”

As a result of the analysis, FOTA committed to cutting emissions by 12.4% from 2009 to 2012. It announced at the start of this year that it had managed to cut emissions by 7%, but the number of races in the calendar increased during that time, requiring more travel and freighting of parts.

Formula One’s environmental ambitions will become more visible to the world at large next year, when new regulations will see Formula One cars sport 1.6 litre engines rather than the current 2.4 litre machines and fuel consumption across the whole season will fall by 40%, although the sport’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) insists that no speed will be lost in the racing. This will partly be achieved by using a technology known as Ters (Thermal Energy Recovery System). While Kers stores the energy produced from braking, Ters will harness the heat produced both through braking and from the engine exhaust systems, allowing cars to generate the same power using 30% less fuel.

2014 will also see the introduction of Formula E, a championship for electric cars. Ten teams have signed up including teams from both China and the US, along with Drayson Racing, which recently set a world speed record for an electric car of more than 200mph. The series will be run in 10 cities around the world, from Los Angeles to London to Beijing – and because the cars are electric rather than petrol-fuelled, the races can all be run in the heart of the city rather than at out-of-town tracks.

“Electric cars are for urban areas, so it makes sense to showcase them in that environment,” says Formula E spokesman, Tom Philips.

Formula one teams are cutting-edge research and engineering institutions, so it is no surprise that many of their ideas find their way into the “real” world, not just in automotive technology but in other sectors, too.

In 2001, Williams developed a Kers system for its Formula one car using flywheel technology, but it dropped it when the FIA changed the rules. However, the technology is now being used in a range of energy storage applications, including hybrid buses, trams and power grid stabilisation.

Meanwhile, McLaren is involved in areas ranging from sport, where 15 gold medals at the London 2012 Olympics were won with the help of the company’s McLaren applied technologies consultancy, to medicine. The telemetrics that assess a car’s performance on the track have been used to monitor critically ill children with serious heart conditions at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, for example.

McLaren, which makes supercars as well as Formula one vehicles, was a pioneer in the use of carbon fibre, which makes cars lighter and stronger and is increasingly being used in road cars. It was not just the development of carbon fibre bodies that the company pioneered. It also transformed the production process, says Heatley.

“It used to take thousands of hours to build a chassis out of carbon fibre – now it takes four and a half hours. It is not just about the transfer of technology but also transfer of expertise.”

McLaren experts have helped to make a Glaxo SmithKline toothpaste factory more efficient, reduce power consumption at data centres and cut the emissions of aircraft at airports for the National Air Traffic Control Service.

“We engineer a new part that is completely different for the Formula one car roughly every 15-20 minutes throughout the season. That kind of design ethos and willingness to engineer new technologies, new processes and new and better ways of doing things is something unique to Formula one. But the Formula one approach can be applied everywhere,” Heatley says.