The climate race: Sustainability lessons from Formula One

Written by Mark Gallagher Wednesday 10 November 2021
Formula One has a surprising lesson in carbon reduction for business leaders – and thanks to the pandemic, you may be doing it already
An image of cars in a Formula One race

In just 10 years the end of Formula One’s love affair with fossil fuels is within sight.

The November 2019 announcement of F1’s plans to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030 also committed to a key milestone in 2025, namely that all its events would be sustainable, with single-use plastics eliminated and all waste reused, recycled or composted. In addition, Pat Symonds, F1’s chief technical officer, made it clear that F1 cars would no longer be powered by refined fossil fuels, turning its back on gasoline by 2025.

The message was clear. F1’s ability to develop innovative technology solutions against tight deadlines would now be deployed in the race to save the planet.

Counterintuitively, a sport associated with environmental destruction aims to pivot into one that has a net-zero impact on the environment. Furthermore, it will develop and showcase solutions that will be both transferable and scalable in other sectors, ultimately helping society in its fight to protect the environment and head off the worst effects of climate change.

Surprising statistics

To support the net-zero announcement, F1 revealed its current impact on the environment in terms of emissions of carbon dioxide. In 2019 F1’s carbon footprint through direct, indirect and supply chain impact was estimated to be 256,551 tonnes of CO2. It may surprise some that the F1 cars themselves contributed only 0.7% of the sport’s emissions. Across a full World Championship season, the 20 cars burn around 150,000 litres of fuel, the same quantity that a single, four-engined Boeing 747 uses on a ten-hour flight. In overall terms, both the consumption and emissions of F1 cars are small, even if the external optics are of a sport enjoyed by gas-guzzling petrol heads. On the contrary, burning fossil fuels for sporting entertainment is no longer regarded as acceptable to the sport’s stakeholders.

The main culprit

Of far greater concern, but hidden from view, are F1’s global logistics operations together with the business travel that is an inevitable consequence of delivering a World Championship. Logistics accounts for an estimated 45% of F1’s carbon emissions, by far the largest single contribution to the sport’s environmental impact. Business travel is estimated to contribute 27.7%, comprising not only air travel but ground transportation together with hotel accommodation.

Furthermore, F1’s headquarter facilities in London and broadcast centre in Biggin Hill, combined with the teams’ headquarters and factories, contribute a further 19.3%. While F1’s offices consume energy for heating, cooling, lighting and powering the usual array of IT equipment, team facilities produce significantly more emissions from R&D and manufacturing activities.

The sport’s operations also previously included a mobile broadcast facility that housed the vast production and editing suites. This ‘TV Village’ had to be transported around the world, was energy-hungry and required a large team of travelling personnel to operate it. When combined with F1’s corporate hospitality operations, race support  operations, circuit energy and generator usage, the broadcasting facility contributed an estimated 7.3%.

A long-term plan to start operating the broadcasting facility remotely had already been in the pipeline, but the Covid-19 outbreak and restrictions on global travel forced F1 to bring that change forward. With the 2020 World Championship delayed by four months, the decision was made to immediately build a large-scale, remote operation.

“Going remote has allowed Formula One to reduce travelling freight by 34%, while the number of travelling staff has also been reduced by 37%,” said Dean Locke, F1’s director of broadcast and media.

Instead of moving freight and people, F1 has instead opted to move large quantities of data – more than 160 terabytes – to the media and technology centre in Biggin Hill, near London, each weekend. This shift towards remote operation is not new to F1 but will play an increasing role in reducing the number of people needing to travel to events while reducing the quantity of freight needing to be transported by air, sea and road.

The future

F1’s commitment to its 2030 goal of achieving carbon neutrality is absolute. It is ideally placed to create a case study of how quickly an industry can pivot and create an environmentally sustainable future. Sceptics will watch to see if the sport’s initiatives lead to genuine change, or whether they are used as a fig leaf by an automotive and energy sector still wedded to fossil fuels.

By taking fewer people to events, reducing the quantity of freight and helping to develop the synthetic fuels that will power road, sea and air transport, F1 has a significant opportunity. Not only to lead by example, but to create new opportunities for business development through technology transfer.

It might just be that the sport’s reputation for championing the technologies that have caused so much environmental damage can be transformed – helping to develop the solutions that will enable society to deal with the self-inflicted peril of man-made climate change.

This extract from The Business of Winning by Mark Gallagher © 2021 is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

Image: Shutterstock/Ev. Safronov

Mark Gallagher

Mark Gallagher

Mark Gallagher has worked in Formula One for almost 40 years, 20 of which were spent working as a senior executive within the management of Jordan Grand Prix, Red Bull Racing and Cosworth. Mark is now an author and public speaker, and has run his own consultancy business for a decade.

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