PARIS (AP) — As Earth’s atmosphere warms alarmingly and fills with heat-trapping gases, and the writing on the wall – “People, we’re in trouble!” – looms ever larger, Formula One has steadily become a guilty pleasure, the motorsport equivalent of blue whale burger or wearing panda fur.
All that precious fuel going up in smoke, speed, and outrageous noise. Unsustainable and increasingly unjustifiable.
So F1 deserves a pat on the back for now doing its little bit for the planet.
Let’s not kid ourselves: Strapping drivers into combustion engines can never be a “green” sport. Polar bears on retreating ice sheets shouldn’t dance with joy -“We’re saved!” – simply because F1 downgraded this season from monster 2.4-liter, V8 engines to somewhat less viciously thirsty 1.6-liter, V6 turbo hybrid engines.
But it is something. More than that, it recognizes that if we are to have much of a collective future, then everyone must make and accept compromises, eke out and protect resources and learn to do more with less.
To cover a meager 190 miles, the length of all F1 races except the shorter Monaco Grand Prix, the V8s guzzled around 50 gallons of fuel – sometimes a bit more, sometimes less, depending on the track and conditions. That was just on race day. Now add practice and qualifying sessions, and multiply all this by 19 races a season, for a truly staggering fuel bill.
In the real world, a midsize Toyota Prius hybrid might cover about 2,500 miles on those same 50 gallons, almost enough to cross the United States from Washington DC to Los Angeles, according to fuel economy figures for that model from the U.S. government’s Environmental Protection Agency.
F1 wouldn’t be F1 without excess. Fans worldwide wouldn’t tune in for world champion Sebastian Vettel driving a Prius. F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone got fabulously rich with the sales pitch of bigger, faster, costlier, noisier equals vroooom.
“Rush,” director Ron Howard’s glorification of 1976 world champion James Hunt has the notorious bad boy of F1 mouth-rinsing with champagne and puffing on an illegal-looking cigarette before races in his early Formula Three days. Swap the risk and glamour of F1 for quiet-as-a-mouse electric engines and showers of dandelion tea on the podium and you can be sure that petrol-heads would walk away.
But as road cars become more fuel efficient, with electric and hybrid-engine technology making increasing inroads, F1 needed to reconnect with its time or risk becoming an anachronism, racing on regardless the costs to the environment.
This season’s switch to fantastically complex hybrid engines puts F1 back ahead of the technological curve. That is exactly where the sport must be to retain fans and stay relevant in today’s energy-challenged world. The engines still generate most of their power from burning fuel but also recuperate and reuse far more energy from braking and exhaust gases than the previous V8 cars and their KERS energy-recovery systems.
New rules slash by about one-third the amount of fuel that teams use in the cars and also limit the rate at which they burn it. Again, that doesn’t make them anywhere near green. The 100-kilogram-per-race allotment of fuel would still get a Prius from Paris to Moscow.
But at least F1 can now argue that it is going in the right direction. If improvements in fuel economy, engine technology, energy recovery and hybrid-power know-how also bleed over into future road cars, F1 will be able to stick that feather in its cap, too.
Critics who loved the fiery crackle of throaty V8s complain that the new engines are too quiet. But that nostalgia over-plays the supposed link between engine noise and the appeal of F1. The V6s certainly sound different, with a top-end squeal like a dentist’s drill. That will take getting used to.
Ultimately, however, what makes F1 watchable – or not – isn’t noise but the quality and closeness of the racing. V8 races may have been loud. But many of them were boring, too.
Also misleading is the argument that F1 drivers shouldn’t need to economize fuel or tires and instead should be able to race flat-out from first lap to last. Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo is in this camp – itself a good indicator of how poorly his team has adapted to the new regime.
But not every race needs non-stop wheel-to-wheel action to be interesting. In fact, you’d be naive and sorely disappointed if you expect that. The unfolding chess game during races of teams balancing the need for speed with the need to make tires and fuel last, the strategies they employ and adapt to squeeze the most out of those resources, make F1 a more cerebral sport.
Fuel economy isn’t beside the point – for F1 or for any of us.
It is the point.
It must be.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester