Formula One: The Race to Sustainability

By Sara Azeem, GLOBUS Correspondent

Engines roaring. The smell of gasoline, burnt tires and engine smoke. These are the sensations that make the Formula 1 spectator experience unbelievable and worthwhile. Yet, of all the words that could be associated with the sport, “sustainable” would be the last to spring to mind. Not surprising given that it is a motorsport with over 20 races all over the world. But that is where you would be wrong. Formula 1 has been a pioneer in the field of innovation over its 70-year history and, recently, it has been gearing its endeavours to making a difference for the environment and society. 

On the 13th of October, Chase Corey, the CEO of Formula 1, signed their environmental policy statement which emphasises the company’s commitment to “reducing the impact of its operations on the environment and to collaborating with its partners and stakeholders to make the sport more sustainable”. And earlier last year, they launched their first ever sustainability strategy with the ambitious target to be a net zero carbon sport by 2030.  

During the launch of the Sustainability Strategy, Miles Lowry, the Senior Manager of Strategy and Business Development at Formula 1, explained the company’s rationale behind the big move. The key takeaways were a) that it is the right thing to do, b) it would improve brand perception, and c) appeal to a younger, more diverse, and environmentally conscious fanbase. Plus, it would enable them to remain commercially attractive. The strategy is divided into two: Countdown to Zero (2030), which aims to advance technologies that decarbonise the world, and Positive Raceprint (2025), with the goal to leave a positive legacy wherever they race. Impressive? Yes. But is it feasible? 

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“Measuring the F1 Carbon Footprint” as part of the F1 Sustainability Strategy

The first place to look would be the enterprise’s current carbon emissions – approximately 256,000 CO2 equivalent tons are generated during an entire race season. Of its total emissions, only 0.7% is attributed to direct emissions from fuel combustion during the actual races. In the world of automobiles, the term ‘thermal efficiency’ is often used when speaking about engine performance. It describes the percentage of the energy from combustion that moves the car, as opposed to being lost as heat. With the introduction of the V6 turbo-hybrids in 2014, thermal efficiency leapt to around 40% compared to 29% in the V8 era – and it now stands at over 50%. This hybrid power unit is the most efficient in the world, and delivers more power using less fuel (and thus, emitting less CO2) than any other road car. The ability of F1 to increase efficiency by 10% in just six years is an ode to their capabilities when it comes to innovation.The company aims to continue pushing the boundaries of the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE). This approach is prioritised over a switch to electric cars because 90 per cent of the 1.1 billion vehicles on global road networks are already powered by ICEs running on carbon fuels. Formula 1 has had a good record of transferring its discoveries to the real world. The Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) introduced in 2009 to harness braking energy and unleash it on the track, is now used in city buses, helping make metropolitan areas greener. Another way that F1 plans to take the lead in innovation is by tapping into sustainable fuels. Pat Symonds, the Chief Technical Officer says that F1 is “looking to increase to 10% biofuel content” in 2021, with a view to get to 100% advanced sustainable fuels. The term sustainable fuels here could be either first or second-generation biofuels, or a completely synthetic fuel.  

Looking at the breakdown of carbon dioxide emissions, therefore, it is clear that the real problem does not lie in the efficiency of the engine; almost half of emissions are due to logistics. Formula 1 is not just about racing – it involves moving racers and their teams from circuit to circuit all across the globe, and shipping tons of freight. F1 plans to move towards regional hubs and use sea-freight wherever feasible, with a switch to low-emission air transportation. 

Another 27.7% of emissions is allocated to travel of personnel. In 2019, the sport’s ten teams each racked up an average of 110,000 air miles. And this is not including travel of fans – F1’s footprint rises to around 1.9 million CO2 equivalent tons when this is accounted for. These are to be mitigated by “providing incentives and tools to offer every fan a greener way to reach the race and ensure circuits and facilities enhance fan wellbeing and nature”, and the rest is planned to be managed through carbon offsetting. The concept of carbon offsetting, such as planting trees to offset carbon emissions, is seen as a cop out by many environmentalists. But Yath Gangakumar, F1’s Director of Strategy, concedes that the business will keep it to a minimum and will focus on breakthroughs in carbon sequestration techniques, but this is viewed as a long-term goal.  

F1’s intention to leave a “positive raceprint” and to have completely sustainable events by 2025 is to be accomplished by using sustainable materials at all events with single-use plastics being eliminated and all waste reused, recycled or composted. Moreover, there are plans to provide more opportunities for local people, businesses and causes to get more involved in the action during a Formula 1 race weekend. In an interview with Mathew Campelli on the Sustainability Report, Yath Gangakumar disclosed Formula 1’s hopes for the social pillar of sustainability. Its Diversity and Inclusion programme is largely education-based with provisions for apprenticeships and scholarships in STEM subjects (mainly engineering). He explained how F1 is working hard to make their opportunities visible to people who are not fans, by collaborating with diverse media partners to reach different cross section of population.  

As they stride forward, some changes in policy are also being made which can be considered quite questionable. Formula 1 has increased its number of races from 21 to 22 this year, and there are plans for several more, which seem counterintuitive given their long-term goal. And the measures taken to tackle the major source of their carbon emissions – the travel of their racers and fans – can come across as quite vague. But overall, Formula 1’s “Race to Sustainability’ is truly one to be commended and keep a close eye on. Who would have thought that the vanguard for global sustainability could come in the form of four wheels and an engine? 

Header Image: Photo by Ferhat Deniz Fors on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Formula One: The Race to Sustainability

Add yours

  1. A really fascinating article and a much under-discussed issue. I have absolutely no interest in Formula 1. None, other than I know from comments on news sites that the racists hate the fact that the greatest racer of all time is black! That aside, I was wondering recently how can F1 justify it’s existence? You have rasied some fascinating points Am not convinced it is in the ‘vanguard’, indeed are they not very late? And


    1. If I had to play devil’s advocate, I would say that F1’s R&D initiatives have resulted in a lot of social good. For example, the Aerofoil technology developed by them is now used by Sainsbury’s to prevent thousands of tons of carbon emissions from its refrigeration system (
      Although the main intention behind these innovations is probably not sustainability, in a world run by corporate organisations, wouldn’t it be in our interest to support those that are making an effort?


      1. The law of unitended consequences aside, it depends who is ‘making an effort’ and the reasons for it. In this case no I would not support it, because they were only seeking to race cars faster. So adding to the climate crisis. Fundamentally, F1 aren’t the worse culrpit here, but if we look at the bigger picture and situate F1 as part of the industrial car complex, they are a major problem. As someone far more smarter than me said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”


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