The 2014 Formula 1 series is going to be a radical departure from last year’s championship. Sure, the globe-trotting motor-racing extravaganza, which starts in Melbourne and ends in November in Abu Dhabi, will look and sound much as it has done for years. It will continue to attract the supermodels and the superyachts with its glitz and glamour while, no doubt, finding itself at the centre of a few political controversies as well.
Drivers will still be hurling themselves around the world’s racetracks at speeds of up to 200mph, but under the bonnet, it’s all change.
Critics have long held F1 up as the epitome of waste and excess, although there are many who contend that it is the hotbed of innovation that has led to many of the advances in vehicle efficiency that have occurred in the last few decades.
Supporters of that argument can cite changes to the rules for this year’s championship to bolster their case. The 2.4 litre V8 engine that was used between 2006 and 2013 has been scrapped and the cars must now use a 1.6 litre V6 engine that is smaller than the engines in many road cars.
In addition, the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) used on the old cars – which was similar to the regenerative braking equipment found on hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius – has been replaced by a new system that recovers energy not just from the car’s brakes but also from the heat generated by the engine. The new Energy Recovery System (ERS) will be able to store 10 times as much energy as the old KERS.
And each car can only use 100kg of fuel for each race, about a third less than last year. According to Garry Connelly, deputy president of the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) Institute for Motor Sport Safety and Sustainability, “the package extracting the most performance from the fuel energy will perform best,” meaning that the teams, which have long been obsessed with reducing the amount of fuel they use through measures ranging from lightweight materials to aerodynamics, have even more incentive to focus on fuel efficiency.
The changes will lead to a big shake-up on the track – early indications from testing are that the dominance of Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull team may have come to an end as they struggle to get to grips with the new technology in their Renault engine – but they will arguably come to have an even bigger impact in the cars that you and I drive.
While the old energy recovery system provided a boost to the engine – you could drive perfectly well, although not as fast, without the KERS – the new ERS is much more integral to the car’s performance and any problem with it will have disastrous implications for the driver’s chances of winning.
This gives the teams a huge incentive to make the ERS as reliable as possible as quickly as they can, which should speed the technology’s transfer from the most advanced racing cars in the world to the cars that you drive to work in.
When it does hit the streets, the technology won’t be the first environmentally-friendly spin-off from the motorsport. Flywheel energy storage equipment developed by the Williams team has been fitted to London buses, reducing the amount of fuel they use by up to 30%. The technology is also being used in trams and to stabilise power grids, while the work the teams do on aerodynamics and lightweight materials such as carbon fibre has informed the design of the mainstream manufacturers for many years.
The sport has been looking at ways to reduce its environmental footprint for a while, helped by the research group Trucost, which analysed F1’s emissions and discovered that, surprisingly, the races themselves were responsible for just 0.3% of the sport’s total emissions, with the rest coming from producing the cars, the raw materials used to do that and electricity, primarily for the huge amount of computing power that F1 uses to analyse performance.
Other technologies developed in F1 that have found applications in the real world include the telemetry systems that monitor vehicle performance during testing and racing, which have been used to monitor children with heart conditions.
In a further attempt to green motor-racing, this September will see the launch of Formula E, which will see electric cars racing in a championship that will take in cities from Beijing to Buenos Aires and London to Los Angeles.
In addition to creating a new racing series, Formula E has two main objectives. Firstly, it aims to become a framework for electric vehicle research and development around the electric vehicle, improving performance in areas such as battery life and engine efficiency. Its second aim is to improve public perception of electric cars. Too many people’s view of EVs is coloured by vehicles such as the G Whiz rather than the Tesla, and “range anxiety” – the fear that the battery will run out and leave them stranded – remains a formidable barrier to more widespread adoption of EVs.
“Technological breakthroughs in these fields will take the electric car to a different level and Formula E would like to become the testing ground for those advances,” says a Formula E spokesman.
In addition, seeing the 800kg Formula E cars accelerating from 0-100kmh (0-63mph) in three seconds and tearing round the streets of London at 225 kmh (almost 140mph) is bound to change people’s view of what is possible with an electric car.
Because the cars are electric, there are fewer safety issues than with petrol-driven cars and the races will be held in the heart of the cities Formula E visits, which is only the case for a handful of F1 races and should make for some stunning race locations. It has just been announced that the Beijing race, the first in the series in September, will take place around the 2008 Olympic park and its iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, for example.
The race is on for the future of sustainable motoring.