It’s hard to go faster on the road than in a Formula 1 car, which can reach a top speed of 220 miles per hour. The so-called pinnacle of motorsport takes place all over the world, from Australia to Sao Paulo. And after an exciting week of pre-season testing, the 2023 season kicked off at the Bahrain International Circuit on March 5. Reigning world champion Max Verstappen won for Red Bull Racing, with teammate Sergio Perez second. There are 20 drivers across 10 teams in F1, and none of the other 18 drivers finished within 30 seconds of Verstappen. Only time will tell if the other teams can catch up.
Below F1 are Formula Two and Formula Three, which are called feeder series and operate in a similar fashion to baseball’s minor leagues. They are mostly young drivers trying to prove their worth by competing against each other for a place in the major championships. So most drivers win one of the 20 places currently available in F1. (All three F1 rookies this season, Nyck DeVries, Oscar Piastri and Logan Sargeant, have driven at least one season in F2.)
But like any other vehicle with an internal combustion engine, Formula 1 vehicles burn fossil fuels, which is a problem in a world that needs to be decarbonised to fight climate change. As well as the 20 Formula 1 cars racing on tracks every other weekend, there are the huge transport costs of moving the teams and drivers around the world and the millions of fans traveling to and from the racetracks.
The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), Formula 1’s governing body, understands this. In November 2019, F1 and the FIA announced plans to become fully carbon neutral by the end of 2030 and plans to make this transition are already underway.
Formula 1 currently uses a hybrid fuel made up of 10% biofuels and will make the transition to fully renewable fuels in 2026, meaning that all of the cars’ carbon output will be offset by the production of the fuel. There will be other regulatory changes.
Now, F1 has announced that its range of power supplies will follow suit. Starting with the opening sprint race of the 2023 season in Bahrain last weekend, the F2 and F3 cars will use a mixture consisting of 55% “Advanced Sustainable Fuel”. And by 2027, according to The Race, powertrain lines aim to use a type of sustainable, carbon-sequestered fuel called e-fuel.
What are sustainable fuels?
“Sustainable fuel” is an umbrella term for a bunch of different alternative ways to produce fuel for planes and cars with the goal of reducing their carbon footprint. It includes biofuels, which recycle organic materials into fuel (that’s F1’s hybrid fuel) but also carbon-sequestering e-fuels made by taking carbon from the air, which F2 and F3 plan to switch to in 2027. But what all sustainable fuels have in common is low net carbon emissions.
When it comes to e-fuels created from carbon sequestration, Nikita Pavlenko, the head of the fuels program at the International Clean Transportation Council, says there are two different sources: getting it directly from the atmosphere or getting it from smokestacks: “You’ve got a fuel that’s very close to zero carbon, that’s just produced from renewable electricity and carbon dioxide captured from the air or from a chimney.” While F1 is allowed to get its carbon from so-called point sources (Pavlenko says this is almost always obtained from smokestacks), F2 and F3’s fuel must come entirely from direct-air carbon capture technology.
This strict carbon sequestration directly in the air is what differentiates e-fuel from biofuels and other sustainable energy sources, and according to Pavlenko, it’s a very new technology. The F2 and F3 experiments will be one of the first large-scale applications of e-fuel, which has implications for the future of transportation. Ahmad Al-Khowaiter, the chief technology officer at Aramco, which will supply the e-fuel, tells The Race that the FIA understands this is a difficult target due to how underdeveloped carbon capture technologies are, but is committed to defining the course.
Pavlenko says he is excited that F1 is pursuing e-fuels, given their prohibitive cost. “F1 would be one of the use cases that can better support the cost difference,” he says. “It’s a relatively small amount [in relation to the quantity of non-sustainable fuels] and I suppose there is a great willingness to pay.”
Even better: EVs
However, there are some concerns. The FIA should ensure that its e-fuel is made using renewable energy sources. Like electric cars, producing e-fuels using electricity generated from fossil fuels simply moves the source of emissions instead of reducing them. Additionally, Palvenko says e-fuel generally has more applications in aviation than on the road, where using electric vehicles is generally the way to go.
Over the past 20 years, F1 has exploded in popularity, thanks to new ownership and a Netflix series. But as it has gone global, it has come under increasing scrutiny for its sustainability, or lack thereof. However, the FIA is making an effort. Even before the fuel switch, F1’s sister series Formula E was launched in 2014. Only time will tell if the two series will eventually merge, but anyone who has watched Formula E can attest that the races are just as electric as the races. single seaters.