Earth Day: Apparently F1 isn’t going to say it so I will

Formula 1 often claimed the lack of any meaningful adoption curve from fans was due to their lack of telling the story of hybrid engines. Today is Earth Day and if you thought there was ever a time for F1 to deliver its message and drive home their efforts on environmental responsibility, this would be it. Apparently, they’re not going to so…here, hold my beer.

When the FIA mandated a V6 turbo hybrid power unit as the new formula back in 2013, they did so because FIA president Jean Todt and the F1 Strategy Group felt that the format was more industry-relevant and it would lure more manufacturer involvement in the series. As an additional consideration, they also believed that it dove-tailed nicely with F1 fans desires for more advanced technology in the sport—a sport know to be the pinnacle of racing technology—and that the series owed it to society to be more socially responsible. The idea was to remove the gas-guzzling reputation and to become an environmentally friendly racing series.

The response to this new power unit has not been the most well received amongst fans. At the time, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone was adamantly against the move to hybrid engines but Mercedes and Renault threatened to leave the sport if it didn’t move toward a more environmentally responsible, hybrid format with Mercedes boss, Toto Wolff, suggesting that these days it is all about downsizing and that fans would just have to accept that F1 is changing.

Regardless of your feelings on the current power units, the fact is that the technology has developed over the past three years and these engines have now become some of the most efficient power units on the planet running near 50% thermal efficiency.

If you consider that road cars have been running at around 30% thermal efficiency for the last 50 years, then this leap is impressive to say the least and the F1 engine is more thermal efficient than electric cars who derive their power from coal plants running at 30% thermal efficiency.

To be fair, the older V8 format was also one of the most efficient Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) in the world generating 850bhp, spinning at 18500rpm and using just 3mpg. Astonishing, but not as efficient at today’s F1 engine which derives approximately 170bhp of its 800bhp total from the MGU-H hybrid component harvesting waste heat from the turbo charger. The new hybrid engines are closer to 6mpg on balance delivering similar performance.

There is no doubt that the technology used to create these power units is astounding and has been a real engineering accomplishment at the expense of engine sound and volume but some fans have enjoyed the respite their ears now receive when attending a race while others loath the lack of any semblance of a racing engine they are used to.

While F1 tends to compare the current engine format with the past formulas, it may not be the most fair comparison. One has to assume that the technology would have continued to develop with the older format and power output would have increased and efficiency would have increased as well. Still, I doubt they would be running near 50% thermal efficiency like today’s power units are and you have to appreciate that advancement in technology and the genius that has gone into it.

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of the current engine formula for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with social or environmental responsibility. On the other side of the coin, I am gobsmacked by the incredible engineering and efforts applied to the current power unit design and would never suggest that these aren’t some of the most incredibly sophisticated engines on the planet. You have to take your hat off to what these manufacturers have achieved in the reduction of fossil fuel usage while still delivering incredible power. That is a terrific message for Earth Day.

In the process, the sport has become less about entertainment and driving and more about winning the engineering medal for technical advancement and doing so while gift-wrapping themselves in glorious earth-saving tropes. The move to hybrid power units has cost the lives of three teams and placed long-standing privateer teams in the unenviable position of being the paddock beggars making deals to offset their massively increased engine supply expenses via paying drivers and other unconventional methods.

The move toward hybrid power did retain Mercedes and Renault—who threatened to leave the sport if it didn’t change to hybrid power—and even lured Honda back in to the sport as an engine supplier but the Japanese auto maker has struggled fiercely to create a competitive engine while Renault have been off the pace since the inception of the new engine leaving only Mercedes as the clear winner in the hybrid era. Ferrari have, finally, found the pace and only now are they starting to look slightly competitive from an engine standpoint.

While the pragmatic approach is pervasive in F1 and the knock-on effects of the hybrid engine can be weighed and measured in the eye of the beholder, the fact is, they have achieved their goal and moved the goal posts of road car engine technology a country mile. Much of the technology has not been deployed in road cars in any prolific sense but the genie is out of the bottle and there is no doubt that if car makers are intent on bolstering their road car tech in the hybrid and electric format, then F1 has done a good job of being the rapid prototyping opportunity in the crucible of the world’s most advanced form of racing.

F1’s effort to be environmentally sustainable has been, at times, a bloody affair but it also has given the world the most efficient power unit ever created for road cars. I may not like the current hybrid format but I humbly stand down and admit that the technology is incredible and the positive side of the equation is that F1 may have helped car makers explore new ways to become more responsible in designing the future of mobility. Now that we’ve saved the planet and helped car makers with their road cars, can we just get back to entertaining, loud racing?