Formula One goes green?
Formula One and those fighting climate change might seem like strange bedfellows. But there are green winds of change blowing through the world’s most popular motor sports and — believe it or not — a growing number of bosses among the 11 Formula One teams want to turn the sport with its gas-guzzling image into high-tech pioneers and leaders in fighting climate change with a series of rule changes that would among other things include a switch to a smaller turbo-compounded engines running on bio-fuel.
I caught up with Nick Fry, the team principal of the Honda racing team, for a chat before a Formula One race at Germany’s Nuerburgring race track. He is one of the catalysts behind the push for rule changes planned for 2011 to cut their carbon emissions and waste. Honda put a huge picture of the earth on its team’s two race cars this year — with none of the usual commercial logos.
Reuters: Why did you put the picture of the earth on your cars?
Nick Fry: We started to think in the spring of 2006 about what we should do with the sponsorship of our car. One option was: continue in the same mode as the last three decades by selling the space and covering our car in other people’s stickers. Or the second option, as a 100 percent subsidiary of Honda, to make it a Honda car covered with Honda logos. Or the third more challenging route — what else could we do? We started to think about what was on people’s minds, of people in general and not just Formula One fans. It immediately became evident even in the spring of 2006 that the environment was becoming a major concern. The whole ethos of Honda has always been to push in environmentally friendly directions. That idea gelled very strongly with the Honda corporate ethos.
Reuters: Talking about climate change at a Formula One race is a bit like going into a brothel to talk about the virtues of celibacy, isn’t it?
Fry: Unless Formula One can become a contributor to the technology that might help the environment, it’s highly likely the sport will become a dinosaur. It’s almost come true with the floods in England last week. If there are environmental disasters happening around the world in the future in the weeks before races, people will say it’s inappropriate to then go put on a glitz show, burning lots of fossil fuel. There is a feeling that we need to tie together, much more than in the past, the technology in Formula One and the technology that goes into road cars. There is no question that the competition in Formula One technology is accelerated.
Reuters: Any examples of how that works?
Fry: At the moment there is a discussion to put a system on the F1 cars in 2009 that recovers energy from the driving cycle and that system is not dissimilar to the Honda Civic road car. The amount of energy recovered from a road car is very small. For a Formula One car we have to recover energy lost from braking from speeds of over 200 mph to 50 mph in 2.5 seconds. The amounts of energy dissipated are unbelievably high. The challenge for us is to store that energy and put it back into electric motors to boost acceleration. Our objecttive is to get that device down to 25 kg, half as heavy as in the road cars.
Reuters: What will the rule changes look like?
Fry: The idea in Formula One is that from 2011 each team will be given a parcel of energy for each race weekend and that parcel will diminish year by year. The person who wins the race will be those who use the energy most efficiently. Formula One is trying to orient itself away from where fuel consumption is not so important, to a position where the energy use of a F1 car is critical.
Reuters: So why are you pushing this?
Fry: There has been a coming together of the direction of Formula One, the Zeitgeist of what’s going on a round the world and Honda’s corporate philosophy. The point we’ve made since we launched the earth car is that we’re not saying it’s a particular energy efficient vehicle. But Formula One is going in a different direction. And Formula One as an awareness tool is almost unprecedented. There are 600 million people who watch it. Formula One is one of the best marketing tools in the world. If we get behind it, the potential in unsurpassed. The people who like the sport would be the hardest nuts to crack. They tend to be performance fans and drive cars for performance rather than economy. We’re trying to say you can be a fan of fast cars and do good things for the environment.
Reuters: Are the other teams as interested or is there resistance?
Fry: The other teams support it in the main. I won’t pretend that all the others are at the same level of support. Those who are more forward-thinking have supported it from the start. I have to point out that Ferrari has been most enlightened about this. They realise they need to change the shape of their road cars from high performance using lots of fuel to high performance being energy efficient. Since January of this year, more and more teams are becoming enthusiastic. We believe it is because many of their sponsors are also big companies and want to know how their sponsorship of Formula One fits into their corporate responsibility activities. We’ve found an increasing amount of support to move Formula One in this direction. It’s not unanimious, but we seem to be winning.
Reuters: 2011 seems a bit far off — is there not any thought to moving forward the climate friendly rule changes?
Fry: Yes it could be faster. There is an active debate going on at the moment. The objective of many of the teams is to make it earlier rather than later. We would like a lot of it to take effect in 2010 instead of 2011. We shouldn’t underestimate the magnitude of the task. The cars are very small and light. To take some of the energy recovery schemes and shrink them is a formidable engineering challenge. We have the best automotive engineers in the world working on it. I have to come back to this theme that there has to be a stronger link between what we do in Formula One and what road car manufacturers do. The majority of the teams are owned by carmakers. The millions of dollars the car companies spend on F1 should be money that they would have to spend on research and development anyway. It shouldn’t be a double spend.
Reuters: What are you doing yourself about climate change?
Fry: I don’t want to sound like a zealot. We’re trying to do our little bit. We’ve avoided trying to put ourselves on a pedestal. We’re only doing small steps as well. Out of our staff of 600 we’ve set up incentives and we have about 100 who cycle or walk to work. We have an active recycling scheme at our plant. We try to encourage everyone to do the same at home.
Reuters: What about the wind tunnels that Formula One uses for aerodynamics that run 24/7 and use enormous amounts of electricity?
Fry: The carbon emissions from our offices are about the same as four U.K. households, about 40 tonnes. The output from the factory is about 5.500 tonnes of carbon, mainly from the power used for the wind tunnel, I’m embarrassed to say. We are trying to reduce the amount of power in small steps. In the factory there are low energy bulbs and solar panels on the roof of our trackside motorhomes. I think aerodynamics is an area where Formula One can make a contribution to road cars. It’s the number one area of efficiency in Formula One at the moment. We would agree that aerodynamics need to become less dominant in Formula One, which would reduce the hours of wind tunnel use and would reduce the amount of energy used. We need to find a balance. It would improve the entertainment of the sport as well, making overtaking less difficult. We can reduce the amount of use of wind tunnels, improve the entertainment and reduce the energy used all at the same time.
Reuters: What else are you doing to reduce CO2 emissions?
Fry: We’re flying less to meetings, making more use of video conferences. We’ve reduced our electricity bill by seven percent in our design building by just by turning off switches at night. Just turning off computers at night. There is a long way to go. This is something we’ve been pushing for only six months now. We’re on the right path.
Honda Racing F1 team’s CEO Nick Fry. HONDA
Honda Formula one driver Jenson Button of Britain drives on the second day of a three-day test at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Spa, Belgium July 11, 2007. REUTERS/Sebastien Pirlet (BELGIUM)