Call me irresponsible, but can't we save internal combustion motorsport?
Updated: May 2, 2021
For those of you reading who have no idea who I am, let me offer a little insight, I love Motorsport! Formula 1, MotoGP, British Superbikes, World Superbikes, WRC, World Rallycross etc. All of these series and many more have featured heavily in my life for as long as I can remember. There is rarely a weekend that I don't spend watching Motorsport, be it on the television or at the venue itself.
There are many reasons why I adore the sport. My father has a passion for it, and from an early age, it was obvious that he intended the same for me, although I'm told as a one-year-old at Brands Hatch I spent an entire World Superbikes meeting crying every time Carl Fogarty and co came flying by. That eventful day in 1996 may have been a rocky start to my love affair with motorsport, but ever since I've adored it, the machinery, the noise, the smells, the drama, excitement, the drivers/riders. The whole thing in my eyes is an amazing spectacle.
However, as a Motorsport fan, I find myself maybe being born into the wrong era. I am, of course, referring to the climate crisis of the modern age, and it seems governments of the world are determined to steer the Motoring sector in an emission-free direction. For instance, the UK GOVT is banning the purchase of new internal-combustion-engine cars from 2030. Car manufacturers are endlessly pursuing the electrification of all their models as well.
Electric-powered vehicles are also slowly creeping into Motorsport. Formula E is well established and currently, in its seventh season, FIA World Rallycross will be electric as of next year (with junior categories already adopting electric powertrains), Extreme E has recently begun its first season, MotoGP has an electric support series and the Isle of Man TT has run an electric-only race for just over a decade. As well as this, last week the FIA announced plans to roll out an all-electric GT championship.
Disclaimer; I know internal combustion engines are bad for the environment. However, when they're no longer available on public roads I will miss them, the noise, the smell, the look and the way they drive. I also will embrace the electrification of public vehicles as I recognise action is needed to halt climate change. But, there is a big but here, if the approximately 800 million strong fleet of cars used on public roads the world over are emissions-free (and assuming there is a sustainable charging source), surely Motorsport can continue with internal combustion engines?
Does this sound like me selfishly clinging onto a passion of mine against the greater good of the world's climate? Sort of, yes, but I have a lot of logical reasons to support my theory.
First off, let's address the myriad of issues that come with electric motorsport, and I shall go through the series I listed above. Formula E is the longest-running and most established Electric Racing series, but it isn't without its problems. Like all of these series, the noise is awful, and at worst non-existent. This is a big deal, traditional engines come in all shapes and sizes and make a whole orchestra of noises, and this adds to the atmosphere. Second of all is the racing itself, Formula E is so concerned with energy conservation that you hardly ever see flat-out racing. This issue also leads to the series adopting tight and twisty street-circuit layouts to help the cars recover energy in braking zones and not waste too much energy on the throttle. The series also restricts the energy available to drivers after safety-car periods, fearing that if as a result of several safety car periods the cars will have enough energy to go flat out until the end and subsequently won't be able to overtake. This led to the embarrassing ending that was the first race of the Valencia E-Prix on Saturday 24 April, where most of the cars struggled to finish. If the race organisers would rather cars crawling to the line than flat-out racing, then we have a serious problem.
FIA World Rallycross (which I love) makes a whole lot of sense as an electric form of motorsport, due to its format. Races are between 4 and 6 laps, so energy saving and range isn't an issue. However, the noise is still an issue, and added battery weight could make the cars difficult to handle, but this could lead to some exciting sideways action. Extreme E is an off-road series claiming that it will leave every venue in a better condition than when it arrived (a flimsy and impossible statement) yet travels between events on a 30-year-old royal mail cargo ship (one of the unhealthiest contraptions going when it comes to emissions). Also, if Extreme-E cared about not leaving an impact on the world, then why exist in the first place? The racing itself has so far proved to be exciting however, the vehicles and setting of the inaugural Desert X-Prix both looked stunning, but the series has far too many questions surrounding its proposed legacy that distract from the on-track action.
MotoGP's electric sister series MotoE suffers from range issues (the races are usually 9 to 10 laps) and the bikes are heavily laden with batteries. The Isle of Man TT's electric race has the same issues. FIA's proposed Electric GT series also has its pitfalls. GT racing is considered an endurance format, which at the moment is pretty tricky to achieve with electric vehicles, unless you go very slowly, and that isn't what racing is about.
Now, of course, all of these series are in their infancy and will look to fix the issues, but they don't make for exciting reading for any Motorsport fan.
So let me get back to my theory. If 800 million road cars are emissions-free, then we can continue with internal combustion-engined motorsport. It's obvious that the amount of motorsport vehicles is a tiny percentage of 800 million, so the environmental impact made by motorsport will be outweighed by that of road-going vehicles and then some. As well as this, Ross Brawn (one of the men in charge of Formula 1) is determined that F1 will continue to use internal combustion engines. His solution is eco-fuels. Otherwise known as biofuels, these are fuels that are created using crops and other sustainable sources. The series is also experimenting with the use of plant-based fibres to construct the cars.
(photo credit: Dave Wilson Photography)
Biofuels come with their issues, of course, they require land to grow the necessary crops to extract the fuel from, and time and energy are needed in the extraction process, but the latter also applies to the processes used to produce the lithium-ion batteries of electric vehicles. To combat the issue of the land and infrastructure needed I have a solution. That solution is to use the land surrounding motor circuits, many of them around the world are surrounded by usable land that could support biofuel production. The use of such lands to produce biofuels would also bring marketing possibilities for fuel suppliers. Not all circuits would have the necessary land to support this endeavour, and my rather zany solution to this issue is the use of vertical farming (farming via engineered ecosystems within buildings), a costly endeavour (so perhaps only feasibly for bigger series such as F1) and would need a sustainable energy source to keep a low carbon footprint.
Does it sound like I'm scrambling to fight the tide, is the r&d there to support bio fuelled motorsport? Well, if the men in charge of Formula 1 are looking into it, you can put good money on seeing it trickle down to other motorsport disciplines. So perhaps there is some weight behind my theory.
In summary, electric racing isn't ready to take over the world just yet, and I hope it doesn't wipe out traditional motorsport entirely. There's plenty of energy-efficient ways to support internal combustion-engined motorsport and I do hope that Formula 1 can set a decent example to the rest of the motorsport community. And if I'm wrong? Well, we will always have historic racing, won't we?
(Cover photo courtesy of Motorsport Images)