• Hydrogen
  • Net Zero Energy Consumption
  • Alternative Fuel Vehicles
  • Automobile Industry

Net-Zero Formula 1 Racing

Shantanu Chakraborty
May 19, 2022

Guidehouse Insights

The Formula 1 season commenced on March 20, 2022, and has avid motorsports fans tuning in by the numbers. Formula 1, however, has come under scrutiny in recent years due to its dependency on fossil fuels and their subsequent carbon emissions. To address these concerns, Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) in 2019 announced its plan to become net zero by 2030 by announcing ambitious targets that include net-zero impact from race cars, ultra-efficient and low/zero-carbon logistics and travel, and 100% renewably powered offices, facilities, and factories. 

Options for Net-Zero Cars

The FIA is contemplating different options for eliminating carbon emissions from their vehicles. These include electric-battery vehicles, synthetic fuels, and hydrogen-powered cars. In 2014, the first all-electric racing event, the Formula E was launched, which inspired the possibility of adopting electric-battery vehicles for Formula 1. However, it is unlikely that battery power technology can propel a 200 mph racing car to run flat out for 2 hours (approximate time of a Formula 1 race). Furthermore, Formula 1’s managing director Ross Brawn in an interview with BBC in 2021 stated that for a single race, a six- or seven-ton battery would be required. In addition to this massive weight, these vehicles would run quietly and deprive fans of the high power engine sounds that they have grown accustomed to. 

Synthetic fuels have the potential to overcome some of these barriers. Potential feedstock for synthetic fuels include biomass, farm waste, and carbon-capture technologies. These synthetic fuels can be supplied to hybrid engines that combine internal combustion engines with battery power. Driven by their technological upside, companies such as Porsche and INEOS are already investigating the potential of synthetic fuels for motorsport. Porsche is building a plant in Punta Arenas, Chile, where green hydrogen and captured CO2 will be combined to produce methanol. This methanol can then be used to produce synthetic gasoline and diesel that can be used in cars. 

Hydrogen is another promising option that has been attracting significant interest. To test the potential of hydrogen in motorsport, Red Bull Advanced Technologies is collaborating with French racing car constructor ORECA to create the H24 concept car that will run on hydrogen at the 2024 Le Mans event. The car is expected to produce 550 kW (about 730 hp) at 17,000 rpm and reach a maximum speed of 300 km/h. Plug Power, internationally known for its hydrogen fuel cells, in 2021 reached an agreement with French Alpine Formula 1 racing team to have their logos displayed on the team’s A521 cars. With this collaboration, Alpine’s parent organization, Renault, and Plug Power aim to explore opportunities for hydrogen-powered vehicles in motorsports. 

Barriers to Hydrogen

Although hydrogen-powered Formula 1 vehicles sound promising, there are certain barriers that need to be overcome. First, the use of hydrogen will need to ensure similar level of performance to fossil-fueled cars. For attaining such high levels of performance, the technology needed will be cost-prohibitive. The limitations will then transition from technology to economics. Supporting regulations and cost-competitiveness of car upgrades will be essential for car manufacturers to participate in the motorsport event. 

The Road Ahead

Switching to hydrogen may not be the immediate solution. It is likely that the path to net-zero Formula 1 cars will first go through sustainably fueled hybrid vehicles that are approved by teams, manufacturers, and sponsors. Best practices and learnings from other motor sporting events that are expected to adopt hydrogen such as the Le Mans 2024 will be critical.