Nyck de Vries of Netherlands driving the (21) Scuderia AlphaTauri AT04 leads Zhou Guanyu of China driving the (24) Alfa Romeo F1 C43 Ferrari during the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 05, 2023 in Bahrain, Bahrain.
Enlarge / F1 cars use engines with thermal efficiencies that even a Prius could only dream about. They are not the cause of the sport’s carbon footprint.

Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Formula 1 might be a sport, but it’s also a $2.6 billion business with shareholders, and like pretty much every other multibillion-dollar business with shareholders, that means it’s under increasing scrutiny regarding the amount of carbon emissions it’s responsible for. Currently, that’s about 250,000 tons a year, but the sport says it wants to reduce that to net zero by 2030. I spoke with F1’s chief sustainability to learn more about how it’s doing that, and you may be surprised to learn that race cars have very little to do with it.

While F1’s carbon footprint is just a fraction of other global sporting events like the Olympics or World Cup, it’s a more visible target, considering it involves cars driving around a track burning gasoline. But focusing only on the cars is a mistake.

Forget the cars

For one thing, since the introduction of hybrid powertrains in 2014, F1 cars have become extremely efficient. There are a pair of hybrid systems—one that captures energy under braking and another that captures energy from exhaust gases—and the 1.6 L V6s burn their gasoline more efficiently than any other internal combustion engine ever made, approaching or perhaps even passing 50 percent now.

Looking further ahead to 2026, the sport will also switch to carbon-neutral synthetic fuels that are made by capturing CO2 from the air and combining it with hydrogen produced by the electrolysis of water.

That won’t make F1’s fuel bill any cheaper, but it should mean none of the CO2 that comes out of an F1 car tailpipe went into the fuel tank in the form of fossil fuels. (If one were to be very tendentious, they could say that at some point the carbon in the synthetic fuel was part of a hydrocarbon molecule that got burned in an engine and released into the atmosphere, but those people don’t get invited back to parties.)

But actually, the reason not to focus on the F1 cars is because they’re a rounding error in terms of the sport’s annual footprint. Twenty teams running two cars on track for a maximum of six hours a weekend, 23 times a year, just doesn’t add up to that much. Factor in running cars at test sessions or on the dyno, and it still only accounts for 0.7 percent of F1’s scope 1 and scope 2 emissions.

“When you look at that net-zero goal and the work that it takes to deliver it, sustainable fuels is one percent of that from a carbon footprint perspective, and while it’s fantastic for future innovation, and road relevance, I really need to focus on what are the actions that we take today with the technologies today,” said Ellen Jones, head of sustainability at F1.

F1 is much like any other sport

So if it’s not the race cars, where does that quarter of a million tons of carbon come from? “When you look at what’s driving our carbon footprint, like many people, it is our operations, and it’s travel and logistics. And so when we look at carbon footprint, it’s the energy you use, it’s the energy in your operations,” Jones told me.

A quick and easy change was ensuring F1’s offices are powered by renewable energy. “The infrastructure in the UK is available, so we can make that procurement decision,” Jones said.

Travel and logistics account for two-thirds of F1’s carbon footprint. One thing the sport has done is to send fewer people to each race by doing more of the broadcasts remotely. (If you subscribe to F1’s streaming service, you’ll note that much of the commentary team is coming to you from Biggin Hill outside of London, not wherever that weekend’s race is being held.)

And all the broadcast gear—and the tech center—now travel in new containers that fit on more efficient airplanes.

“When you look at logistics, you have three key levers: you have the amount that you ship, you have the mode that it travels on, and you have the distance that it travels. And every single piece of equipment to help broadcast an F1 race has to go through that consideration of, ‘Does this need to travel? Can we do this at home? How can we travel in the most efficient way? Can this travel in a different way—can we use a regional hub?’ so that will be an ongoing piece of work,” she told Ars.

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