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Start your engines: Formula 1 confronts climate threat to schedule, brand
One idea is to regionalize races to lower logistics emissions.
By Calla Kra-Caskey
(Calla Kra-Caskey is a junior studying English and Visual Studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. She’s a native of the Bay Area and plans to pursue a career in sports writing.)
SAN FRANCISCO (Callaway Climate Insights) — While boats carrying the Formula 1 paddock crossed the Atlantic Ocean in early June to set up for the Canadian Grand Prix, large swaths of the host country burned. The fire and the smoke both avoided Montreal, but in the weeks preceding the race, questions were raised about whether the event would be able to continue.
It wasn’t the first time this year that a climate disaster has threatened a race. The Chinese Grand Prix was canceled due to concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic. The track in Miami, Formula 1’s second-newest venue, was completely submerged in floodwater just weeks before the Grand Prix was set to take place. And in May, the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, known as Imola for the city in northern Italy that hosts it, was canceled due to heavy rain and flooding in the region. Beyond safety concerns, Formula 1’s statement on the Imola cancellation wrote that, “It would not be right to put further pressure on the local authorities and emergency services at this difficult time.”
Scheduling the calendar for the season is becoming more difficult because of changing weather conditions. Storms such as the one that affected Emilia-Romagna are largely unpredictable months in advance, when the schedule is being decided. But that lack of predictability comes with a high cost: it costs an average of $35 million to host a Formula 1 race, with up to $60 million more in running costs.
Extreme weather is unpredictable, but even expected seasonal bad weather is being made worse by climate change, yet it has taken Formula 1 years to do anything about it. The Japanese Grand Prix has been traditionally scheduled in September and October, falling in the middle of typhoon season. Nevertheless, it has remained in that period until 2023, as there is a high cost that comes with renegotiating track contracts across the calendar.
Formula 1 is facing the climate problem in more than one venue. It’s also fighting the challenge in the court of public opinion. As the globe heats up, a sport that relies on cars burning fossil fuels circling a track for entertainment will continue to draw ire from climate activists. At the 2022 British Grand Prix, the track was invaded by protesters from Just Stop Oil. The British environmental activist group is famous for disruptive protests at locations such as Wimbledon and the National Gallery, but their Silverstone protest seems specifically targeted: despite Formula 1’s commitment to sustainability, two teams (Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant and Mercedes AMG Petronas) retain oil and gas giants as their title sponsors.
F1’s strides towards sustainability include a pledge to achieve Net Zero Carbon by 2030. This includes an Environmental Accreditation system from the FIA, the sport’s governing body. As of 2023, all 10 teams achieved 3 stars, the highest level of accreditation. Formula 1’s Head of Sustainability, Ellen Jones, noted, “From embedding continuous improvement across our processes through to engagement plans with our stakeholders, management systems help ensure that we are all delivering a more sustainable event and championship.”
The turbo-hybrid engines introduced in 2014 are more fuel efficient than any engine in the history of the sport. And while the cars currently run on a blend of 90% fossil fuel and 10% renewable ethanol, the sport has pledged to use 100% renewable fuel starting in 2026, the year the next set of sporting regulations take hold. These are valuable steps — and good PR.
The problem is that only 0.7% of the 256,551 tons of carbon emissions F1 reported come from the cars themselves. In order to make good on their Net Zero pledge, Formula 1 must focus on emissions related to logistics (transporting race equipment) and business travel (transporting and housing people). Together, these account for nearly 75% of the sport’s carbon footprint.
One way they’re planning to solve their emissions problem is by organizing the race calendar by region. Not only will a regional calendar reduce emissions, but it will save money that comes with transportation, as well as helping prevent burnout for drivers and teams. It can also help avoid disruption of Grands Prix by dangerous weather events, such as Imola.
The 2024 schedule, released in July, takes the first steps toward regionalization.The regional schedule primarily aims to minimize logistical (equipment) rather than business (personnel) emissions. The races in Asia, for example, are closest to each other, but they are still separated by two weeks. While the cars and paddock equipment will move from one race directly to the next, most employees–of which about 75 travel to each race per team–will go back to Europe between races.
The grouping of the Asian races in the spring, including the Japanese Grand Prix, allows the race schedule to avoid the typhoon season. Nearly all of the European races will take place between June and September.
Nevertheless, there are still exceptions to geographical grouping: Formula 1 signs contracts with each circuit to keep them on the schedule, some of which stipulate a time of year the race must take place. Due to the weather window and circuit schedule, for example, the 2024 Canadian Grand Prix will take place between two European races. Middle Eastern races aren’t grouped together, as contracts with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar and the UAE stipulate that these races will begin and end the season, respectively. Formula 1’s climate pledge hasn’t reached a point where they are willing to sacrifice the money being pumped into the sport.
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