Formula One sees life yet in the internal combustion engine

Carmakers and governments have called time on the internal combustion engine as they switch to electric but Formula One sees plenty of life in it yet as the sport races towards a zero-carbon future.

The current fuel used in F1 has a 5.75% biocomponent, increasing to 10% sustainably sourced ethanol from 2022. (REUTERS)
The current fuel used in F1 has a 5.75% biocomponent, increasing to 10% sustainably sourced ethanol from 2022.

Current grand prix cars use a highly efficient 1.6 litre V6 turbo hybrid power unit, a far cry from the gas-guzzling V12 and V10 monsters of old, and a new "powerful and emotive" one is due in 2025 to run 100% on sustainable fuels.

The sport hopes to set the specification by June this year.

"While many people might think the internal combustion engine is dead, I would argue it is far from dead," chief technical officer Pat Symonds told a recent Motorsport Industry Association (MIA) conference on energy-efficient motorsport.

"Sustainable fuels is our big push in Formula One and it’s something I think we’ll have to roll down into other formulas (too)."

The first samples of 100% sustainable fuel, from second generation bio-waste, were delivered to F1's power unit suppliers -- Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault in 2022 with Honda leaving and handing over their technology to Red Bull -- last December for testing.

The current fuel has a 5.75% biocomponent, increasing to 10% sustainably sourced ethanol from 2022.

Formula One aims to achieve a net zero-carbon footprint by 2030 but the high-tech sport faces questions about its relevance in a world increasingly focused on clean energy and climate change.

Britain, with a flourishing motorsport industry and home to most of the 10 teams, plans to ban the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars from 2030.

Formula E founder Alejandro Agag has suggested F1 will eventually have to merge with his all-electric series that started up in 2014.

Both are sanctioned by the International Automobile Federation (FIA), which has licensed Formula E as its sole electric championship until 2039.

Others argue battery technology is not the solution for all forms of motorsport, even in the longer-term.

Combustion engines, quite possibly two-stroke, using fossil-free fuels could provide F1 the necessary performance and speed while also retaining the sound fans love and that electric racing lacks.

"We have a huge amount of history and tradition based around internal combustion and it’s just not going to go away overnight. Nor do we want it to," said Iain Wight, business development director for Williams Advanced Engineering.


Former Audi Sport engine head Ulrich Baretzky saw hydrogen combustion engines as a future route for Formula One as well as endurance races like Le Mans, which plans a hydrogen category for 2024.

"In 2025 we will (still) see combustion engines (at Le Mans), because the (fuel) energy density is unbeatable at the moment with any technology we know today," he told the conference.

"Five years later I hope we will see a mix between hydrogen, combustion, fuel cell."

Williams F1 CEO Jost Capito, a former Volkswagen Motorsport boss, said the Porsche 911 sportscar would never go electric but could be carbon neutral.

He said a huge effort would be needed to improve the cost and performance of biofuels, and develop more efficient hydrogen production, but motorsport could rise to the challenge.

Chemical giant INEOS, co-owner of Formula One champions Mercedes, is already one of Europe's biggest hydrogen producers.

"There are technologies that go in various directions but all aiming at the same objective, to be CO2 neutral. For me this is a really exciting time," said Capito.

David Richards, chairman of Motorsport UK and engineering company Prodrive, cautioned it would be "a big punt" to say where motorsport would be in 10 years' time.

He warned that politics would play a part, with electrification presented by governments as a "nice and simple" solution.

"We’ve seen (manufacturers) withdrawing from most aspects of what we would regard as conventional internal combustion engine motorsport," said Richards.

"But maybe if we can get these engines running on alternative fuels, if we can perhaps use hydrogen either in a raw state in an internal combustion engine or through a hydrogen fuel cell, we can attract the manufacturers back."

First Published Date: 12 Apr 2021, 18:46 PM IST
TAGS: Formula One F1
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