Why F1 has held back on "unfair" early sustainable fuel switch
Formula 1 has nailed its flag to the mast in mapping out a long-term future revolving around hybrid engines running on fully sustainable fuels.
While car manufacturers around the world invest heavily in electric vehicles, F1 is not ignoring the huge benefits that can be had globally by pioneering cheap plug-in carbon-neutral fuel to help power the two billion internal combustion engines that will remain on the roads for decades to come.
But while the new F1 engine and fuel rules for 2026 are something that the sport's bosses are excited about, there are some who do not understand why the sport is waiting so long to make the switch.
Sebastian Vettel, who has been outspoken on environmental matters, said last year in a lengthy interview that he wished grand prix racing was moving quicker in making the move to sustainable fuels.
"We have an engine in place next year [for 2022] and we're going to have a content of only 10% of e-fuels in the car - which from a technology point of view is not a revolution," he said.
"You can already buy that fuel in the pump for several years as a customer around the world. So it's not a novelty.
"I don't think it matches the sort of ambitions that Formula 1 has to be a technological leader. So we react, rather than being proactive and lead the way."
He went on to explain that waiting until 2026 to introduce sustainable fuels meant "another five years of no progress.
"I think that will put our sport under huge pressure, because I feel in those five years there will be a lot of change hopefully applied around the world, and putting things under pressure that haven't applied any change."
Sebastian Vettel, Williams FW14B Renault
Photo by: Dom Romney / Motorsport Images
But despite Vettel's feelings on the subject, and the fact other high-profile FIA championships like WRC and WTCR have already made the switch to sustainable fuel, F1 is sticking to its plan to wait until 2026.
The reason is not because it doesn't see the significance of the change, but is instead based on reasons of fairness among the current entrants.
With F1 being such a competitive arena, and different manufacturers having spent hundreds of millions on their current engines to work perfectly in sync with their oil and petrol suppliers, throwing a spanner in the works now with an all-new fuel, risked unfairly shaking things up.
It would have been almost inevitable that an instant switch to sustainable fuel would affect different engines in different ways in an unpredictable manner, leaving some winners and losers.
And for those that lost form, with an engine freeze in place, it would have been three years of guaranteed struggles before being able to do something different for 2026.
F1 is clear that it wants to give all the current teams and engine manufacturers the same opportunity to make the most of the new fuel, which is why waiting for 2026 when the new engine regulations come into force makes much more sense.
Furthermore, with Formula 2 and Formula 3 set to pioneer fully sustainable fuels from next year to help F1 and oil partner Aramco better understand their impact, the sport has set itself up with a pretty good platform to ensure that it hits the ground running when it does make the move over.
F1 managing director of motorsport Ross Brawn told Motorsport.com: "I think when you introduce a fuel, you're never quite sure the impact it will have on different engines.
"This is why we're holding back in F1, to say to teams and OEMS that when we introduce the new engines for 2026, it will be on sustainable fuel.
Ross Brawn, Managing Director of Motorsports, FOM
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
"It means there's no gain or loss for a driver in terms of competitiveness compared to the engines we have today. It would be unfair to introduce a sustainable fuel [right now] because the characteristics are a bit different, and F1 is always at an extreme of technology.
"You may find on a sustainable fuel that somebody has less potential than others. But with the new engines, they're all starting from the same baseline with much less concern about that aspect."
Brawn accepts that the technology around sustainable fuels, especially ones created synthetically, is fast-moving and what appears cutting-edge today may not be the case in a few years' time.
That is why he thinks it essential that F1 and the FIA be flexible in their approach to ensuring that what comes for 2026 works for manufacturers and delivers in the aims of pushing knowledge forward.
He sees huge value in getting a head start with F2 and F3 in understanding the impact of sustainable fuels in top-level single-seaters.
"The fuel regulations have been developed and the fuel regulations will have to reflect the technologies that are evolving quite quickly over the next few years," he said.
"I think with Aramco, working with ourselves, working with the FIA, that will be a laboratory to make sure the regulations are fair. If there are any challenges or any differences from where we started, or they start to evolve, then the regulations can recognise that.
"Until you start using these fuels in a racing environment, that's not going to happen. So it's a perfect testing ground for evaluating these fuels and making sure we've got the regulations correct for when we go full speed in F1."
Brawn is also mindful that, in an environment as ultra-competitive as F1, that rival oil companies don't try to wreck the good intentions of the sport by pursuing trick ideas that serve only their own sporting interests.
"I think where Aramco benefits us is that they give us a real proper knowledge," added Brawn.
"So when we get someone come along with a complex solution which they claim is the only way it can be done, we know if that is true or not.
"F1 [teams] will always be looking for a competitive edge, and the FIA will need to make sure that that is contained and any technologies which evolve are fair and available to all participants.
"We are particularly sensitive to make sure that there's not some unique technology which is only available to one oil company, because that will not encourage all the oil companies to put the effort and resources into it that we want."
One thing Brawn is absolutely clear on is that the benefits of F1's sustainable fuel push will be far-reaching, and that's exactly why new car manufacturers like Audi have jumped on board.
"We believe that this is one of the solutions to the environmental challenge," he said.
"We've mentioned this several times, but there are two billion ICEs on the road. They're not going to disappear.
"But if we can have a plug-in fuel, which is carbon neutral, and we can start to distribute that fuel throughout the world, then we have a solution to the existing engines, and also quite frankly a solution for places where the infrastructure for electric cars just doesn't exist and won't be built for a few years.
"We're championing an alternative technology. And I think the OEMs see the value of it and that is why they are doing F1."
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