Speed and the environment: an irreconcilable divide?

Jean Todt, the recently-elected president of the FIA and thus effecively the global head of motorsport, came out earlier this week and said the sport needed to do more to tackle environmental issues. So what, you might say. Politicians and heads of multinational corporations do this all the time and get out of actually doing anything with the catch-all phrase of best practice. But to dismiss Todt’s words so quickly perhaps overlooks the significance of the former Ferrari boss’s proclamation for motorsport and performance cars more generally.

Before I explain why, though, it’s important to get something straight. Motorsport is fundamentally destructive to the environment. Of course I can hear you protesting that lots of other things are bad for nature as well, but that’s beside the point here. As much as you might want to dismiss the whole idea of environmental issues and environmental protest as something that’s all about talk and perception, let’s not forget that as cars are driven about at speed, gases are pumped out into the atmosphere, natural vegetation is damaged and the topography of the earth is altered. In short, there is a very real and material impact of motorised recreation on the environment – and while it’s hard to change people’s perceptions, it’s perhaps a bit easier to change the end products.

Take the Formula 1 grid this year, for example. Cars will now have to go an entire race without refuelling – in other words, they’ll have to carry all their fuel on board. Now, because fuel is very heavy it’s in the interests of the teams to store as little fuel in the car as possible, and thus to design more fuel-effieient engines. Fuel efficiency admittedly only means the same products are being burned at a slightly slower rate, however it is an important step in moving towards less damaging forms of motorsport.

Likewise, the developments in endurance racing in recent years have been encouraging. Ten years ago, we would have soiled ourselves with laughter if someone had told us a diesel could win the world’s most prestigious twenty-four hour race – and yet it’s happened at Le Mans for the last four years running. Again, using diesel instead of petrol is not in itself environmentally friendly, but what it is is an excellent illustration of how motorsport can be competitive and entertaining without  gasoline power.

And over on the loose stuff, moves are being made to reduce the most obvious physical impacts cars make on nature. Pirelli ran a test in the middle of last year for a new ‘Eco-Tyre’, and whilst I’m sceptical of anything that brands itself as being ‘Eco’, the early signs are that by making a few alterations to the four bits of rubber connecting rally cars to the road, the amount of damage rallying does to forest roads and watercourses can be significantly reduced.

So if this stuff is already happening, what’s the significance of Jean Todt’s words? Quite simply, because it seems utterly unimaginable for the head honcho of an organisation specialising in the burning of natural resources for entertainment and pleasure to even come close to admitting that things need to be improved. I do quite a lot of research into how organisations, companies and communities change in response to environmental issues, and time and time again what I find is that the most significant, the most meaningful change occurs when it’s steered by an individual with a personal conviction. I’m not trying to claim that Jean Todt is some kind of automotive eco-warrior, but perhaps he’s realised that if people want to continue to drive at speed for pleasure, they have to find ways to do it that reduce some of the negative physical impacts before the powers that be ban fossil fuel use altogether. And whilst you can’t force everyone to change their practices immediately, perhaps sometimes you do need a big, important guy nudging people with a stick.

If all this sounds a bit preachy and far-fetched, let me finish by reminding you of a time fifteen years ago when virtually every successful motor racing outfit was backed by a tobacco company. Motorsport is bankrolled by tobacco, tobacco sponsorship in motorsport will never cease, we were told. New countries where advertising laws were more lax were opened up to Grand Prix racing at the expense of some of Europe’s most historic circuits, and governments even considered granting special dispensation to F1 to allow it to advertise cigarettes. And what happened? Through a combination of legislation, peer pressure and adaptation, tobacco sponsorship died out but the teams lived on. They were able to adapt and continue to doing what was fundamentally most important to them – racing. For very similar reasons motorsport now has to face up to the negative impacts it has on the environment, and if Jean Todt can prod things along it will happen, and it will start at the highest level. It’s started already, and the fact that fans and teams are accepting it and getting on with it proves the environment needn’t be an insurmountable challenge for motorsport.

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Filed under Formula 1, General Motorsport

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